Mr. Bailey had in his possession “hundreds of manila folders stuffed with archival material,” as Mark Oppenheimer reported seeing when he visited Mr. Bailey for a profile he was writing on him for The New York Times Magazine, as well as copies of papers from Mr. Roth’s public archive at Princeton University, which was closed to researchers in 2019.
There has been no investigation as yet into the allegations against Mr. Bailey. But if they prove to be true, they give readers reason to doubt Mr. Bailey’s ability to objectively evaluate materials relating to the women in Mr. Roth’s life. As critics pointed out even before the allegations surfaced, the biography’s accounts of some of Mr. Roth’s relationships contain biases and sexist characterizations that appear to parrot Mr. Roth’s opinions, including an uncomplimentary description of one woman’s genitalia. (Nearly five years ago, Mr. Bailey wrote a review of my own biography of Shirley Jackson that was perceived by many, including myself, as sexist.)
It would be unconscionable if Mr. Roth’s archives remained inaccessible or were otherwise put out of reach, leaving information important to his literature — from the inspirations for his characters to the complex process by which he transmuted life into fiction — unavailable to scholars, critics and future biographers. Biography has always been a form that benefits from a multiplicity of perspectives. This is particularly true for a complex subject such as Mr. Roth, who not only delighted in examining both himself and others from a variety of fictional angles but whose attitudes toward women and race have frequently been the subject of controversy.
Critics like to speak of biographies as “definitive,” but in reality there’s no such thing. Biographers aren’t stenographers; we’re more akin to novelists, constructing a narrative of a person’s life and making editorial choices at every turn. An anecdote whose importance I might overlook could be seized on by someone else as a revealing detail.
Just as female critics have noticed instances of misogyny in Mr. Bailey’s writing, a female biographer would likely have a more critical perspective on Mr. Roth’s relationships with women. A Black biographer or, for that matter, a Jewish one could have more to say about race in Mr. Roth’s fiction. This isn’t to reduce or essentialize — simply to recognize that our backgrounds affect the way we see the world, as readers and as writers.
Publishers should explicitly encourage a diversity of perspectives on a person worthy of biography, and biographers who care about improving representation would do well to rethink their own roles in the system. They might begin by pledging to keep the papers of subjects where they belong: in public archives, open to any scholar prepared to devote the time and energy to working with them.
A system of shared access may sound idealistic. But it would be less far-fetched if editors and publishers, as well as the foundations that often finance biography, committed to more often supporting writers who undertake new subjects or offer original views on older ones — rather than those with access to a handful of never-before-seen letters by someone about whom many books already exist.