W.W. Norton & Company has paused the distribution of a best-selling Philip Roth biography after several women accused its author, Blake Bailey, of grooming them as middle-school students and then pursuing sexual relationships with them in their early adulthood. “These allegations are serious,” the publisher said in a statement. “In light of them, we have decided to pause the shipping and promotion of ‘Philip Roth: The Biography’ pending any further information that may emerge.” Bailey’s literary agency, the Story Factory, has also dropped the author. Bailey told the Los Angeles Times that the “allegations are totally false,” and his attorney said in an email statement to NOLA.com that Bailey never acted inappropriately with any student, calling the site’s allegations “hurtful descriptions of conduct between adults.”
Before Bailey was known for his popular biographies of writers like John Cheever, Richard Yates, and Charles Jackson, he was an eighth-grade English teacher in the 1990s at Lusher Middle School in New Orleans, where a group of former students allege that he was inappropriate with them. In a NOLA.com report, three women described sexual encounters with their former teacher in early adulthood, with one accusing Bailey of raping her and telling her he’d wanted her since she was in eighth grade. As a teacher, he allegedly engaged in flirtatious banter with his students, asked about their love lives, and left notes in class journals that made them feel special. One woman said she viewed him as a confidant who considered them mature enough to read books like Lolita, which features a sexual relationship between a middle-aged literature professor and his 12-year-old stepdaughter. Others allege that he frequently inquired about the status of their virginity after they left Lusher. The L.A. Times quoted a former student, Eve Peyton, describing his behavior in a letter as “textbook grooming” and “something of an open secret.” “Even those of us hurt by him still loved him on some level,” she wrote. “He was supposed to be our mentor. In many ways, he was. And then he used our trust in him against us in the cruelest and most intimate way possible.”
The allegations against Bailey surfaced in the comments section of an April 16 blog post by Ed Champion that condemns the Roth biography for being “drenched in casual misogyny” (Champion has his own history of accusations of misogyny.) Some critics felt that Bailey was too sympathetic toward Roth’s portrayal of women in his books and treatment of women in real life. Bailey told Vulture in a previous interview that the two never discussed the Me Too movement, though they “exhaustively discussed [Roth’s] controversial sex life.” According to the New York Times, Bailey once claimed that a large reason Roth hired him was that he did not take “too prim or judgmental of a view of a man who had this florid love life.” The now-on-pause biography was released on April 6, and debuted on the New York Times best-seller list.
Update, Thursday, April 22: A New York Times article published Wednesday night includes a new allegation of sexual assault from a publishing executive who was not a former student. The woman, Valentina Rice, alleges that Bailey raped her in 2015 at the home of a book critic’s house. According to the Times article, about three years later, during the height of the Me Too movement, Rice reached out to the president of Norton to accuse Bailey of nonconsensual sex. While Rice said she did not receive a response from the publishing company, she received a response from Bailey who said he had been forwarded her note. “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,” he said in an email to her at the time. “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.”
A Norton spokeswoman told the Times that the allegation was taken seriously. “We were aware that the allegation was also sent to two people at Mr. Bailey’s former employer and to a reporter at The New York Times, a news organization that was well equipped to look into it,” the spokeswoman said. “We did take steps, including asking Mr. Bailey about the allegations, which he categorically denied, and we were mindful of the sender’s request for a guarantee of anonymity.” In Wednesday emails to the Times, Bailey continued to deny the allegations as “categorically false and libelous,” while his attorney said his client “disagrees with Norton’s decision to stop promoting his book.”
Update, Tuesday, April 27: W.W. Norton told staff in a memo that it will remove the Philip Roth biography and Bailey’s memoir. “Norton is permanently putting out of print our editions of Philip Roth: The Biography and The Splendid Things We Planned, Blake Bailey’s 2014 memoir,” a Norton spokesperson said in a statement. “Mr. Bailey will be free to seek publication elsewhere if he chooses. In addition, Norton will make a donation in the amount of the book advance for Philip Roth: The Biography to organizations that fight against sexual assault or harassment and work to protect survivors.”
Update, May 18, 1 pm: On May 17, Skyhorse Publishing announced that it had acquired rights to Bailey’s Philip Roth biography. According to a release, the independent company will release the paperback edition on June 15, with e-book and audiobook versions set to be available on May 19. The New York Times reported that Tony Lyons, Skyhorse’s president and publisher, said in an email that Bailey’s book met a biography’s standards, including quality of writing, importance of subject matter, and value of scholarship. “I’m proud to publish it,” Lyons said. Skyhorse has published controversial titles before, including memoirs by Woody Allen and Michael Cohen.