The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Dropping an author is one thing. Vanishing his book is another.

Author Blake Bailey. (Helayne Seidman/For The Washington Post)
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From everything I’ve read, the greatest American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, was an unseemly human being. He abandoned his small children, treated his wives shamefully, behaved generally like Genghis Khan with a drafting board.

What are we to do with this knowledge? Do we evict whoever’s living in the hundreds of remaining homes Wright designed and bulldoze them?

How about his Guggenheim Museum in New York? Burn it to the ground and start again?

That’s pretty much the decision the publisher W.W. Norton made this week when it decided to un-publish a book it had released to great fanfare only weeks ago.

Since then, the author of “Philip Roth: The Biography,” Blake Bailey, has been sullied by horrific and detailed allegations of having sexually assaulted multiple women and preyed on former students he met when he was a high school teacher.

Norton’s announcement that it would not only walk away from the author, but also that it would effectively erase the book he wrote, is an extraordinary development — the kind of thing that seems more like a Roth plot line than real life.

It’s not unheard of for publishers to stop printing books when plagiarism or falsehood is an issue. But the decision here seems to rest on the idea that Bailey has been deemed an unsavory character, and that the perspective he brings to his subject is tainted.

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I’m sure it also had a lot to do with the pressure Norton was feeling to repair whatever damage the whole fiasco had done to its image, both with consumers and its own employees.

Let’s leave aside for the moment that Bailey has been subject to nothing like due process. (He has denied the accusations.) I’ve never met the man, but if even a small part of what’s been alleged turns out to be true, I don’t think I want to.

Let’s also leave aside the revelation that Norton was made aware of at least one allegation against Bailey before publishing the book. The company has said it “took this allegation very seriously” and questioned Bailey, who “categorically denied” the charges. Well, all right, but it seems the publisher had a pretty good sense of what might happen.

No, the only relevant question here is whether the artist can ever be separated from the art. Must only good people write or paint or record music, or do we let the work speak for itself and trust the public to decide what has merit?

The truth, as I argued recently in the case of Dr. Seuss, is that much (if not most) of our greatest art was created by people you probably wouldn’t want near your kids. Are we taking the works of Pablo Picasso and T.S. Eliot out of museums and libraries? (The former was said to have treated younger women as emotional slaves; the latter was a noted anti-Semite.)

Are we banning Charlie Chaplin films, since he apparently had a predilection for young girls? Should “Annie Hall” be disappeared because Woody Allen later married his ex-lover’s adopted daughter?

Why stop at art, for that matter? I’ve read enough about Steve Jobs to know that he practically pioneered the idea of the toxic work environment. Are we taking our iPhones out back and stomping on them?

These are entirely different questions from the one executives at another publisher, Simon & Schuster, are facing this week, after hundreds of their employees signed a letter protesting a plan to publish a memoir by former vice president Mike Pence.

In that case, the book hasn’t yet been written, and the argument is about whether a publisher ought to take on an author whose political views discomfit a lot of its own editors.

But in a broader sense, both of these controversies fit into a debate we’re having now about the primacy of free expression — a largely generational debate that may be the most important one we’ll have about the future of the society.

On one side are those of us who were raised with the time-honored principle that a free society defends all manner of art and political speech, no matter how offensive the artist or the message — because if bad people and dumb ideas aren’t safe from censorship, then neither are the rest of us.

On the other side, you have mostly younger Americans — a generation that doesn’t remember the Cold War or the existential threat of any kind of tyranny — who learned on campus that free expression most often benefits the powerful, and that some people and ideas are simply antithetical to an enlightened society and must be quashed. These voices are exerting enormous pressure on the marketplace of ideas.

I’m not sure how we’ll arrive at a resolution. What I do know is that Norton won’t be the last great institution to choose the path of least resistance.

And down that path lies nothing good.

Read more:

Alyssa Rosenberg: Why stopping the distribution of the Philip Roth biography was a bad idea

Max Boot: Why we should cancel the phrase ‘cancel culture’

Paul Waldman: The American right is consumed with its cultural Lost Cause

Sonny Bunch: Refusing to cover Armie Hammer turns critics into moralists. That’s not our role.