The ghostwriter: Philip Roth was a master in the attempted manipulation of his own image, both during his life and after his death

In 1980, the Pulitzer Prize for fiction went to The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer. This proved a surprising choice, not just because the fiction prize was claimed by a work of nominal narrative nonfiction: a 1,000 page-plus journalistic foray into the mind of notorious murderer Gary Gilmore, who was convicted and then became a vocal advocate for the state to follow through on its promise to put him to death. The other reason the choice was odd is that the three-member prize committee that year – composed of jury chair Frank D. McConnell, New York Times book critic Anatole Broyard, and Newsweek book review editor Walter Clemons – unanimously chose a different book as the winner.

That novel was The Ghost Writer, the first volume in Philip Roth’s Zuckerman trilogy and widely regarded as one of the author’s finest works – if not one of the finest American novels to appear in the second half of the 20th century.

In his (now notorious and tainted) biography of Roth, Blake Bailey quotes the author writing to his friend Joel Conarroe, “We wuz robbed.”

Fair dinkum, as the Aussies might say, especially for a writer as single-minded in his focus on literary reputation as was Roth. Except, in retrospect, one of the three Pulitzer jurists’ names stands out. Roth and Broyard were acquainted, as Roth himself makes clear in an open letter to Wikipedia, published online on The New Yorker’s blog in September 2012 and reprinted in the Library of America volume Why Write? Collected Nonfiction 1960–2013. In his open letter – putatively disclaiming Wikipedia’s assertion that Broyard served as the progenitor for Coleman Silk, the main character in Roth’s 2000 novel The Human Stain – Roth sketches out the times and places his and Broyard’s lives intersected, beginning with a beach in Amagansett in 1958, when both men were just starting out on their literary careers.

What is most striking is a story Roth relates about meeting Broyard in a New York shoe store “as best I can remember, in the 1980s.” The story includes a salient detail, which Bailey also reprints in his biography: “Since Broyard was by then the Times’s most intellectually stylish book reviewer, I told him that I would like to have him sit down in the chair beside me and allow me to buy him a pair of shoes as well, hoping thereby, I forthrightly admitted, to deepen his appreciation for my next book.”

Thus are literary reputations secured.

Though Roth demurs that this amounted to “a playful, amusing encounter” that “lasted ten minutes at most,” the chumminess inherent in a relationship that also includes the critic sitting in a position to determine whether a writer should receive one of the most prestigious literary awards in the U.S. might strike some outside observers – and even some insiders – as too close for comfort.

Indeed, Georgetown University’s Jacques Berlinerblau has written a forthcoming book tracing in part this very subject. According to a weekend article in The Guardian, Berlinerblau was “surprised” by the extent to which Roth, in correspondence, promoted his own work and plugged his novels for prizes in contexts that might be seen as extending beyond those ubiquitous “for your consideration” newspaper ads that proliferate at Oscar time. “The thing I learnt about Roth in looking through this material is how much time he spent networking, scratching people’s backs, placing his people in positions, voting for them,” Berlinerblau is quoted as saying. “There are countless examples of friends in publishing and the literary worlds doing favours for Roth – some of those including awards committees. There is ample reason to infer from their responses that Roth reciprocated.” (Perhaps with an offer to purchase “an expensive pair of Paul Stuart shoes,” in Roth’s own words.)

Berlinerblau, who is not a knee-jerk Roth detractor (he is a member of the Philip Roth Society), admits to being disillusioned by the realization that Roth could aggressively pursue award recognition and parlay friendships into situations that might help advance his career. “I thought – naively – that the great writer cared only for art, its integrity, its austere demands. … He wants to be passionately writing – art, art, art, nothing but art, life will not intrude on art. It was a vision of Roth that Roth sold.”

The Romantic notion of the unsullied artist is largely untrue for any serious cultural producer – Bob Dylan has always been a furiously canny businessman – but it is especially so for someone like Roth, whose passion for managing his own reputation was vehement and thoroughgoing, sometimes to a fault. In trying to ensure his posthumous status, Roth dispensed with one authorized biographer, Ross Miller, after Miller proved unsatisfactory, and settled on Bailey. Roth provided Bailey with unfettered access to his papers and other materials, many of which he ordered his executors to destroy after Bailey was done with them.

As it turns out, Roth’s attempts to continue managing his reputation from beyond the grave backfired badly. Scant weeks after Philip Roth: The Biography appeared to rapturous reviews, the publisher, W.W. Norton, pulped the book in response to allegations of sexual abuse on the part of Bailey. (The book has since been picked up by Skyhorse Publishing, which released a trade paperback edition in June.)

There have been numerous think pieces about the potential pitfalls of an author like Roth hand-picking a biographer he expects to be sympathetic to the more unsavoury aspects of his life and reputation. For Berlinerblau, another issue is at stake: the potential loss to future academic and literary inquiry should Roth’s literary executors – his agent, Andrew Wylie, and former girlfriend Julia Golier – accede to his wishes and destroy his personal papers now that Bailey’s biography is extant. “It’s irresponsible, given how Roth trafficked in reality and fiction, to have just one person look at it. We have conflicts of interest galore, an absence of critical distance, and we don’t know the man any better,” Berlinerblau is quoted as saying.

Writing in The New Republic, Alex Shephard opined, “Efforts undertaken by Roth and his estate to control his legacy have backfired spectacularly. The best way to preserve his legacy, which has been damaged by the fallout from Bailey’s scandal, is to open up his papers to a wide variety of scholars.”

What has happened to Roth’s legacy in the wake of his 2018 death is clearly not what he intended and serves as a cautionary tale about the futility of trying to manipulate posterity during one’s lifetime. Ira Nadel, an unauthorized biographer who was denied permission to quote from Roth’s work because of Roth’s umbrage over a few lines in an earlier critical volume, nevertheless published his own biography, Philip Roth: A Counterlife, in March, beating Bailey to the punch by a month (or by three months, depending on how you look at it). And in September, Berlinerblau is set to publish his own work, The Philip Roth We Don’t Know: Sex, Race and Autobiography, with the University of Virginia Press. Disillusionment with the lauded American author’s blatant careerism notwithstanding, it would appear that interest in Roth’s life and works is not at risk of abating any time soon. Whether Roth would approve of the ongoing attention is very much open to debate.

The ghostwriter: Philip Roth was a master in the attempted manipulation of his own image, both during his life and after his death
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