UPDATE: Norton permanently ceased publishing Bailey’s Philip Roth biography in late April, as well as putting Bailey’s 2014 memoir out of print. In a statement on April 27, Norton’s president Julia Reidhead said that Bailey would be free to seek publication elsewhere. Shortly after Norton severed ties with Bailey, Skyhorse Publishing acquired the Roth biography. Skyhorse plans to release the paperback on June 15, 2021.
Originally published April 22, 2021
The National Coalition Against Censorship is troubled by the decision of W.W. Norton to “pause” distribution of one of its books due to allegations against its author. As reported in the New York Times, the publisher has halted distribution and promotion of Blake Bailey’s recent biography of Philip Roth after allegations that Bailey sexually assaulted multiple women were made public. A second print run has been stopped. The biography is currently a New York Times bestseller.
Books must be judged on their content. Many of literature’s celebrated authors led troubled–and troubling–lives. While a writer’s own biography can certainly impact our interpretation and analysis of their work, the reading public must be allowed to make their own decisions about what to read.
In the early 20th century, publishers frequently made decisions about what was “appropriate” literature for the reading public, attempting to stifle “immoral” content. The industry was rife with censorship. The increased pressure on publishers today to police the morality of their writers threatens to turn back the clock on publishers’ defense of the unfettered expression of ideas.
The ongoing cultural reckoning of what to do with the art of morally-compromised artists is a complicated one. Erasure and silencing can gratify the desire to punish, but it does so at the cost of constraining the circulation of ideas. People who reject Blake Bailey’s work are free to do so. Others will want to read it whether or not he is guilty of the allegations against him. Readers deserve the right to make this choice for themselves.