Stanford professor Steven Zipperstein (left) is working on a biography of Philip Roth (right).
Stanford professor Steven Zipperstein (left) is working on a biography of Philip Roth (right).

‘It deserves to exist’: Stanford prof who knew Philip Roth weighs in on biography controversy

Books coverage is supported by a generous grant from The Milton and Sophie Meyer Fund.

A Stanford University history professor and author of a biography-in-progress of Philip Roth weighed in on the controversy surrounding another biography on the venerated Jewish American novelist that was recently published — and then unpublished, and now soon-to-be-published-again.

“It deserves to exist,” Steven J. Zipperstein said of “Philip Roth: The Biography” by Blake Bailey during a June 2 online panel discussion about Roth’s legacy. “It’s undeniable that it’s a work of assiduous research, and it’s very difficult to compile the kind of data that Bailey compiled.”

A 912-page tome chronicling Roth’s literary career, along with his salacious personal life, “Philip Roth” received mostly positive reviews and appeared on several bestseller lists after its release on April 6.

But the book’s publisher, W. W. Norton, took the extraordinary step of withdrawing it from print at the end of April after three women accused Bailey of sexual assault, including two former students of his at a New Orleans middle school, and other former students said he groomed them for future sexual encounters. He has denied the accusations.

Zipperstein, who has previously worked with W. W. Norton, said, “I have no inside information as to why Norton did what they did, but I think it’s unfortunate. I’ve never seen anything comparable in American publishing.”

Speaking with J. the day after the panel, Zipperstein expanded on those remarks, saying that despite the disturbing allegations against Bailey, his authorized Roth biography is “a serious book” that “deserves to be published by a first-rate press.”

Skyhorse Publishing, which Zipperstein dismissed as “a sub-standard publisher well known for conspiracy books,” acquired Bailey’s book after Norton dropped it and will publish a paperback edition on June 15. Skyhorse has published works in recent years by controversial figures such as Woody Allen, Roger Stone, Alan Dershowitz and Michael Cohen.

During the “Philip Roth Reconsidered” online event, which was hosted by Stanford’s Taube Center for Jewish Studies, Zipperstein dropped hints about his own Roth book project. He began work on a biography for Yale University Press’ Jewish Lives series around 2016. At one point, Roth asked Bailey if he could share with Zipperstein all of the documentation that he had already provided to Bailey for his book. According to Zipperstein, Bailey balked at the idea and reminded Roth that they had an exclusivity agreement.

However, Roth did assist Zipperstein in other ways. “Philip put me in touch with many of the people he knew well and made it clear that they could speak openly with me,” he said.

Zipperstein first connected with Roth when he came to Stanford on a book tour in the early 1990s, and they spoke many times over the years. Zipperstein had planned to spend part of the 2018-19 academic year on sabbatical in New York interviewing Roth, but he died in May 2018 before the sabbatical began.

The author of several books, including “Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History” in 2018, Zipperstein said he has long planned for his as-yet untitled biography to be published about two years after Bailey’s.

“It seemed clear to me that he had greater access into the weeds than I did, and I didn’t want to start writing in earnest until I was able to check details in his book,” he said.

One of his major criticisms of “Philip Roth: The Biography” is that it does not contain the deep literary analysis that one expects in a literary biography.

“The core of a writer’s life is what he or she does sitting or, in Roth’s case, standing at their desk,” Zipperstein said, adding that he is interested in exploring in his book why Roth was able to command so much “cultural space” during his career. (He declined to say to what extent he will grapple with Roth’s perceived misogyny.)

What was Roth like in person? “He was an extraordinary listener,” Zipperstein said. “It’s unclear whether his capacity to listen was connected with a capacity to care. I think at times it was, at times it wasn’t, but I rarely sat with someone who listened as carefully as he did.”

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv.