Serious accusations have been made against Blake Bailey, the author of an acclaimed new biography of Philip Roth. Bailey has not been convicted of anything, or even criminally charged, yet the book’s publisher, W.W. Norton, announced it was withdrawing the book from print. That doesn’t make sense and it’s a terrible precedent.

Harvey Weinstein is a convicted rapist, but does that mean no one should ever be allowed to see “The English Patient,” “Clerks,” “Pulp Fiction” or “The King’s Speech” again? Roman Polanski does not deny he carried out a gruesome sex attack on a 13-year-old girl in 1977. Should we pull everything he’s ever done off the cultural shelf and throw it on the bonfire? We’d lose “Chinatown,” “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Tenant.” The French philosopher Michel Foucault, who died in 1984, raped thousands of boys as young as 8 in Tunisia in the 1960s, according to a shocking recent claim by writer Guy Sorman, who knew him then. Should all of Foucault’s books be taken off the shelves, or can we acknowledge that we are not endorsing a man’s character when we allow his books to exist?

Bailey’s book on Philip Roth is an important contribution to literary scholarship. Cynthia Ozick, in The New York Times, callsPhilip Roth: The Biography” “a narrative masterwork both of wholeness and particularity, of crises wedded to character, of character erupting into insight, insight into desire, and desire into destiny.” And Roth himself was, famously, not exactly a gentleman when it came to women. Roth has not yet been canceled, but his name seems to be drifting toward the Cancel Zone.

Should work related to Harvey Weinstein (left) and Roman Polanski be canceled because of their criminal behavior in real life?
Should work related to Harvey Weinstein (left) and Roman Polanski be canceled because of their criminal behavior in real life?
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The claims made against Bailey — two women say he raped them — are disturbing and should be taken seriously. But even if we assume the claims are true, that is no reason to pull his book, which is now part of the literary record. It would have been understandable if Norton had fired Bailey, by canceling his advance, while he was working on the book. But now that the book exists, its merits exist independently of questions about Bailey’s character. America isn’t supposed to work like a college campus, where outrage unleashes an impulse to annihilate everything connected with a person who is out of favor. Grown-up people can recognize that good, and even vital, work sometimes comes from bad people. 

Nor is Bailey’s Roth book an example of someone profiting from crime, though many have noted that what attracted Roth to participating in the project was Bailey’s promise that he would not be too judgmental about the novelist’s sex life. Bailey is not, like O.J. Simpson, a murderer who sought to enrich himself from the blood on his hands. He turned in a valuable piece of scholarship whose existence has nothing to do with the claims made against him and should not affront anyone. Those who believe Bailey is a man of low character are free not to buy the book, but publishers should hardly start down the path of removing all books by tarnished people. Publishers are supposed to be in the business of expanding access to human knowledge, art and culture, not extinguishing it. And if mere accusations of sexual misconduct by an author are enough to render a book unpublishable, then the books written by three of our last five presidents should be unpublished too. 

W.W. Norton has bowed to public pressure and essentially burned the very book it published.
W.W. Norton has bowed to public pressure and essentially burned the very book it published.
Alamy

Meanwhile, the books of actual killers continue to be sold, up to and including “Mein Kampf,” which will always be of historical interest and, because of that, should never be canceled. Lenin’s books, and Mao’s, and Stalin’s poetry shouldn’t be yanked off the library shelves either. This all seems obvious, because we’ve had plenty of time to weigh these figures and their depravity. That the charges against Philip Roth’s biographer are new should not blind us to what is happening: The culture is being menaced by the 21st century equivalent of book burners. Their willingness to let their emotions guide them to destruction is a disservice to humanity. 

Kyle Smith is critic-at-large at National Review.

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