There Is More Than One Blake Bailey Scandal

Amid accusations of sexual assault by a celebrated biographer, the media and publishing industry have to explain what they knew and when they knew it.

Like many other writers, I’ve been spending the last few months re-reading Philip Roth novels in preparation of Blake Bailey’s massive new biography of the late novelist, which long before publication was seen as one of the major events of the literary season. But now discussion of Roth’s work, at least as occasioned by this biography, are moot since Bailey has been accused of grave crimes.

On April 20, The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate reported, “Three of Blake Bailey’s former students described sexual encounters with him in interviews with The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate, with one accusing him of rape, after he spent years staying in contact with them under the guise of mentorship. A fourth said she fled from a bar meet-up during her freshman year in college when he slid his hand up her thigh following a series of suggestive remarks.” These accusations date back to the 1990s, when Bailey was a high school teacher in New Orleans. The former student alleging rape is named Eve Peyton.

Bailey denies committing any crimes, stating the sex was consensual and with adult women who were no longer his students. “Whatever the rumor mill says, I had sex with no minors or students who were my students at the time,” Bailey wrote to one of his accusers. “My behavior was deplorable, but I did nothing illegal.”

On Wednesday, The New York Times augmented this with a report of a fourth accusation, from a publishing executive Valentina Rice who alleges that in 2015 she was raped by Bailey while they were both guests at the home of a mutual friend. Bailey denies this accusation.

W.W. Norton, Bailey’s publisher, has issued a statement saying, “These allegations are serious. In light of them, we have decided to pause the shipping and promotion of ‘Philip Roth: The Biography’ pending any further information that may emerge.”

Norton is right to take the accusations seriously. But the existing reporting raises questions about the complicity of the publisher itself as well as the media infrastructure that has promoted the book until this week.

Let’s break the troubling aspects of the complicity story down into its component parts.

1) Did W.W. Norton handle the accusations in a responsible way?

The New York Times reports that Rice wrote a letter in 2018 detailing her accusation to the publisher. The Times account of the incident is:

About three years later, prompted by the growing #MeToo movement and encouraged by friends, Ms. Rice, using an email account under a different name, wrote to Julia A. Reidhead, the president of Norton, accusing Mr. Bailey of nonconsensual sex.

“I have not felt able to report this to the police but feel I have to do something and tell someone in the interests of protecting other women,” she wrote, adding: “I understand that you would need to confirm this allegation which I am prepared to do, if you can assure me of my anonymity even if it is likely Mr. Bailey will know exactly who I am.”

Ms. Reidhead did not respond, Ms. Rice said. But a week after she sent it, Ms. Rice received an email from Mr. Bailey, who said that his publisher had forwarded her note.

“I can assure you I have never had non-consensual sex of any kind, with anybody, ever, and if it comes to a point I shall vigorously defend my reputation and livelihood,” he wrote in the email, which the Times reviewed. “Meanwhile, I appeal to your decency: I have a wife and young daughter who adore and depend on me, and such a rumor, even untrue, would destroy them.”

I’ll admit to being baffled by Norton’s behaviour. They didn’t respond to Rice but rather handed an unredacted email to an alleged rapist, which included enough identifying details to allow him to contact his accuser. Further, they didn’t take any action or give credibility to the accusation until the reporting of The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate, which made no mention of Rice’s story but discussed other, earlier incidents. From the timeline, it seems clear that the The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate set off alarm bells inside Norton precisely because the Rice story was already known.

2) What did The New York Times know and when did they know it?

The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate reports, “Peyton recently sent a letter to The New York Times, outlining how former students felt he ‘used our trust in him against us in the cruelest and most intimate way possible.’” The New York Times does not mention this letter in their report, although they discuss Peyton’s story.

The word “recently” is ambiguous but clearly The New York Times has had the story for some time. But the story didn’t break in The New York Times, which was has been playing catch-up with other publications. While the story went unreported, The New York Times published a glowing review of the book along with at least six other articles in the last two months that were in effect promotions of the biography. The book was clearly seen as a big ticket item deserving a push.

3) Why did it take the comment section of a blog to break the story?

The chain of transmission of the story is important. According to The New York Times, “The discussions about Bailey’s behavior toward his former students began to build in a private Facebook group and later spilled into public as several women left comments accusing Mr. Bailey of grooming his female middle school students on a site operated by the blogger Ed Champion, which highlighted Mr. Roth’s misogynistic views.”

The story was picked up on Tuesday by the L.A. Times (reporting that Bailey’s agent had dropped him over the allegations) and The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate.

Some literary types have been inclined to be skeptical of the story because of its provenance in a blog. This mistakes the causality. The women were inclined to bring it to legitimate sources but rebuffed or ignored. The blog comment section was a response to being shut out.

As so often the #MeToo era, a story that seems like breaking news turns out to have already had a widespread currency in certain channels. There will be many questions going forward about evaluating the accusations. But there should also be questions about possible institutional complicity and also the habit of turning a blind eye to unpleasant accusations.

Believe me, I’d rather be writing almost anything else about Roth, especially his humor and his prose. But the dominate story right now won’t be about Roth and it would help to get some clarity about Bailey, the accusations against him, and who knew about them and when?

ADDENDUM: after I wrote this post on Wednesday night, The New York Time stealthily amended this story and added this sentence to the long section about Rice quoted above. The first section of the paragraph now reads, “About three years later, prompted by the growing #MeToo movement and encouraged by friends, Ms. Rice, using an email account under a pseudonym, wrote to Julia A. Reidhead, the president of Norton, accusing Mr. Bailey of nonconsensual sex. She also emailed a New York Times reporter, who responded, but Ms. Rice decided not to pursue it further and did not reply.” This leaves open the question of the Peyton’s letter to the Times or whether, after Peyton was contacted, the paper made a connection and tried to re-contact Rice.