In Defense of Reading Biographies in an Era When They Reveal Nothing

The beauty of Blake Bailey’s 800-page book on Philip Roth is in the details

Philip Roth in New York City
American writer Philip Milton Roth in New York City
Orjan F. Ellingvag/Getty

Editor’s Note April 29, 2021: After this review was published, allegations of sexual assault and grooming against author Blake Bailey by his former eighth-grade students were made public, and publisher W.W. Norton announced yesterday that it is permanently taking his Philip Roth biography out of print as a result.

The problem with any big literary event is that they are so few and far between that when one does happen, you can hardly pick up a newspaper, thumb through a magazine or even get on Twitter without running into people sharing their reactions to it, sometimes — oftentimes — before even reading the book. 

That’s the case with Blake Bailey’s doorstopper of a biography on Philip Roth. Clocking in at just over 800 pages, it’s a book that requires you to really care about Roth to be willing to spend the money and time to get through it. Yet every single publication in North America with any sort of book coverage has no doubt assigned their top critic to write about the book, because, well, it’s a big deal.

Bailey is among the greatest living literary biographers in America, and Roth’s work and persona have been hovering over this country’s fictional output since the 1950s. Even today, three years removed from his death in 2018, his influence is unavoidable. Just as inevitable are the people who want to dismiss the book because it’s Roth, the type of writer who is often bundled in with those annoying “You’re a bad person if you like these author” posts and tweets that are carefully calibrated to go viral. You know what I mean; the latest was a a TikTok that made the rounds featuring a guy with a crappy beard who looks like he works really hard to impress people, pointing to bubbles that say “If you like” before listing off the same couple of literary punching bags (Wallace, Bukowski, Hemingway) and then pointing to another bubble that says “You should try: Literally any non-cis-het-male author.” Roth wasn’t mentioned among those names, but he’s certainly one of the writers who people love to lazily dunk on. There’s a lot to understand when dealing with Philip Roth, much more than can be contained in some half-assed attempt at 15 seconds of internet stardom.

And that’s part of the reason Bailey’s biography is such a big deal to people. Philip Roth gives us the man and his work, the things that drove him, and, yes, his horniness. Roth had two wives, a number of lovers, dated Barbra Streisand for a hot second and, as we find out in the book, even thought he had a real shot at bedding Nicole Kidman when he was 70. When the actress was told of the author’s anger at being shot down, she replies, “Tell him to grow up.”

Blake Bailey's "Philip Roth" is out now
Blake Bailey’s “Philip Roth” is out now
WW Norton and Company

So there’s a lot of good gossip, and there’s insight into what drove the guy who feared he was viewed as “a sex maniac and a millionaire” (tough life). The problem, as is usually the case, is that most of the good stuff has already made the online rounds before your copy has arrived. Somebody on Twitter will screenshot some juicy passage, or, in an attempt to figure out what it all means, some reviewer will do that very 21st-century thing and spoil it for you. If we have all these CliffsNotes available whether we want them or not, what’s the point of paying a bunch of money to read a very big and arduous book? 

The answer is in the details, literally. That, more than anything, is why I kept reading Philip Roth. It has so many little details that make it worth finishing. 

When I say “details,” I mean I’ve read almost every Roth book. I’ve read plenty of articles and criticism of his work, and, yes, I allowed reviews of the biography to spoil my experience a bit. I knew all the good dirt before I made it out of chapter one. But what I didn’t know, for instance, is that when Roth made it really big after the success of Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969, he took a luxury ocean liner to England, where he ended up buying four suits at the Savile Row tailor Kilgour, French & Stanbury. If that name sounds at all familiar, it’s because that’s the same tailoring shop that made Cary Grant’s suits in North by Northwest, aka one of the strongest suit games in cinematic history. What happened to Roth’s suits is anyone’s guess. Having heard he’d once purchased some suits from London’s most stylish street a few times before, I checked last year’s auction of Roth’s estate to see if they were available, but no dice. Still, I didn’t know which shop he got them from. So I guess that’s why I read an 800-page book: to find out where Philip Roth bought his suits. 

Between the suits and the restaurants (you find mentions of Zabar’s, Emilio’s Ballato and half a dozen other iconic NYC food spots), there are also plenty of opportunities to learn how Roth’s work fit into the broader conversation. One section that stuck out to me — given that another politician seems to get busted for sexual misconduct every month nowadays — comes in 2013, when Anthony Weiner’s attempt at making a comeback in New York City politics backfired after a sexting scandal. One New York Times article, noting how Weiner, who had previously stepped down from his seat in congress in 2011 after he exposed himself to a woman over Twitter DMs, was a lot like the sex-obsessed fictional Jews Roth wrote about. Roth was “convulsed” by the news; while discussing the affair with Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation, but she also wrote a fine biography on Philip), who couldn’t understand why a man with so much ambition was also so hellbent on destroying himself, Roth replied, “It’s just cock.” 

I mention all of this because there are really two kinds of people: those who would read a big Philip Roth biography and those who wouldn’t. Simple as that. The ones that wouldn’t, I get it, not your thing. It’s a busy world and we all have things to do, so just read the reviews and let them fill you in. What I’m interested in, however, are the little tidbits, the ones you can’t get from a book review or from casually glancing at a subject’s Wikipedia page.

I recognize that me suggesting you read 800 pages about a dead writer sounds an awful lot like the exact thing you should be wary of when it comes to a big book release: a review. But what I’m really trying to say is that the effect of any good book lies in its details, and that’s not something that can be captured in the space of a single essay. And while you won’t get everything — or even an unbiased account — reading Philip Roth (Bailey spent a lot of time with his subject before Roth’s passing in 2018, and recently said on the New York Times Book Review podcast that “it was very hard not to feel tenderly toward him”), it’s nice to remember that the thousands of pieces of micro-content that pass through your screen every day are often never quite as interesting as sitting down and committing yourself to one big thing.

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