The Un-Canceling of Biographer Blake Bailey
W.W. Norton took a financial bath on Philip Roth: A Biography, and Skyhorse Press will make all the profits. Is this the end of cancel culture?
This post might make you mad. I don’t know. Cancel culture debates excite hot conversations. If it makes you mad, or you have something to add to this complex subject, please tell me in the comments section: I would love to talk about it.
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Blake Bailey at the 2010 National Book Critic Circle Awards, January 22, 2011. Photo credit: David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons
A little less than three months ago, charges emerged that Blake Bailey had groomed female middle school students for sex and that he had pestered and sexually assaulted adult women. After what were undoubtedly agonizing internal debates, W.W. Norton exercised the morals clause in Bailey’s contract, putting his 2014 memoir and his newest book, Philip Roth: A Biography (2021), out of print as it was climbing the New York Times bestseller list.
It was a classic example of how effective cancel culture’s rough, extra-legal justice can be. The allegations, reported by journalists, became more grisly as more women chimed in. Some incidents had occurred decades ago, while one accuser, a publishing executive, charged that Bailey raped her as recently as 2015, something she had reported to Norton in 2018. For his part, Bailey told The New York Times and other outlets that these accusations were “categorically false and libelous.”
Nevertheless, Norton accepted culpability and pulled perhaps the most important book on their spring list, putting them at odds with the Author’s Guild, which strongly condemned the action.
Other writers questioned Norton’s judgment, even when they believed the women (author’s note: I do too. And I think it is notable that no one from Bailey’s past seems to have mounted a strong defense.) As feminist Katha Pollitt wrote in The Nation, the press appears to have taken seriously the possibility that Bailey raped a colleague in their own industry. But should they have
Rejected the book on the basis of an accusation? Hired a detective? I’m not making light of the women’s charges—I believe them—but I don’t know that publishers are equipped to adjudicate claims of wrongdoing by their writers even if they wanted to. And where does it all end? Rape is a crime, but “grooming” eighth graders and coming on to them after they turn legal is not.
“Nor,” Pollitt concludes, “is being a misogynist or a creep” a crime.
The accusations, extra-legal or not, were effective. A promised second printing of Philip Roth: A Biography was halted, Norton stopped shipping the first edition, and the publisher removed electronic editions of the books from its site. Once Norton decided to pull the book, no one wanted to be associated with Bailey. His life unraveled, and his agent dumped him. Several people told me that his wife, clinical psychologist Mary Brinkmeyer dumped him too. Bailey, it is rumored, is living with his mother in Oklahoma. Who knew it was possible to fall so low?
But in the end, the book didn’t disappear: far from it. On the contrary, my interest was piqued by the escalating controversy. The waiting list at every public library I belong to was interminable, but I purchased a Norton first printing from Amazon days after the press retracted it. I suspect many other people did, too, as such an event instantly made it collectible.
And I am here to tell you: whatever you do or do not think about Philip Roth, or Blake Bailey, it’s a good book. Although some reviewers focused on two or three small incidents in which Bailey seemed sexually overidentified with Roth (these needlessly provocative, speculative, and narcissistic items could have been cut, and had I been his editor, they would have been), most liked it. Distinguished literary figures—including feminists Elaine Showalter and Cynthia Ozick—raved about the book. Perhaps the best account of both the biography and the scandal, by James Wolcott at the London Review of Books, persuaded me that Bailey could be an awful person and a good biographer at the same time.
So perhaps not surprisingly, the little-discussed coda to Bailey’s canceling by Norton was his rapid and largely unremarked-upon, un-canceling. Released from the Norton contract and with a fully produced book in hand, Bailey re-sold the book—presumably with the help of an agent who does not as yet wish to be identified on his website. Then, on June 15, a month after Norton pulled it, Skyhorse Publishing re-released Philip Roth: A Biography in paperback, e-book, and audible formats.
This has received very little attention from anyone, much less the cancelers or the journalists who covered the cancellation, making Bailey’s roller-coaster ride an interesting insight into how the grassroots popular justice we call “cancel culture” might play out in the future.
Skyhorse, whose books are distributed by Simon & Schuster, occupies what may be a unique publishing space: while it publishes conservative authors, it isn’t a conservative press, and it has taken a strong stand against cancel culture. Their list is a mix of solid, unsensational authors you might find anywhere, conspiracy theorists, and dubious characters like former Trump fixer Michael Cohen. Skyhorse also published an edition of the Mueller Report shortly after it was released. The press has also come riding to the rescue of a potentially lucrative property before: it picked up Woody Allen’s latest book, a memoir in which he relitigates Dylan Farrow’s increasingly believable sexual abuse allegations after a Hachette employee rebellion resulted in Allen’s contract being canceled.
But Skyhorse has adopted a self-consciously populist approach to publishing, in the sense that they don’t want to be seen as an authority, and they believe that people should exercise their own judgment about a book by actually reading it, not reading about it on social media. “It’s dangerous to think about publishing as a means of disseminating truth to the masses,” publisher Tony Lyons (who has fended off allegations that Skyhorse’s work environment is itself toxic) told Chris Vognar of the Los Angeles Times. “We publish arguments. Readers should decide what they believe.”
This is, of course, a simplistic approach to the question of truth. I doubt there is any press anywhere that doesn't imagine readers who exercise their critical faculties when reading. In addition, truth matters, and legal departments know truth matters. I always thought that Hachette should have pulled Woody Allen’s book, not because he is a bad person, but because there is an objectively reasonable possibility that Allen has spent decades using his substantial power and vast fortune to defame his daughter and her mother to hide the fact that he is a bad person.
But here’s the part that interests me. Because Skyhorse courts controversy and is apparently impervious to criticism from those who don’t read their books, they proceed as if there was no such thing as cancel culture. And that strikes me as a very good thing, even though it will result in putting books into the world that are bad, dishonest, or written by vile people.
Skyhorse’s penchant for picking up canceled authors has caused some critics to call the company an industry “bottom feeder.” But they actually do—for better or for worse, depending on how you feel about these things—provide a useful counterpoint to the mob rule of cancel culture. As Vognar points out, “No book is really canceled as long as Skyhorse is around.” It may not be just about opportunism, either. Only a few days after the press picked up Bailey’s 900-page tome, it published Dan Kovalik’s Cancel This Book: The Progressive Case Against Cancel Culture.
Nevertheless, picking up sensational, canceled authors is also a way to reap profits from the cancel culture phenomenon itself. When an author is targeted, it is generally because they are already in a lucrative spotlight. Outrage mobilizes behind the notion that an alleged perpetrator is becoming richer and more powerful while victims languish in silenced, often traumatized, anonymity. Of course, everyone wants to hear the abuser’s story, but by definition, the victims have no platform without the space created by a cancel culture event.
Paradoxically, a conflict that sets the powerful back on their heels can be simultaneously damaging and invaluable publicity for the canceled. I might never have purchased the Roth biography without it: because, however, the debate dominated my newsfeeds, and I didn’t feel qualified to engage it without reading the book, I did.
But my larger point is that the cycle of popular outrage is now quite short-lived as far as I can tell. In fewer than 90 days, the outrage machine has completely forgotten about Blake Bailey and his alleged sins—and Skyhorse is happily selling books. As long as the canceled person is never charged with a crime, cancellation is no longer a question of free speech. To be canceled means suffering terminal reputational damage that may require management and accommodation to new circumstances, much like an inoperable tumor.
But cancellation is no longer a career-ending crisis.
Although this wasn’t true as little as eight years ago, when PR executive Justine Sacco was fired for an ironic and damaging tweet about AIDS, the cancellation cycle is remarkably swift. Once the initial desire to punish a perpetrator is satisfied, as it was with Norton’s quick response in dumping Philip Roth: A Biography, activists who care deeply about sexual assault, but not about American literature, move on. So does the canceled person, damaged perhaps, but unbroken. True, Blake Bailey may never get another teaching job, and he won’t get the award for this book that the quality of the book might deserve, but I am sure he will get another publishing contract. I have scoured the internet and can find no evidence of a sustained, secondary campaign against the Skyhorse edition of the book or Bailey himself. More importantly, I see no criminal charges or civil cases in the offing.
Second, publishers must be in deep conversations about whether, if Skyhorse can take the heat, they can too. One wonders whether their tolerance for losses like this is open-ended even if, as they must be, presses are insured for such catastrophes. And make no mistake: this was a catastrophe for one of the last major independent presses standing. Norton invested far more in this book than the rumored $500,000 advance Bailey was paid to write it. Moreover, secondary costs and losses may equal the advance itself: editing, producing, fact-checking, legal vetting, rights clearance, cover design, illustration rights, and mounting a publicity campaign for a high-quality book of this length are all expensive.
In other words, Norton took a bath, including the donation equal to Bailey’s advance that the publisher gave to sexual abuse survivors’ organizations. But for Skyhorse, Bailey’s cancellation was a windfall: not only did they literally not have to do anything but take over a finished book, but they also had a full-blown scandal that amounted to a second, free publicity campaign for it.
The Bailey un-cancellation may be a turning point: will other presses think twice before they hand a golden goose like Philip Roth: A Biography over to a scavenger? I think they will. And that, in itself, may foretell the death of cancel culture itself.
I finally succumbed and subscribed to The Daily Beast, the high-end tabloid founded in 2008 by Tina Brown. My mother has read their political coverage for years. It is just true that every once in a while, the Beast has a fresh and original take on something that neither the tabs, with their focus on the salacious to the virtual exclusion of the serious, and traditional newspapers which are still grappling with how to cover a political culture that has gone tabloid, can fully grasp. So imagine my delight when I learned that a Daily Beast subscription also includes a newsletter called The Royalist that keeps you up to date with Buckingham Palace gossip! Current focus? Queen Elizabeth’s determination to support Prince Andrew against the civil suit filed by Virginia Giuffre, who has accused him of raping her three times while she was a 17-year-old in the thrall of Jeffrey Epstein. (August 22, 2021)
What’s up with Time’s Up, the celebrity-driven anti-sexual harassment organization founded in the wake of #MeToo—that counseled Andrew Cuomo as he was fighting multiple charges of sexual harassment? At The New York Times, Jodi Kantor, Arya Sundaram, Melena Ryzik, and Cara Buckley point out that even before the “existential crisis” triggered by the Cuomo revelations, “confusion and controversy had been building inside the group over its leadership’s ties — and help — to those in power[.]” (August 22, 2021)
In Time, Zahra Nader and Amie Ferris-Rotman report on the swift stripping of Afghan women’s rights under the Taliban. “Over the past 20 years, bookended by Taliban control of the country, women have filled university hallways, lined offices, traveled freely across the country and further afield, and joined nearly every aspect of public life. They have joined the military, judiciary systems. And government. The list of their achievements is anything but exhaustive: Afghan women and girls have formed a national cricket team, competed in the Olympics, and won international science competitions.” Now, that’s gone, and they are in suspended animation. (August 20, 2021)
When the blame game stops, the analysis will begin: what have United States policymakers learned from the disaster still unfolding in Afghanistan? One lesson is “not that the United States is uniquely maladroit, much less malevolent,” James Traub writes in Foreign Policy. “Rather, it is that the United States keeps insisting that it must do that which it cannot do. Because Americans say that they must do it, they persuade themselves that they can do it, whether it is rolling back communism in Southeast Asia or conquering sectarian hatred in Iraq or installing good government in Afghanistan.” (August 20, 2021)