I am a great fan of the work of the American writer Philip Roth. I first read him in my early twenties. I had never heard of him before, and the way he wrote – so furious and vital, disgusting at times, funny at others – blew my socks off. I had never read anything like it. I quickly consumed as much of his writing as I could. And I also became increasingly aware that he was not as popular with everyone as he was with me. Many found his work to be crass, misogynistic and hateful. I could see their point. But I still liked it.
I pre-ordered a hardback copy of the much-hyped and long-anticipated biography of Roth by Blake Bailey, published this year. There was an expected flurry of pre-publication articles describing Roth’s past bad behaviour, and a move to “cancel” him. But he has been cancelled so many times before, the first time in 1969 after Portnoy’s Complaint was unleashed. In fact, he cancelled himself repeatedly in his own writing – it was in many ways his life’s work. So I was not expecting to read about a likeable man, but rather a flawed human being who was also a literary genius.
Publication day came. The book arrived. I had barely opened it before allegations of sexual misconduct against its own author were made public, and the biography itself was cancelled. The publisher announced they would no longer publish or distribute it. This may be about the most Philip Roth thing ever to happen, but he’s not around to write about it. I have not yet read the thing. It sits on the corner of my desk and more often than not I balance my iPad on it for Zoom calls because it is nice and chunky. I feel rather awkward about it. As though I too have done something wrong.
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