Mr Bailey had “hundreds of manila paper files filled with archival material” in his possession, 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 documents from Mr. Roth’s public archives at Princeton University, which were closed to researchers in 2019.
There has yet to be an investigation into the allegations against Mr. Bailey. But if they turn out to be true, they give readers reason to doubt Mr. Bailey’s ability to objectively assess the documents relating to the women in Mr. Roth’s life. As critics have pointed out before the allegations even surfaced, the biographical accounts of some of Mr Roth’s relationships contain gender bias and characterizations that appear to reflect Mr Roth’s views, including an uncomplicated description. genitals of a woman. (Almost five years ago, Mr. Bailey wrote a review of my own biography of Shirley Jackson which was seen by many, me including, as sexist.)
It would be unacceptable whether Mr. Roth’s archives remained inaccessible or otherwise were out of reach, leaving information important to his literature – from the inspirations of his characters to the complex process by which he turned life into fiction – inaccessible to scholars, critics and futures biographers. Biography has always been a form that benefits from a multiplicity of perspectives. This is especially true of a complex subject such as Mr. Roth, who not only liked to examine both himself and others from various fictitious angles, but whose attitudes towards women and race have often been the subject of controversy.
Critics like to talk about biographies as “definitive”, but in reality that doesn’t exist. Biographers are not stenographers; we are closer to novelists, building a narrative of a person’s life and making editorial choices at every turn. An anecdote the importance of which I might forget might be picked up by someone else as a telling detail.
Just as female critics have noted instances of misogyny in Mr. Bailey’s writings, a biographer would likely have a more critical perspective on Mr. Roth’s dealings with women. A black biographer or, for that matter, a Jew might have more to say about race in Mr. Roth’s fiction. It’s not about reducing or essentializing – just acknowledging that our background affects how we view the world, as readers and as writers.
Editors should explicitly encourage a diversity of views on a person worthy of a biography, and biographers keen to improve portrayal would do well to rethink their own role in the system. They could begin by committing to keeping the subjects’ papers in their place: in public archives, open to any scholar willing to devote time and energy to working with them.
A shared access system may seem idealistic. But it would be less far-fetched for editors and publishers, as well as the foundations that often fund biography, more often than not commit to supporting writers who take on new topics or offer original perspectives on them. older – rather than those who have access to a handful of unpublished letters from someone on whom there are already many books.