Philip Roth, who died Tuesday night at the age of 85, was at the center of American literature for almost 60 years—a quarter of his country’s history. It has been six years since Roth announced his retirement from writing, and there were surely no more books to come; so why does his death feel so much like a loss, as if readers had been deprived of something? Perhaps it is because Roth was the last of the larger-than-life novelists of the mid-20th century, a reminder of a time when literary excellence and bestsellerdom and celebrity could all go together in one electric package. We still have writers as talented and accomplished as Roth, but no one seems so grand. In mourning him, we are also mourning the fact that literature itself doesn’t matter as much as it once did: It’s hard to imagine any novel, no matter how daring, having the same kind of cultural impact today that Portnoy’s Complaint had in 1969.
Of course, it was the intense personality of Roth’s work that made many readers find him suffocating or toxic. Vivian Gornick was the first to attack his misogyny; David Foster Wallace saw him as an egotistical dinosaur, part of an obsolete pack that included Saul Bellow and John Updike. They weren’t wrong, exactly; it is true that to read Philip Roth was always, at some level, to read about Philip Roth. Whether the character he was writing about bore his own name or those of his alter egos—Nathan Zuckerman, David Kepesh—Roth’s heroes were always his surrogates. They were aggressive, lustful men, who became hyperarticulate as they boiled over. He did not go in for Tolstoyan impersonality or Jamesian nuance; there are many novelistic registers he didn’t touch. But limits are not flaws; they are the contours by which we can recognize a particular writer’s genius.