"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
For a man who dislikes interviews — he has called them “a form to be
loathed; a half-form like maggots” — John Updike is an agile and adept
interview subject. In conversation he seems to shed, as the critic James
Wolcott has put it, “bright amounts of angel fluff” about almost any topic at
hand. At age 64, there is indeed something snow-capped and oddly angelic
about Updike; he seems to hover over the contemporary literary scene like
an apparition from another era, the last great American man of letters.
On a recent Friday in New York, a snowy and harried day that would
find him shuffling from “Good Morning America” to “Charlie Rose” to a
marathon telephone conference with 20 journalists, Updike took an hour
to talk to SALON about his new novel “In the Beauty of the Lilies” — a
vigorous and expansive book that tracks four generations in a single
American family — as well as a career that has spanned some 40 books,
including 17 novels and numerous collections of short stories,
poems, and criticism. He also spoke on a variety of other topics, including
the American cinema and its discontents (Quentin Tarantino, “Leaving Las
Vegas”), the current state of The New Yorker as witnessed in its fiction
(“They kind of go for more pow, more zap”), Bill Clinton’s sexual and political conundrums, and his rather
autumnal feelings about the decline and fall of the American reader.
In your new novel, “In the Beauty of the Lilies,” both religion and
the movies figure very prominently in the lives of many of the characters,
and there’s a sense that film has somehow replaced religion as the place
people look to for clues about how to live. How true is this?
It was true of my generation, that the movies were terribly vivid
and instructive. There were all kinds of things you learned. Like the
19th century novels, you saw how other social classes lived –
especially the upper classes. So in a funny way, they taught you manners
almost. But also moral manners. The gallantry of a Gary Cooper or an Errol
Flynn or Jimmy Stewart. It was ethical instruction of a sort that the
church purported to be giving you, but in a much less digestible form.
Instead of these remote, crabbed biblical verses, you had contemporary
people acting out moral dilemmas. Just the grace, the grace of those stars
– not just the dancing stars, but the way they all moved with a certain
grace. All that sank deep into my head, and my soul.
I think the movies have come to mean
something else. There was much that was crass and harsh about the studio
world; it was another kind of sweatshop, after all. And yet they kind of
knew what they were doing, they kind of knew their audience. Once
television began to steal away that middle-class audience, the movies
seemed to get frantic: “What can we do that the TV can’t?” And so
you’ve got spectacle on the one hand, and a constant pushing of the sexual
envelope on the other. And a feeling of trying too hard entered into the
movies, for me, somewhere around 1957 or so. I go to movies still. My wife,
as it happens, is even more of a movie addict than I. But you don’t see
many that give you the sense of a really coherent moral world. The old
films sort of hung together as sermons (laughs).
There’s a place in the new book where you say, “Movies took you
right up to the edge but kept you safe.” Is that still true?
No, they don’t keep you so safe anymore. I just saw a picture
called “Leaving Las Vegas” in which very little mitigation is offered. A
guy just resolves to drink himself to death, and slowly does. And he rather
unaccountably attracts the attention of a very pretty Las Vegas hooker who
decides she loves him and … I don’t know. It’s a story without any turn
in it. There’s no point as to any real resistance. An old-fashioned
Hollywood movie would have taken that guy, and at least at one point he
would have looked at the girl and said, “Why am I doing this? Why am I
destroying myself? I’m unfair to you, let alone myself.” He might have
failed in the end.
I forget how “The Lost Weekend” worked out, actually. But that was
another story of alcoholism, in which you felt a struggle. There’s no
struggle here. No struggle. In the end, the movie felt to me a little flat,
and French. It was rubbing our noses somehow. Rubbing our noses in
something, rather than offering us a way out. In the old movies, yes, there
always was the happy ending and order was restored. As it is in
Shakespeare’s plays. It’s no disgrace to, in the end, restore order. And
punish the wicked and, in some way, reward the righteous.
Are there any younger filmmakers whom you do admire? What do you
think of Quentin Tarantino, for example?
“Pulp Fiction” was in a way a very arresting film. I thought it was
too long, and it catered to the worst in us, in a funny way. Yet it was
original. But it’s not like I would keep rushing out to see the new
Tarantino, in the way I do still rush to see the new Woody Allen. Woody
Allen, I guess, cannot qualify as the new generation of anything. But he is
for me the only American, like Bergman and Fellini and Antonioni, who can
be said to be making a personal statement. His movies are like a novelist’s
novels. They are variations of a single vision, and they have a kind of
personal element. They’re not all good. In fact, Woody Allen has his
limits. If you read him as a writer, you see that he has his limits. On the
other hand, as a filmmaker you feel there’s a more direct connection. There
are not a lot of bankers and agents and advisors in (his) way. I guess that’s
what I don’t like about the movies. That being group art, you tend to get
kind of committee-think operating. But it’s not like I’m a guy who spends a
week out at the Sundance Festival, either.
Speaking of different sensibilities, at the end of your new novel
you acknowledge many sources that were helpful in writing the book,
including many histories and books about film. You also thank Brett Easton
Ellis’s novel “Less Than Zero.” And I guess I’m curious to know what you
looked for, or found, in that book.
I know it was sort of impish, really, since that’s the only novel I
thank. But I needed to know a little more about the sort of burnt-out
generation of Hollywood-Los Angeles kids, and that was the first text that
occurred to me. There may be other novels. But at least I got the names out
of that — the restaurants and places these kids might go. And it was about
right for the age of my character Clark; the ’70s and ’80s were when he was
bumming around. So I read it. Actually when I got into the book, it’s
basically about the hero going to an Eastern college. What was useful to me
were only the restaurants and some Los Angeles geography. And some sense of
how these kids spend their day.
How did the book hold up as literature?
Frankly, it’s not a great book. And kind of theatrical in a funny
way. A little like “Leaving Las Vegas,” it was saying: “Hey, this is
really ultimate cool, isn’t it? To get wasted and stay wasted.” Nevertheless
he’s not a hack, and he did write out of a kind of vision. It’s a very
young man’s book — kind of a “Catcher in the Rye,” or something, for his
generation. I read it with respect, but I really treated it as a manual on
yesterday’s zonked, stoned youth.
Ellis aside, are there writers of his generation whose work you
I don’t doubt they exist. My reading tends to be either still trying to
master the classics, or reading a certain number of books to review. And
I’m given an increasingly eclectic bunch of titles to review these days.
Deborah Eisenberg struck me as a writer with really something new to say
about female experience. It may be generation specific, and her
generation isn’t generation X. I think she’s in her younger 40s, so
that’s my idea of a younger writer who’s gifted. Another writer is Thom
Jones, who writes about violence and being crazy and yet does so in a
persuasive and brightly colored way. It’s not a pleasant universe, exactly,
but it is a universe. They’ve both been published in The New Yorker; I fear
that remains my main source text for what’s going on in young writing.
They’re looking for young writing.
Has The New Yorker changed much under TIna Brown, in terms of
the kind of fiction it is looking for?
Quite a lot. And I’d have to be an editor myself to know in exactly
what way. But in terms of what they publish … There was a kind of story
of sensibility — Elizabeth Tallent, Anne Beattie — that I don’t think
they have much use for now. They kind of go for more pow, more zap. The
limits are off as far as words you can use and experiences you can
describe. I mean, somebody’s homosexual initiation was in an issue a while
ago. No doubt there have been some rapes. Really they’re expanding.
When I think of the old New Yorker … not only could you not use the Anglo-Saxon
word for, but you couldn’t use even the medical term for, penis. It was a
word that just wouldn’t appear in The New Yorker because they didn’t want
to think about it. They’d rather edit it out of the universe.
I think they
are also looking for stories that are in some way arresting. Just as their
nonfiction tends to be arresting. I mean, stories about the guys in porno
movies, for example. All kinds of sensational or startling … So I think
it’s changed. They’re certainly looking for young writers who can speak to
today’s youth. The few people like me plug away. But basically it’s more
highly colored, and very legitimately they’re looking for stories that
reflect how people live now, how people feel now.
Do you share the current pessimism about the state of American
publishing? That there are fewer readers of literary fiction, and that
young writers who aren’t immediately successful have a difficult time
getting their second and third books published?
I think that’s correct. Again I have very little knowledge, just a
sense of it. I think that the kind of readers that would make it worthwhile
to print a literary writer are dwindling. People seem to read more purely
for escape than when I was younger. You look at the books that people are
reading on an airplane, and you never see a book that you would want to
read. It’s always these fat thrillers by John Grisham or Stephen King or
names I can’t even conjure up. Danielle Steele. It’s discouraging, really,
if you’re a so-called literary writer. Not that Stephen King is in another
part of the universe — it’s the same universe, it’s just kind of a
different corner of it. There are some (serious readers), heaven knows, and
the book critics tend to be of this sort. So you find book reviewers living
in another world from the bestseller list. That can’t be too healthy. When
a literary book does get on the bestseller list it’s usually because it’s
sensational in some way, like “Lolita” or “Portnoy’s Complaint.”
In other words, there’s a greater gap between what we think of as
literary fiction and what people are actually reading.
When I was a boy, the bestselling books were often the books that
were on your piano teacher’s shelf. I mean, Steinbeck, Hemingway, some
Faulkner. Faulkner actually had, considering how hard he is to read and how
drastic the experiments are, quite a middle-class readership. But certainly
someone like Steinbeck was a bestseller as well as a Nobel Prize-winning
author of high intent. You don’t feel that now. I don’t feel that we have
the merger of serious and pop — it’s gone, dissolving. Tastes have
coarsened. People read less, they’re less comfortable with the written
word. They’re less comfortable with novels. They don’t have a backward
frame of reference that would enable them to appreciate things like irony
and allusions. It’s sad. It’s momentarily uphill, I would say.
And who’s to blame? Well, everything’s to blame. Movies are to blame,
for stealing a lot of the novel’s thunder. Why read a novel when in two
hours you can just go passively sit and be dazzled and amazed and
terrified? Television is to blame, especially because it’s come into the
home. It’s brought the fascination of the flickering image right into the
house; like turning on a faucet, you can have it whenever you want. I was a
movie addict, but you could only see so many movies in the course of a
week. I still had a lot of time to read, and so did other people. But I
think television would take all your day if you let it. Now we have these
cultural developments on the Internet, and online, and the computer
offering itself as a cultural tool, as a tool of distributing not just
information but arts — and who knows what inroads will be made there into
the world of the book.
This all sounds very gloomy, and you may ask: Why is
this man smiling? Well, I love writing and I’m getting toward the end of my
writing career. I’m grateful, really, that I’m not trying to begin now. It
will be done: there will be writers, there will be readers. But for the
moment you can’t say the world of print is hot, where it’s at. It’s a kind
of pleasant backwater in a way.
How do you think your generation of writers will be assessed? Are
you sometimes surprised at the books that have, or haven’t, held up?
Of course, it’s changing. An author that’s in now might be out in
ten years. And vice-versa. Who knows when the final sifting is done, in the
year 2050, say, who will be read of my generation? You’d like to think you
will be one. But there has to be a constant weeding that goes on. The
Victorians read all kinds of writers who we don’t have time for now. Who
reads Thackeray? An educated person reads Dickens, or reads some Dickens.
But Thackeray? There’s a constant elimination and revision of my
generation, and maybe the generation ahead, what you might call the
post-war writers. I would think that Bellow, if anybody, would be there,
because there’s really a wonderful gift. And I think some of Phillip Roth,
I don’t know quite what. “Portnoy”? I don’t know. Donald Barthelme? Is he
read now, by people of your age?
Not widely, no.
He’s become a curiosity. John Barth?
He seems tangential as well. His kind of intellectual
fripperies don’t seem to be for everyone.
He’s very special, yes. I would repeat that Bellow has always
seemed to me — I’ve reviewed all of his books, and not all of them
favorably — but I think that the basic prose, and the basic sense of life, is
tremendous. Bernard Malamud is an author who maybe isn’t mentioned every
breath now, but who I think in “The Assistant” wrote a wonderful book, a
book better, to my mind, than “The Great Gatsby,” and about that length.
I’m trying to think of the women … Mary McCarthy’s short stories. Well,
she’s not exactly of this generation. Very hard to say. In general, I think
the movements which gave critics something to sink their teeth in, the
so-called Imperial Fiction, you know, when everyone was writing 800-page
novels, I think those will hold up less well, oddly enough, than those that
were harder to label. It may be because I was that kind of writer, so maybe
I want to believe that. There are fads in critical fashion, but
a writer at his peril strays too far from realism. Especially in this
country, where realism is kind of our thing. Writing that gives you the
real texture of how things look and how people acted. At least there’s
something there beyond your self and your own wits to cling to, a certain
selflessness amid the terrible egoism of a writer.
You’re one of the very few among your generation to produce a large,
significant body of criticism. Has this helped you as a novelist? Or are
they ultimately separate spheres?
No, I like to think that’s it’s helped me, actually. At times it’s
been a distraction. How many short stories would I have written with the
energy with which I wrote those reviews? Some, probably. But on the other
hand it has varied my own reading, and has compelled me to do a little
thinking. I’ve tried to use the critic’s robes as an excuse to get
acquainted with my national classics — I’ve kind of worked up Melville,
and Hawthorne, and Whitman as a critic. So in that
way it’s been self-educational. I’ve also used it as a way of reading what
the Europeans and Latin Americans are doing. So I’ve tried to temper or
flavor my own Americanness with some sense of world literature. And I think
I’ve become a more versatile writer because of that. These writers who do
nothing but think American — in this global age, it becomes a very narrow
I couldn’t have written “In the Beauty of the Lilies,” probably, had I
not done an awful lot of critical stuff. Because in a way, it’s a thesis
novel that involved a certain amount of research. So I’d like to think that’s it’s made me a little more
confident as an intellectual, and a little more experimental.
Do you still read your own critics, and find that your responses to
them have changed over time?
(Laughs) I don’t make a fetish of reading the reviews. But I am
sent them and find it a little beyond my limits of austerity not to read
them. And some of them are troubling. Some of them make good and no doubt
valid negative points. This book has gotten some very strong reviews, and
some ho-hum reviews. It’s mixed. But in general I can’t complain about the
critical reception of this book. It doesn’t really, in the end, help much.
The way I handle a bad review, or even a good one, is to file it. I have
files for all the books. And I find that once I tear it out and put it in
the file it in some way takes the sting out.
You can’t really write to please critics, because you’re not going to please them, probably, even if you
try to write for them. For example, I was enough aware of feminist
criticisms that my novels always had these same male, sexist, lusty heroes that I did
try to write a book involving women as heroes, “The Witches of Eastwick.”
But I’m not aware of any feminist celebration of this novel. On the
contrary, they didn’t like that either.
I remember, when I was in college, that you certainly weren’t the
most politically correct novelist to be reading. Does that rankle you at
Luckily I don’t teach at a
college, and when I go to a college I’m very hospitably treated. So I’ve
been sheltered from that. I am a white male born at a certain time,
probably with some of the sexist baggage of men of my age and vocation. But
I can’t believe that I’m misogynist. Rather the contrary. Bright, clever,
good women have played a major part in my life, and in my way I’ve tried to
be sympathetic and depict the plight of women in our society. Our society
is still, at bottom, patriarchicial. But maybe they are right. Why do I
keep writing about these phallocentric guys like Rabbit Angstrom? I’ve
written a couple of books involving women, and really the hero of “Lilies”
is female. She’s the one who really reverses the family’s destinies and
gets to the stars, or as close as you can get to the stars in this life.
One more question about critics: What was it like being the subject
of one of the strangest appraisals of a writer that I’ve ever read
– Nicholson Baker’s “U & I”? Do you remember first picking it up?
(Laughs) I was sent a photocopy of the manuscript. Random House
sent it to me, I think, to see if I was going to raise a fuss. But I was
trying to be a writer at the time; I glanced at it and thought it would
merely distract me. And when I sat down and read the book, of course it’s a
very friendly and amusing book, I thought. And it’s not exactly about me.
He talks about all the books of mine he hasn’t read, and explains why. It’s
a good long essay on how younger writers use older ones. You use what you
want, and you very selectively take what you need. It actually has enhanced
my reputation — it has done me a favor, that book, because it’s a book
like few others. It’s an act of homage, isn’t it? And he’s a good writer,
and he brings to that book all of his curious precision, the strange
I like him. I think he’s an example of a younger
writer with a real gift and vocation. And he does have a public. I believe
there are people out there who buy Baker’s books — the nerds of the world buy
Baker (laughs). But again, you feel sort of sorry for him, because the real
climate of book publishing would seem to tolerate a few Bakers but not
really to encourage them. It’s an act of character for him to remain true
to himself. He has a book of essays coming out, actually, in which he’s
followed his own pedantic tendencies to an extreme. It’s an amusing,
very entertaining book.
He’s become a writer, as well, who has his female critics. I know
many women who were furious after reading “The Fermata.”
It was pretty fierce — fiercer than anything you’ll find in any of
my fictions. Some of those sex scenes (laughs)… wiping your sperm out of a
woman’s eyelashes is kind of … new. But what can you do? In a way you’re
stuck in your own gender, and you have to sing your own song in the end.
And you can’t be too worried about the essentially political reactions.
He’s a very gentle and courteous guy who probably keeps these impulses for
the written page. So women should be grateful for that — that he’s not out
there raping and pillaging (laughs).
You write in the introduction to the new Everyman’s Library edition
of the Rabbit books that Rabbit Angstrom was your “ticket to America,” a
way of seeing the country through different eyes. Watching the Republican
primaries now, do you ever wish you could climb into his head once again and
talk about what is going on?
know how Harry Angstrom would react, what he would make of this present shift to the
right. He did kind of like Reagan. He tends to like all presidents, I
He’s patriotic, right, and he will stick with the president. For
myself, I must say, I don’t much like it. I find it creepy and un-American,
what’s happening, as far as I can tell. This kind of politics of resentment.
Final question: Many of your books deal, at least glancingly, with
cultural overload — the sense that we’re bombarded with so much
information now, it’s hard to know what’s important and what isn’t. I think
there’s a line in your new book where you say, “Information will break your
heart in the end.” To extend that to the presidency, I wonder if you’re
interested, as someone who has written so much about adultery, in what’s
happening to Bill Clinton — having a sitting president accused of
adultery. Do we know too much about our leaders now?
It doesn’t trouble me in the slightest. I don’t doubt that he
behaved like what they call an Alpha Male at a certain phase of his life.
He is after all, of that generation, which embraced promiscuity as a kind
of salvation. If Hillary can put up with it, I can. I’d be very surprised
if his conduct now were anything but exemplary. I don’t feel that, unlike
Jack Kennedy, he’s doing anything other than working hard at being a good
president. And I think we just have to forgive him whatever … That even
I think he is being pursued by this one case. (Paula Jones) is being financed by
anti-Clinton interests and, to me, all my indignation is basically against
all the people that won’t let the guy alone and be president. He won it
fair and square, he’s shown a good deal of ability to be president, and
it’s a sad world when we’re so happy to harass a public servant like that.
Unlike a lot of people, I have no negative (feelings about Clinton).
Clinton seems to rub people the wrong way. And I don’t quite know why. I
can’t totally empathize with anyone who wants to be president. It seems to
me a terrible, thankless job. And to get there is horrendous. We’ve made it
horrendous. But he seems to want to be president, so I say, good for him.
Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.More Dwight Garner.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)