The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Philip Roth biography is canceled, Mike Pence’s book could be next — and publishing may never be the same

Author Blake Bailey inside the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan after the publication of his biography on John Cheever. (Helayne Seidman for The Washington Post)

Judge the book, not the author.

That old saying was always more pretense than rule, but this week, it’s in the trash bin.

Tuesday afternoon, W.W. Norton announced that it was permanently canceling Blake Bailey’s celebrated new book, “Philip Roth: The Biography” and Bailey’s 2014 memoir, “The Splendid Things We Planned.”

The expensive and swift action by W.W. Norton follows a string of shocking accusations made against Bailey last week. Several women claimed that Bailey behaved inappropriately when he was an eighth-grade English teacher in the 1990s in New Orleans. The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate reported that former students said he groomed them for later sexual encounters. One accused him of rape. A subsequent story in the New York Times included a more recent accusation of rape involving Bailey and a publishing executive.

Bailey’s lawyer has denied all these allegations, saying, “Mr. Bailey has never treated a woman inappropriately.” The Times-Picayune also quoted from email messages Bailey had sent to his accusers denying their claims.

In response to the initial reports of sexual assault, W.W. Norton had already “paused” promotion of “Philip Roth” last week. But obviously the company felt the claims were so horrific and so convincing that it could not wait for a more thorough investigation to take additional action.

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In the statement issued Tuesday, the company said, “Mr. Bailey will be free to seek publication elsewhere if he chooses.” The publisher also pledged to make a donation equal to the size of Bailey’s advance for “Philip Roth” to organizations that fight sexual assault.

Even by the standards of the #MeToo movement, Bailey’s descent has been precipitous. His 2009 biography of John Cheever had been a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. His authorized biography of Roth, released on April 6, had been widely praised in The Washington Post, the New York Times and other publications. And Bailey had been conducting streaming interviews about his biography with such popular authors as Mary Karr.

Those author events have stopped. Karr has publicly distanced herself from Bailey. “Philip Roth” is out of print.

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It’s tempting to see this as just another isolated incident — like Grand Central’s decision not to publish Woody Allen’s memoir in 2020 or Threshold’s decision to drop Milo Yiannopoulos’s book in 2017.

But I think this week marks a sea change in publishers’ interest in their authors’ behavior. The cancellation of Bailey’s books came just a day after news broke that hundreds of employees at Simon & Schuster have submitted a petition demanding that the publisher cancel its two-book deal with former vice president Mike Pence and refuse to sign any additional contracts with members of the Trump administration.

The petition accuses Simon & Schuster of “complicity in perpetuating white supremacy by publishing Mike Pence.” The statement goes on to say, “This is not a difference of opinions; this is legitimizing bigotry. . . . Mike Pence has literal and figurative blood on his hands.”

Simon & Schuster CEO Jonathan Karp tried to snuff out that petition last week with a statement reminding his staff, “We come to work each day to publish, not cancel, which is the most extreme decision a publisher can make, and one that runs counter to the very core of our mission to publish a diversity of voices and perspectives.”

That coat-and-tie appeal to classical liberal values felt like a wholly inadequate response to the passion of the petition coming his way. While staff members were condemning the company for “rehabilitating fascists,” Karp was telling them, in essence, to just look away. “When we allow our judgment to dwell on the books we dislike,” he wrote, “we distract ourselves from our primary purpose as a publisher — to champion the books we believe in and love.”

But who believes in and loves a rapist’s book? Or a fascist’s?

I suspect some major publishers still don’t understand what having a diverse workforce entails. It was never just about making your office look like a Benetton ad. The real goal behind a diverse workforce is a wide range of experiences and ideas — and people empowered to act on them.

In an earlier era, editors and their friends in the executive office were largely White men. It’s easy to imagine that tales of authors’ sexual aggression were treated as locker room banter — just as Bailey treats them in his biography of Roth.

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The fact is, publishers have always made highly selective judgments about who they print and who they don’t. And for all Karp’s high-minded allusions to appreciating “the ideological spectrum,” for many decades those judgments were based on what White men considered important, valid and entertaining.

But new voices are starting to assert a different set of judgments about what they think is important, valid and entertaining. As the signers of the Simon & Schuster petition proclaim, they don’t want to acquire, edit or promote books by authors who advocate for “racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Blackness, xenophobia, misogyny, ableism, islamophobia, antisemitism, and violence.”

Reports that Kellyanne Conway, Trump's most ludicrous propagandist, has signed a book deal with Simon & Schuster will surely distress some of the company's employees even more.

Books are not wholly self-contained creations; they retain their moral and financial connections to their authors. Ignoring those connections and pretending that a book floats in a vacuum is the privilege of people protected from discrimination, erasure and assault.

Critics will claim that Bailey, Pence and others are being silenced, but that ignores the reality of our marketplace. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) had no trouble finding another publisher when Simon & Schuster dropped him for promoting falsehoods about the presidential election. Even Woody Allen found another publisher!

The real problem with this debate at the moment is that both sides are angrily focused on which books should not be published. But the infusion of new voices and new attitudes into the publishing industry promises something far greater than just cancellations. The bold professionals who are standing up to their management will fight to bring us books from authors who for too long were excluded or diminished while publishers prided themselves on their pure liberal values.

Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts

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