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Why I wish I'd never met Philip Roth

  • 01 July 2021
Blake Bailey’s highly anticipated ‘definitive biography’ of Philip Roth was cancelled by WW Norton at the end of April when Bailey was accused of sexual assault. His agent dropped him; his publisher cancelled the book tour and cut all ties with the author. (The biography has since been picked up by Skyhorse.) I’ve never met Bailey, but I’ll never forget meeting his subject: Philip Roth.

It was a crisp October day in 2002 when we piled into the classroom at Columbia University’s Graduate School of the Arts. We were young. We were nervous. Soon we’d be talking to a writer who’d won the Pulitzer, the National Book Award (three times), the National Book Critics Circle Award (three times) and the Pen/Faulkner.

Those prizes were for his early work. Our class had read his latest, The Dying Animal. I was one of the few who hadn’t read any of his other novels and although I’d found The Dying Animal well-written, I hated the book. It began with an old college professor seducing a beautiful young student and went downhill from there.          

But I was excited to meet the author. We all were. The room buzzed as we waited for Roth to walk in and breathe the same air as us.

Then, he appeared: tall, smiling, surrounded by an aura of greatness.

Our teacher introduced Roth, who sat at the head of the table and read from his book. He joked. He gave writerly advice, ‘If you get an idea, even a small one, find a pen. Write it down!’ And I wondered how many great Rothian ideas had slipped away because he’d been without a pen.

My classmates asked fawning questions about his book. I was too nervous. Roth took up more than the space of his body. His gestures were large, his ego tremendous.

'If we allow writers the freedom to express views that are objectionable, even abhorrent, then we can respond and have a meaningful open debate.'

Then my classmate Laura (name changed to protect her identity) raised her hand. Laura was one of the better writers: smart, eloquent, to the point. I can’t remember her exact wording, but she asked about an oral sex scene in the book when the professor forces himself on his student. Laura referred to this as ‘rape’. The room went still. It was a fair question.

We all watched as a shadow came over Philip Roth’s face. Then