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The Blake Bailey Fiasco Implicates Everyone

What effect will accusations of sexual assault have on the acclaimed biographer’s champions?

Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/Getty

When the Los Angeles Times asked Blake Bailey what he thought about Laura Marsh’s review of his Philip Roth biography in The New Republic, he replied, “That was harsh. I mean, wow.” He had a heavier hitter on his side, anyway: “David Remnick of The New Yorker says that I’m ‘uncowed,’ that I let the repellent in, that I present an extremely flawed man,” he said. “And if you weigh the reviews so far, most are on the David Remnick side.”

Bailey casually name-dropped the editor of The New Yorker with the confidence of a man who knows the system backs him. Until this week, he wasn’t wrong: When Philip Roth: The Biography came out earlier this month, The New York Times alone published a raft of articles that amounted to a publicity push for Bailey, including a guide to the coverage by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Her own favorites were a flattering profile of Bailey by Mark Oppenheimer for—you guessed it—The New York Times Magazine and Cynthia Ozick’s glowing review of the book for The New York Times Book Review. Ozick called the book a “narrative masterwork,” while Oppenheimer described Bailey as one of the “great chroniclers of this country’s literary lives,” a talent almost on par with Roth himself. As if to accentuate the point, he noted that Bailey had inherited Roth’s Eames chair, the ottoman of which was referred to as “Nicole’s seat,” because Nicole Kidman supposedly used to sit there at Roth’s knee.

But the mood changed on Monday, when several former students at a New Orleans middle school, where Bailey taught the eighth grade in the 1990s, alleged that he had groomed them for conquest, later raping one and pursuing sexual encounters with others. These allegations first came to light in the comments section of a literary blogger’s website, then quickly spread to the mainstream. One of the women additionally told the Times Picayune/New Orleans Advocate that she had previously sent a letter to The New York Times describing Bailey’s exploitation of students.*

It’s painful on many levels, therefore, that the Times itself next reported that a woman says Bailey raped her in 2015 at the home of Dwight Garner, of all people—a book critic employed by the Times. This woman, Valentina Rice, says she warned Bailey’s publisher, W.W. Norton, about him; Norton’s head, Julia Reidhead, forwarded the complaint to Bailey, who then contacted Rice with an email that read, “I can assure you I have never had non-consensual sex of any kind, with anybody, ever, and if it comes to a point I shall vigorously defend my reputation and livelihood,” adding, “Meanwhile, I appeal to your decency: I have a wife and young daughter who adore and depend on me, and such a rumor, even untrue, would destroy them.” Furthermore, Rice also contacted a Times reporter; the Times says the reporter followed up but that Rice did not reply.

The fallout has been swift: Norton has announced it is halting printing of the book. Bailey has also been dropped by his agency. But what effect will this “scandal”—a glamorous word for what is really a parade of boring horrors—have on the reputation of Bailey’s champions? And why was it so hard for critics and journalists and book editors alike to see a misogynistic strain in Bailey that is now glaringly apparent?

The critics might defend themselves by saying they had no clue about Bailey’s personal life. But in fact he has a history of sexist remarks. In a Twitter thread, the critic Ruth Franklin described a sexist review Bailey once wrote of her book about Shirley Jackson. Franklin had used the word “unkind” for Brendan Gill’s epithets for Jackson: “a classic fat girl, with the fat girl’s air of clowning frivolity to mask no telling what depths of unexamined self-loathing.” Bailey wrote, “This may seem in bad taste to Ms. Franklin, but it also happens to be astute.”

It isn’t, really, and in her review Laura Marsh identified several moments of similarly acute astuteness failure in his own book. Roth hand-picked Bailey for the job of writing his biography. He was jealous of his legacy and had fired a previous biographer who had a “mean, insatiably vilifying spirit,” according to the great writer. It seemed suspicious, Marsh wrote, that Bailey would write about Roth’s hatred for his ex-wives so unquestioningly. Bailey seemed eager to defend Roth on “his own terms,” Marsh argued, and to help him take posthumous revenge on the women who had dared to criticize him in public.

That critical failure to suss Bailey out is a horrible mirror to the revelations of recent days. At least two women tried to tell the Times about Bailey, one of the alleged rapes took place at the house of one of the Times’ chief book critics, and Bailey’s publisher was also alerted of the accusations against him. With one section of the Times over-fêting Bailey’s book and another belatedly reporting on his alleged sex crimes, the Times has fallen afoul of that perennial newspaperly danger—the appearance of a conflict of interest—and seems to have no idea what to do about it.

This conundrum has been compounded by the way Bailey and Roth occupy a similar position in the culture—very successful white literary men with a reputation for licentiousness—which makes their fates appear entwined. This confusion is especially tricky because much of the Times’ seemingly sycophantic coverage of the biography was really about Roth, not Bailey. For example, Taffy Brodesser-Akner was not wrong when she wrote that “the anguished Sydney Morning Herald troll who was concerned that Philip Roth didn’t deserve to be read due to crimes against polite society, or whatever,” was a “disgusting bore.” It would be easy to read that line as a defense of Bailey, but it wasn’t—she was talking about Roth.

Bailey is the story now, but Roth still looms over it all. This fiasco has tendrils reaching into every level of media and publishing. The mistakes that have been made by W.W. Norton and outlets like the Times are the consequence of a literary culture that lets profitable artists like Roth bend sycophants to their will while cutting out those who displease them altogether. Much has been made of Norton taking the unusual step of halting printing of Bailey’s book, but can you imagine it canceling Bailey’s contract right before the book’s publication? And based on what—a letter from a woman? What’s a letter compared to being anointed by Philip Roth himself?

*A previous version of this article stated that the Times did not follow up on a letter sent to the paper by a woman who had accused Bailey of misconduct during his time in New Orleans, but the woman was quoted in the Times piece about the allegations against Bailey.