The Reputation Game: How Authors Attempt to Control Their Image Across the Grave | Philip roth


Writers and critics raise questions about the role that agents and estates play in managing archives and limiting access to biographical material.

New concerns have been fueled by the continuing fiasco of the publication of Philip Roth: The Biography, with accusations that access to the famous American author’s archives is unfairly limited.

A month ago, the book was destined to be the literary biography of the year – a “narrative masterpiece,” according to the New York Times. Next, the book’s US publisher WW Norton “suspended” distribution after Roth handpicked biographer Blake Bailey, who denied any wrongdoing, was charged with sexual misconduct. Last week he pulled the book entirely and it was later picked up by Skyhorse.

Roth’s literary agent Andrew Wylie of the Wylie agency, and Julia Golier, a Roth lover and later close friend, are interpreted as being under the direction of Roth to destroy archival material after it has been seen by Bailey. Princeton University Library gave Bailey access to material that is not currently available. A spokesperson for the university said the library was in “ongoing discussions with representatives from Roth regarding the collection.” The Wylie Agency did not return a request for comment.

Stephen Enniss, director of the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, one of the world’s largest and best-funded literary archives, says agents play a more assertive role in authors’ estates and archives, which doesn’t fit necessarily to the code of an ethics archivist.

A cover image posted by WW Norton shows
A cover image posted by WW Norton shows “Philip Roth: The Biography” by Blake Bailey. The book has been retired and now has a new publisher, Skyhorse. Photography: AP

“You have agents like Andrew Wylie who increasingly represent authors in the sale of their archives. Their role in trying to negotiate ever higher agreements has been a destructive thing in the circulation and preservation of the archives, ”says Enniss.

For now, the Roth biography debacle is a cautionary tale of what can go wrong when posthumous reputations are played beyond the grave.

Last week the Philip Roth Society issued a statement saying that “limiting access to a biographer goes against the conventions of academic research”.

Jacques Berlinerblau, member of the company, author of the next unauthorized document The Philip Roth We Don’t Know: Gender, Race, and Autobiography, said to Observer: “Darkness is never the right condition for scientific work, and in this case, the gaze has been returned to the interpreter.

“It’s irresponsible, given the way Roth has trafficked fact and fiction, to let only one person watch her. We have conflicts of interest galore, an absence of critical distance and we do not know the man better.

Enniss points out that special access comes with its own integrity challenges. “It always has this double advantage: the biographer benefits from this access, but there is potentially something damaging about this access in terms of oral or tacit understanding of what is right to deal with.”

Reviewer and author Francine Prose says we might also be better off acknowledging the origins of Roth’s autofiction. “It’s a complicated situation that has been grossly and vulgarly simplified by the unfolding of the story,” Prose told the Observer.

“Are we pretending these attitudes don’t exist or do we give credit to Roth for reporting this in such a meticulous and painfully honest manner?” But to find a biographer to say it’s really OK is to end this whole conversation.

While Roth may have had reason to want to control his account of his life from beyond the grave, his efforts are not unique.

“It is not difficult for an author to ensure that the contentious material is not available,” author William Boyd told the Observer, pointing to TS Eliot’s embargo on his love letters, or Philip Larkin’s instructions to his girlfriend Monica Jones to destroy his journals.

“If your posthumous reputation interests you, you can organize it. But it’s a very complex and compromised exercise and unless it’s designed to protect the living it tends to be counterproductive, ”Boyd says.

John le Carré, VS Naipaul, Graham Greene and Muriel Spark have each commissioned biographies in their lifetime with mixed results. Boyd points out that Patrick French’s biography of Naipaul revealed “how terribly disagreeable he was,” and Le Carré was “deeply upset” by his.

Roth in his hometown of Newark, NewJersey in 1968.
Roth in his hometown of Newark, NewJersey in 1968. Photograph: Bob Peterson / The LIFE Images Collection / Getty Images

“You would think, why order him if you’re going to be upset by what he says?” It’s a very complex and compromised exercise, ”says Boyd. “Le Carré and Spark employed boring academics who wrote something very boring to keep everyone away.

For his part, Boyd said he was less interested in his posthumous reputation. “I believe the Stoics who said posterity is none of our business. As long as I’m alive, of course I am. When I fell off the perch, it didn’t matter.

But the efforts of one subject – and by extension his representatives and heirs – to attempt to guide the hand of the writer, at least on this side of the grave, are to be expected, says James Fox, journalist and writer, co -author of the autobiographies of Keith Richards, David Bailey and, yet to be published, Damien Hirst.

“If you get into the realm of family biography, there’s always someone complaining, someone withholding letters and so on,” Fox says. “Everyone feels like they own this character and they don’t want someone else to give their own version of it because then they feel abandoned and don’t feel special.”

The questions underlying Roth’s biography revolve around efforts to orchestrate posterity. Robert McCrum, former literary editor at the Observer, recalls an interview he conducted with Roth, who died in 2018, in which the author made it clear that he expected death, like life, to exert narrative control.

“In old age, Roth grew monstrous with his own sense of grandeur. He had always been a formidable control freak, and it’s one of the mistakes that popped up in the world of books that writers think they can control their literary lives, which of course they can’t.

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