The Day the Genius Died

To mourn Philip Roth is also to mourn a particular kind of literary celebrity.

Philip Roth
Pascal Parrot / Sygma / Sygma / Getty

If you Google the phrase literary lion, here is one of the first definitions that will be returned to you for the effort: “Noun: a noted author who has reached celebrity status.” And, then: “Examples: Philip Roth is a literary lion.”

With that, once again, cuts to the chase. Literary lion is, fittingly, being used a lot today, along with “towering” and “preeminent” and “incomparable,” as the world comes to terms with the melancholy fact that Philip Roth is no longer in it. The obituaries’ soaring language is often accompanied, as per the mandates of internet protocol, by searing URLs—“philip-roth-dead,” The New York Times reports of the novelist who, elsewhere in its assessment, has been “borne aloft by an extraordinary second wind”—and there is a certain aptness to the collision: Philip Roth, literary lion, had little patience for lionizing. Embracing that quintessential writerly mandate, “Write what you know,” he wrote about Newark. He wrote about glove factories. He wrote about fathers. He wrote about sons. He wrote about Jewishness, and lust, and one very unfortunate piece of organ meat. He wrote about America. And he wrote about the body—specifically, through the translucent veneer of fiction, his own: its appetites, its indignities, its absurdities, its inevitabilities.

The body of Roth’s work is similarly somatic, impatient with idealism and clear-eyed about what it means to move through the world in a fickle vehicle of flesh and bone. Even when a Rothian narrator morphs into a 155-pound female breast, Franz Kafka merging with Hugh Hefner, there is very little magic, of realism or any other strain, to be found in the proceedings. There is, instead, as in most of Roth’s work, a pervasive ennui. A wry wit. Philip’s Complaint. “All that we don’t know is astonishing,” Roth writes in The Human Stain. “Even more astonishing is what passes for knowing.”

And so the novelist who loved playing with doubleness—his semi-memoir, teasingly titled The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography, found the author engaged in a dialogue with his fictional counterpart, Nathan Zuckerman—is celebrated, today, through obituaries that traffic in their own small ironies. The assessments want him, in some ways, both ways: Roth, the artist, transcendent and wise … and Roth, too, the person—male, white, Jewish, American. Human, fragile, weary, relatable. The bard of the body.

Roth the god vs. Roth the dude, Roth the man vs. Roth the Everyman: Humming in the lower registers of the obits for him, lurking just at the edges, is a mourning not just for Roth, but also for the notion of literary greatness itself. For the notion that heroes, in this sad and messy world, can walk among us, still. “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?” my colleague Adam Kirsch asked. “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.”

That package has often been sold under a single, generic brand: genius. Writers at Roth’s level—level, definitely, because there is a cultural capitalism at play in our assessments of literary greatness—have tended to be treated not merely as entertainers or artists or celebrities, but also as fonts of wisdom. They are spoken of in hushed and reverent tones. They are shrouded in the glistening fog of the literary romantic. Their words double as incantations. The writers themselves, sure, may be engaged in the same rough work as genre writers and screenwriters and comic-book writers and other workers whose lot in life is to do battle with the blank screen; writers of literary fiction, though, we have decided—or, more specifically, we have taken for granted—represent their own kind of genre. They are the writers we talk about when we talk about American Letters. They are the ones we think of when we think of “the canon.” Literature, the logic has gone for so long, exists on a different plane than other forms of make-believe. And, so, the people who produce it exist on another plane, as well.

It is an approach that many of today’s novelists, caught as they are within the inertias of highbrow assumptions, often attempt to correct. Writing, after all—any writer will tell you—is pretty much the least romantic activity imaginable. Nicholson Baker wrote parts of House of Holes from a booth in a Friendly’s. Kazuo Ishiguro wrote The Remains of the Day in a state of self-imposed isolation, working every day from 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., pausing only for meals. Toni Morrison has compared the quiet alchemies of the writing process to the labors of the scientific laboratory, with its experiments and tools and rats: “If you think of [writing] simply as information, you can get closer to success.”

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 muchof 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 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.