On the Roth debacle

So it looks like Roth’s estate is intent on destroying his personal papers — which would preclude future scholars using anything but dirtbag Bailey’s book as a source for them (he had full access). It’s an interesting conundrum — how much control should a public person have over their legacy after they’re gone? I remember years ago seeing Fred Astaire and Elvis dancing in commercials and thinking…. ew. As far as I’m concerned, we should follow whatever the person outlined in their will. Burn it all? Fine. Release it later? Okay. But having others make decisions for you based on their financial advantages around your reputation? Ew. (Bonus: here’s Salman Rushdie postulating that this whole business implies that people today wouldn’t have stood up for him like they did back then when he was a target. Dude, you’re too smart to not see the differences here, aren’t you?)

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.

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