"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)
Once upon a time — about a century ago — something happened in the world of books that, for a while, boded no ill. H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, P.G. Wodehouse and Edgar Rice Burroughs consciously invented (along with a lot of other writers like Robert Louis Stevenson or Bram Stoker who didn’t have a clue) the kind of story we now think of when we think of popular genres: detective stories, science fiction, horror, superman adventures, etc. These writers, responding to insatiable demands for copy from the sharp editors who ran up-and-coming new magazines, created stories that could be repeated: Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan are nothing if they don’t happen again and again. They created markets, and they created, only half unwittingly, the monster of the Demand for the Same.
In doing so, Wells and Doyle and their colleagues laid the foundations for the world of literature we live in now. In 1999, most of what most of us read is genre. Sometimes this is obvious — science fiction, which is what I’m most concerned about, has for many decades now been stigmatized as a genre literature that adults needn’t bother with. Sometimes the formula is not so obvious. Novels written by university professors and set in the groves of academe are far more rigidly predictable than anything but the most routine science fiction novel, but they have escaped the stigma of being labeled as genre. They can be read in public by adults, not because they are particularly worth being read in public by adults, but because they carry no mark of Cain.
Other genres include the bestseller genre, the disaster genre, the roman ` clef that fails to conceal the identity of a very recent American president genre, the shopping and fucking genre, the sexually obsessed Christian male in New England midlife crisis genre, the Hollywood satire genre, the European experimental novel with unusual sex on Page 74 genre, and so on.
What these genres all share is that they exist and also that they do not exist. The reason for this ontological contradiction is that the main beneficiaries of the trend toward genre in 1999 are not the writers who are forced to pretend to write within some cookie-cutter restraint nor the readers who devour the stale because they do not know how to identify the new; the beneficiaries are publishers and retailers. They find it easier to market for strict continuity than to play the heartrendingly difficult game of coping with something that has not been done before. Their enthusiasm for the new is therefore limited.
So genres do exist because frequent users of any large bookstore can instantly tell what any piece of fiction is supposed to be about by its title, its cover and its location in the shop. But genres also do not exist, in the sense that same frequent shoppers, if they are wise, know that miracles lurk beneath the contemptible covers retailers demand. They sneak peaks inside. They even, occasionally, buy a book against the grain of their generic predilection (as determined by survey) simply because the book looked interesting.
But why is this sly, salutary, worldly knowledge about the difference between a book and its cover so rarely applied to science fiction? It’s certainly not the case with some other genres. A detective writer like P.D. James or Patricia Cornwell, a Cold War spy novelist like John Le Carre — these can slide up-market with ease and, without losing the allure of their genre underpinning, appeal to an audience that does not believe it dabbles in kid’s stuff.
A writer like P.D. James may even stumble into the composition of an SF novel. But when Baroness James did publish hers — it is called “The Children of Men” (1992) — she made very clear in various public statements that she had not written a science fiction novel at all. No, her tale was not full of futuristic gadgets; her tale was about real men and women in the real world. That her setting is 30 years hence, and that her story involves the highly science-fictional discovery that the human race has become sterile, these facts count for nothing against her horror (and presumably her publisher’s horror) that her work might be crippled by identification with a genre that cannot be worth writing in.
Any reader of SF knows that this is nonsense, that SF, as a mode of exploratory writing, has provided a broad platform and a rich vocabulary and network of thoroughly tested icons for hundreds of innovative writers for many decades now. (And any SF reader who looks at “The Children of Men” recognizes that the book is indeed SF, but also that it is very bad SF.)
But that’s by no means the whole story. Some genres are moderately loose in how they are marketed; SF novels come into the world positively carapaced in marketing signals. Only a brave and foolish advertising executive would recommend to the likes of P.D. James that her dim but sincere little book should be marketed in such a fashion. Brave because he’d be shot down; foolish because Baroness James would be right if she told him that she did not wish to destroy her book’s chance of reaching a wide audience by labeling it as “trash.”
There are at least three reasons for dismissing science fiction as trash. The obvious reason is that most of it is trash. All SF, good or bad, is marketed in the same way, so the trash is just as visible as the good stuff. “Star Trek” novelizations, than which there is very little lower in the literary world, march side by side with books by writers who, if they didn’t have the SF label gummed to their foreheads, would rightly be understood as major creative figures of the last half century. I mean writers like Philip K. Dick, Avram Davidson, Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, Thomas M. Disch, Octavia Butler, Lucius Shepard, James Tiptree Jr., Gene Wolfe, Michael Swanwick, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Brian Aldiss and a dozen more.
A second reason is that from Hugo Gernsback in 1926 to the present day, the most significant writers of American SF — the main artery of the 20th century genre — have tended to think of themselves as creators of “thought experiments,” stories whose primary purpose is to dramatize ideas about the world and the tools we may be able to invent in order to transform it, and to speculate about the implications of those ideas and tools. These ideas have traditionally come from the hard sciences rather than the soft, one consequence of which is that science fiction can suffer from a terrible simplemindedness about genuinely complex issues (like human nature). Another consequence is that SF is subjected to the fearful, defensive disparagement that “humanists” heap on those who do science.
The third reason for writing off SF as trash is essentially self-protective. From the early 1920s till about 1975, American science fiction told a central story that has now become embarrassing to many of us. It was the story of the technology-led triumph of the American Way in the star-lanes of the big tomorrow. It is embarrassing nowadays because it is racist, technophilic, provincial, arrogant and because it is wrong. The SF story was originally the story of how America made it all work; it hasn’t exactly turned out that way.
But so what? Just because the instrumentalities of SF were hijacked by hick triumphalists for a few decades does not mean that those instrumentalities are inherently bogus. Throughout the 20th century the best of the kind of writing that Americans ghettoize as science fiction has, in other countries, hardly been treated as a genre at all. Unlike any other category of contemporary literature, SF is a mode of looking at the world and its potential. Science fiction offers an intensely bracing angle of view for writers to adopt, especially in a time of constant innovation and crisis, and it is a scandal that in 1999 so many writers have written it and continue to write it in obscurity.
If there were no book covers to scare off the credulous, it would be easier for adventurous readers to discover the spectrum of SF authors who write with an intense and literate understanding that the only way to grasp 1999 is to treat the thousand futures that interpenetrate us all as material for the forge of art.
But this is a world of book covers and retailers, all of whom seem to operate in a state of perpetual panic about labels. When Karen Joy Fowler releases a very great SF novel called “Sarah Canary” (1991) — in which the males who run the 19th century fail to identify an alien trapped on Earth because she resembles a human female and is therefore invisible to them — her publisher (Henry Holt) has conniptions at the thought that somebody might call it by its honorable and proper name. When a revered non-SF writer such as Doris Lessing publishes a series of books — the “Canopus in Argos” sequence — which she is perfectly happy to call SF, reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic rush to her “defense” insisting that it’s anything but.
Gene Wolfe, in a sequence of novels called “Book of the New Sun,” publishes a profound meditation on history, God, time and power; his SF publisher gives it dust jackets that evoke Brak the Barbarian. Gore Vidal, in “The Smithsonian Institution” (1998), publishes an hilarious (and intermittently profound) SF satire on American governance and mores; but SF readers would never know what they were missing because of the queasy “dignity” of Random House’s marketing campaign for the book.
The losers are us.
We are the ones who live here, in this world, on the verge of the next century. We cannot afford to exclude any vision — any way of looking at the world — that human beings have invented for ourselves. As the futures we are heir to fall like rain upon our heads, we’re going to need all the help we can get to see our way through.
John Clute is the editor of "Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia." His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post and many other publications.More John Clute.
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)