The reputation game: how authors try to control their image from beyond the grave

Writers and critics are raising questions over the role that agents and estates play in managing archives and limiting access to biographical material.

Fresh worries have been fuelled by the continuing fiasco over the publication of Philip Roth: The Biography, with accusations that access to the famed US author’s archival material is being unfairly constrained.

A month ago, the book was destined to be the literary biography of the year – a “narrative masterwork”, according to the New York Times. Then, the book’s US publisher, WW Norton, “paused” distribution after Roth’s hand-picked biographer, Blake Bailey, who has denied any wrongdoing, was accused of sexual misconduct. Last week it withdrew the book entirely, and it was subsequently picked up by Skyhorse.

Roth’s literary agent, Andrew Wylie of the Wylie Agency, and Julia Golier, a lover of Roth and later a close friend, are interpreted to be under Roth’s direction to destroy archival material after it was seen by Bailey. Princeton University’s library gave Bailey access to material that is not currently available. A university spokesperson said the library was in “ongoing discussions with Roth representatives 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 largest and best-funded literary archives, says that agents are taking a more assertive role in authors’ estates and archives, which does not necessarily comport with an archivist’s code of ethics.

A cover image released by WW Norton shows ‘Philip Roth: The Biography’ by Blake Bailey. The book was pulled and now has a new publisher, Skyhorse.
A cover image released by WW Norton shows ‘Philip Roth: The Biography’ by Blake Bailey. The book was pulled and now has a new publisher, Skyhorse. Photograph: AP

“You’ve got agents like Andrew Wylie who increasingly represent authors in the sale of their archives. Their role in trying to broker ever higher deals has been a destructive thing within the circulation and preservation of archives,” Enniss says.

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

Last week, the Philip Roth Society issued a statement saying that “limiting access to one biographer run counter to conventions of academic inquiry”.

Society member Jacques Berlinerblau, author of the forthcoming unauthorised The Philip Roth We Don’t Know: Sex, Race, and Autobiography, told the Observer: “Darkness is never the proper condition for scholarly work, and in this case the glance has been cast back to the interpreter.

“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.”

Enniss points out that special access comes with its own challenges to integrity. “It always has that double edge to it: the biographer benefits from that access but there’s potentially something damaging in that access in terms of spoken or unspoken understanding about what’s fair to be addressed.”

Critic and author Francine Prose says we might also be better off acknowledging the origins of Roth’s autofiction. “It’s a complicated situation that got oversimplified in crass and vulgar ways by the unfolding story,” Prose told the Observer.

“Do we pretend these attitudes don’t exist or give Roth credit for reporting on it in such a meticulous and painfully honest way? But to find a biographer to say this is really OK is to shut off that whole conversation.”

While Roth may have had reason to want to control the narrative of his life from beyond the grave, his efforts are hardly unique.

“It’s not difficult for an author to ensure contentious material isn’t 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 diaries.

“If you’re interested in your posthumous reputation then you can curate it. But it’s a highly complex, compromised exercise and unless it’s designed to protect the living, it tends to be counter-productive,” Boyd says.

John le Carré, VS Naipaul, Graham Greene and Muriel Spark each commissioned biographies in their lifetimes with mixed results. Boyd points out that Patrick French’s biography of Naipaul revealed “what a devastatingly unpleasant person 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’d think, why commission it if you’re going to be upset by what it says? It’s a highly complex, compromised exercise,” Boyd points out. “Le Carré and Spark employed dull academics who’d write something very boring to keep everybody else away.”

For his part, Boyd says he’s not so interested in his posthumous reputation. “I believe the Stoics who said posterity is not our business. While I’m alive, of course, I am. When I’ve fallen off the perch it won’t matter.”

But a subject’s efforts – and by extension his or her representatives and heirs – to try to guide the writer’s hand, at least from this side of the grave, is 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 area of family biography, there’s always somebody complaining about it, somebody withholding letters and so on,” says Fox. “Everybody feels they possess this character and they don’t want anyone else giving their own version of it because then they feel abandoned and don’t feel special.”

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 he expected in death, as in life, to exert narrative control.

“In old age Roth became monstrous with his own sense of grandeur. He’d always been a tremendous control-freak, and it’s one of the fallacies that crops up in the world of books that writers think they can control their literary afterlives, which of course they can’t.”