Explosive news in the literary world this week, when literary biographer Blake Bailey, in the midst of almost universally laudatory praise for his new biography of Philip Roth, was revealed to be a sexual predator and accused rapist. Women who’d been middle-school students of his back in the 90s came forward, revealing the ways he’d “groomed” them as children and then made sexual moves as soon as they’d turned 18 – the “age of consent.” One former student has accused him of rape.
Roth, of course, had a reputation for treating women abhorrently. The nice term would be “playboy,” I suppose, which, depending on the degree and whether or not it was mutual, is often dismissed with a wave and a chuckle. “Boys will be boys,” right?
Because Roth chose Bailey as his biographer, the inevitable parallels are being drawn.
Publisher WW Norton temporarily suspended shipment of the book, pulling the plug on publicity. Bailey’s literary agent dropped him. The much-anticipated literary biography of Roth, already considered a strong contender for the Pulitzer, became a pariah in the course of a week.
I question if the allegations against Bailey would have exploded prior to the #metoo movement, before women found their voice, organizing to march against sexually-abusive men in the wake of Donald Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” comment caught on tape. I don’t believe it would have. It never has before, when sexually violent men have become successful. Before women found their voice, victims had to remain silent, looking on while the men who assaulted them accepted adulation.
I went searching for articles about the controversy this morning. Unsurprisingly, there is no lack. I also stopped by the Philip Roth Facebook page, where the comments are not astonishing but definitely disappointing. Given an opportunity for debate on the topic of sexual violence against women and systemic mysogyny, the group of mostly men were foaming at the mouth about the women dragging both Blake Bailey and Philip Roth through the mud. Here lies the problem: given a real-life example of the issue, we cannot engage in conversation about the real victims of sexually-predatory men. Instead, a group of readers chooses posturing in order to argue about “cancel culture.”
Really? Is that the takeaway? Guess what: this is precisely the reason women hesitate coming forward to report sex crimes against them. The minute we do, the public at large swoops in to savage us for ruining reputations of these poor, misunderstood men. Are men sometimes wrongfully accused? Of course! But women who come forward deserve to be heard.
I cannot believe I even have to say this.
The “other” position is hardly better. Those who sympathize with the women, instead of rising up to say let’s work on fixing the reason women don’t feel free to talk, instead start ripping apart Philip Roth’s life (which is over) and fiction (which is generally brilliant) for examples of terrible things he’s done. That ship has sailed. You know what ship hasn’t?
Violence against women.
I sympathize with readers who cannot stomach the idea of reading the work of men who’ve done abhorrent things. But you’re not getting it. If you want to examine topics such as racism, sexism, and glorification of violence against women in the writings of specific authors, do so! Just don’t put that ahead of advocacy for the root cause.
I’m a life-long student of literature. I get it. I enjoy rousing debate, as well, however, what infuriates me is not how fictional women are treated. It’s how actual women are.
FFS, would you take a step back and listen to yourselves.