And Roth, for his part, put it like this: “Solving the problem of the book you’re writing always remains hard work, and your progress is snail-like. Even if you write a book in two years, sometimes you get a page a day, sometimes you get no pages … every sentence raises a problem, and essentially what you’re doing is connecting one sentence to the next.”
The writers, in these assessments, are asking to be humanized. They are pushing back against a system of commodified reverence. They are suggesting that even literary lions, as Kirsch argued, deserve the dignity of being doubted. There are, after all, so many lingering questions about Roth’s work: questions about misogyny, about anti-Semitism, about entitlement, about objectification, about the hazy lines between fact and fiction. How should critics assess a body of work that spanned so many decades, and so many ideas? What to make of insights that tangle philosophy and fantasy and repurposed baseball gloves? The artist and the art, the good and the bad, the human and the stain: These are live, and live-wire, matters, with implications far beyond Roth himself. And yet the obituary impulse is to simplify, to allow Roth to double—not on his own behalf, but on ours—as his own work of magical realism: both of his time and beyond it. Both of us, and better than us. “The book is fundamentally defensive,” Nathan Zuckerman notes, in The Facts. “Just as having this letter at the end is a self-defensive trick to have it both ways.”
We ask so much—too much—of genius. Genius is not merely a condition, the thing that happens when soft bodies collide with a hard world at just the right angle; it is also a kind of hope. It is a kind of faith—in greatness, in heroes, in the notion that heaven can be, despite all evidence to the contrary, a place on Earth. The joke of the “great American novel” is that it can never be written; if it were, we’d have nothing left to strive for.
In American literature, though—“American Letters,” as the sweeping idea goes—genius is increasingly untenable. It is both too narrow, reserved as it has been almost wholly for white men like Philip Roth, and too broad. It is collapsing under the weight of its own obligations. It is falling victim, finally, to the forces of gravity. Jonathan Franzen is telling jokes on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. Margaret Atwood is saying something weird in The Globe and Mail. Joan Didion is a brand ambassador. Authors’ words are disentangled from their narrative contexts in the form of Goodreads quotes and email signatures and mugs ordered on Zazzle.com. The people who decide literature’s Nobel prizes recently revealed themselves to be that most reliably disappointing of things: human. All your faves are problematic.
That is, in part, what is being mourned today, in the mourning of Philip Roth: not just the great author, the towering genius, but also the notion that anyone can be, anymore, a towering genius. Roth represents the promise of distant gods; his death suggests its demise. In place of the old system will be something much better—more expansive, more inclusive, more reflective of the American identity—but something, at the same time, much less woozily romantic. The center cannot hold. And so we will adapt, as we always do, embracing a more realistic, and more permissive, view of what literature really is: literature as lyric, literature as the furtive movement on the flickering screen, literature as the soft vibrations of the human voice. Bob Dylan won the Nobel, when Philip Roth did not. Artists who tread in their paths will find new ways to merge philosophy and fantasy. Writers will find new words to explain us to ourselves. New geniuses will be anointed. But they will talk with us, not to us. They will be of us, not above us. The last of the lions are leaving.