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Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Norton takes Philip Roth biography out of print

The announcement came after the publisher decided last week that it would stop shipping and promoting the title, which it released this month.

By: New York Times |
April 28, 2021 11:05:34 am
Some of the allegations against Bailey were reported earlier by The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate and the Los Angeles Times, and additional accusations have been reported since. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Written by Alexandra Alter and Jennifer Schuessler

WW Norton said in a memo to its staff Tuesday that it will permanently take Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth out of print, following allegations that Bailey sexually assaulted multiple women and behaved inappropriately toward his students when he was an eighth-grade English teacher.

The announcement came after the publisher decided last week that it would stop shipping and promoting the title, which it released this month. It wasn’t immediately clear what would happen with existing copies of the book or the digital and audio versions.

“Norton is permanently putting out of print our editions of ‘Philip Roth: The Biography’ and ‘The Splendid Things We Planned,’ Blake Bailey’s 2014 memoir. Bailey will be free to seek publication elsewhere if he chooses,” the email said, which was signed by Norton’s president, Julia A Reidhead. A copy of the email was reviewed by The New York Times.

Reidhead also said that Norton would make a donation in the amount of the advance it paid to Bailey, who received a mid-six-figure book deal, to organisations that support sexual assault survivors and victims of sexual harassment.

Norton’s decision to take Bailey’s titles out of print marked an extraordinary response to the allegations against the author and raised questions about publishers’ ethical obligations to respond to controversies that extend beyond the contents of the books they publish.

“As a publisher, Norton gives its authors a powerful platform in the civic space. With that power comes the responsibility to balance our commitment to our authors, our recognition of our public role, and our knowledge of our nation’s historic failure to adequately listen to and respect the voices of women and diverse groups,” Reidhead wrote.

Until the allegations surfaced against Bailey, Norton was heavily invested in “Philip Roth: The Biography,” which it printed 50,000 copies of and was heavily promoting. Although some literary critics were skeptical of Bailey’s book, the biography also drew coverage and praise from some corners.

Then, former students of Bailey’s came forward with accusations that he had behaved inappropriately and groomed them for later sexual encounters. Several women accused him of sexual assault, including Valentina Rice, a 47-year-old publishing executive.

In 2018, Rice wrote anonymously to Reidhead, the president of Norton, to report that Bailey assaulted her several years earlier. (She also emailed a New York Times reporter, who responded, but Rice did not reply after deciding not to pursue it further.) Bailey later contacted Rice and denied the allegations, saying that his publisher forwarded the complaint.

In her email to staff Tuesday, Reidhead acknowledged that Norton could have done more to look into the allegations. “As a publishing company we are limited in our investigative abilities,” she wrote, “but we recognize that there may be situations, such as allegations of potentially criminal conduct, where we should actively consider bringing in outside assistance.”

Some of the allegations against Bailey were reported earlier by The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate and the Los Angeles Times, and additional accusations have been reported since.

In an email to the Times last week, Bailey denied the allegations, calling them “categorically false and libelous.” A lawyer for Bailey, Billy Gibbens, called Norton’s response to the allegations “troubling and unwarranted.”

In an email Tuesday, Gibbens added: “Norton made the drastic, unilateral decision to take Mr. Bailey’s books out of print, based on the false and unsubstantiated allegations against him, without undertaking any investigation or offering Mr. Bailey the opportunity to refute the allegations.”

Norton did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Since the #MeToo movement began, publishers have canceled contracts with a number of authors who have faced charges of sexual harassment and assault. In 2017, Penguin Press canceled a forthcoming book on the 2016 election by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, authors of the bestseller “Game Change,” after Halperin was accused of sexually harassing women at ABC News, where he once directed political coverage.

And in March 2020, Hachette Book Group dropped a forthcoming memoir by Woody Allen amid a wave of criticism, including a walkout by employees, who cited the long-standing accusations that Allen had molested his adopted stepdaughter Dylan. (Both Allen and Halperin later found other publishers.)

Pulling books that have already been published is less common, and even Norton’s initial “pause” last week drew concern from free expression groups.

Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive of the literary organization PEN America, said in an email Tuesday that she understood the impetus to “not to reward authors amid horrific allegations or revelations.” But Norton’s decision to pull the Roth biography from print, she added, risked establishing a new, troubling norm that could narrow the range of ideas and information available to readers.

“Bringing out a book should signify that a publisher believes there is something edifying, worthwhile or elucidating contained in the volume,” Nossel said. “It should not be construed as an endorsement of the ideas or narrative purveyed, nor of the personal conduct of the author.”

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