Philip Roth and the sympathetic biographer: This is how misogyny gets cemented in our culture
By Monica Hesse,
Allen J. Schaben Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
The day after hardcover printing was halted for “Philip Roth: a Biography” — which is to say, the day after news broke that the biography’s author, Blake Bailey, was accused of rape; accusations that Bailey denies — I did precisely the morally questionable thing and spent $19.24 to download the book onto my Kindle.
It’s hard to explain the rationale behind this purchase, except that when an alleged rapist writes a book about a brilliant but problematic novelist, and when that book is lauded and celebrated up until the moment two women say the author assaulted them — when all that happens, you wonder how the 900-page tome reads in hindsight.
You find yourself scrolling to a random page and reading a description of Roth’s first marriage:
“Maggie’s sinuses were, of course, the least of their problems. Even at the best of times she couldn’t resist interrupting his work on the thinnest of pretexts (‘Could you go out and get half a pound of Parmesan cheese?’).”
One could write a whole essay unpacking the premises propping up this sentence. Why is it unreasonable for Philip Roth to be asked to purchase an ingredient for the dinner he is presumably going to eat? Who purchased the rest of the groceries? One assumes it was Maggie. Was her day not “interrupted” when she shopped for and prepared the meal? What is the difference between a “thin pretext” and a valid request, other than whether the asker is Philip Roth or his shrewish, sinus-clogged wife?
There’s a fascinating discussion to be had in that anecdote, about balancing the demands of work and domesticity, about deciding who gets to be the genius and who has to be the housefrau. But Bailey apparently didn’t see it that way. What he apparently saw was a man under attack.
And so what he wrote was the story of a great man named Philip Roth, and a collection of women who were often either harpies or sexpots. When Roth began “openly dating other people” while still married, Maggie’s “demands for his attention took more and more bizarre forms,” Bailey writes — as if trying to rekindle affection from a serially philandering spouse is nonsensical and strange. (For abundant other examples from the book, The New Republic’s review, titled, “Philip Roth’s Revenge Fantasy,” is a detailed and thoughtful analysis.)
“Even at his worst, when [Roth] was ranting and raving at his ‘b—- of a wife,’ he was charming and funny and essentially benign,” Bailey told an interviewer with the Los Angeles Times.
Bailey, again, has denied the assault accusations against him, which were recounted in detail in the New York Times after being first reported by the Los Angeles Times and the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate, calling them “categorically false and libelous.” I’ll recap them only briefly here. One accuser was former student; Bailey taught her in middle school. Years later in 2003 they arranged to meet up when both happened to be in New Orleans, and this is where she says the assault occurred. The other is a publishing executive who was an overnight guest in 2015 in a house where Bailey was also staying — the homeowner was a mutual acquaintance — and she says Bailey crept into her room in the middle of the night. Both women told others about the alleged assaults shortly after they allegedly happened.
As allegations go, there’s nothing more or less disturbing in these than in the myriad sexual assault allegations peppering the news in recent years. And Blake Bailey is not an elected official, a beloved cultural icon, or even a household name.
But I still can’t help thinking about that Parmesan cheese.
I can’t help thinking about the man who would be irritated that his wife asked him to run to the grocery store, and about the man who would agree with this irritation enough to make it an anecdote in a biography.
Is it a small, subtle, seemingly inconsequential story? You bet. Am I overanalyzing it? Maybe. Probably. But the subtlety is the point; it’s subtlety that often causes lasting damage. Most people wouldn’t trust a sentence reading, “all women are nagging shrews,” but we all can be swayed by the skillful, gently persuasive phrasing that good writers know how to employ, and both Roth and Bailey are very good writers.
This is how a misogynistic culture is conceptualized, created, cultivated and codified. It doesn’t happen because one dude does a bad thing. It happens when like-minded dudes are allowed to be one another’s gatekeepers, and the gatekeepers of broader culture, when faults are allowed to go unexamined, and so they instead spread: Harvey Weinstein dictated the content of movie theaters for decades; it turns out he was abusing women all along. Roger Ailes, Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer shaped coverage and discussion of sexual misconduct scandals throughout the 1990s and 2000s; they were later accused of sexual misconduct themselves.
“We leave a stain, we leave a trail, we leave our imprint,” as Roth himself wrote in the 2000 Pen/Faulkner Award-winning novel, “The Human Stain.” “Impurity, cruelty, abuse, error, excrement, semen — there’s no other way to be here. We leave a stain.”
I can’t help thinking about how readers and viewers have been repeatedly presented narratives as the factual observations of great minds rather than as the ax-grinding of men whose judgment on gender relations might be questionable.
Roth, who died in 2018, was not so much a male writer as an archaeologist of maleness, excavating his own concepts of what men desired, needed and hated. “It is an unspoken rule of literary pages that women are not sent Roth for review,” the book critic Linda Grant once wrote, for the simple reason that women are presumed to not to “get” Roth. “There is in him a dark distaste for women,” Grant wrote. “A repugnance that can only be described by the word misogyny.”
And yet she loves him, she writes. Of course she does. It is impossible to be a person who loves sentences and not love at least some of Philip Roth.
She loves him, and still, she is deeply aware of his failings. In her essay, a review of his 2001 work, “The Dying Animal,” she describes a particular passage, in which a cancer-stricken woman uses her last day before a mastectomy to visit her former professor/lover so that he may fondle her chest and say goodbye. Grant notes that every woman she discussed this passage with burst out laughing at the preposterousness of this idea.
So while skimming “Philip Roth: a Biography” — which remains, in many ways, an impressive and fascinating achievement — I could not help but consider how it might have read if someone like Grant had written it instead. Someone with a different perspective and a bit of a gimlet eye.
Someone who might include the Parmesan anecdote, but the purpose of its inclusion would be to explain not how women nag their brilliant husbands, but how brilliant men can sometimes be major jerks.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.