"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)
I didn’t use Cliffs Notes in high school. It never occurred to me because I really loved reading, even “Silas Marner,” even “A Tale of Two Cities,” and students bought those summary guides to read them instead of the actual books. No one I knew used Cliffs Notes as the supplementary study aids they purported to be — no one I knew would admit to using Cliffs Notes at all. Huge numbers of my contemporaries must have depended on them, however, because you could always tell which books were on the current New York public high school curriculum by the corresponding empty slots in the bookstore racks both for Cliffs Notes and for the Pepsi of study guides, Monarch Notes.
Until a couple of months ago, I had also never paid much attention to reading group guides, those pamphlets provided by publishers to promote interest in a book by offering background information and suggested topics for discussion. Snobbishly, I had always half-assumed that these guides were a cross between promotional material from the publisher and a grownup version of Cliffs Notes — crib sheets for the somewhat clueless who want to have something deep to say at dinner parties or reading group meetings even if they haven’t really gotten all the way through a book or don’t quite understand what the book was “about.”
But then Reagan Arthur, my editor at Picador USA (paperback publisher of both my novels), asked if I would like Picador to print a reading group guide for my second novel, “The Music Lesson,” right in the book, after the final page.
Reading groups can give a terrifically important boost to the sales of literary novels like mine, no question. The very existence of a reading group guide inside my book — presumably heralded on the cover — would encourage groups to select “The Music Lesson,” would it not? A reading group guide is a mark of success for a contemporary novel. So it might be a good thing. It might be a great thing.
On the other hand, with a reading group guide bound into the book, a reader who has just read the final words of my novel, instead of putting the book down in a contemplative state of dazzlement (we’re talking about an ideal reader here), would turn the page and be hit by questions and suggested topics for discussion.
Perhaps I’m revealing the egomania, grandiosity and self-delusion of the sensitive artiste when I say this, but I’d like to think my novel speaks for itself. Isn’t offering extensive explanation just a little insulting to me? Do my readers really need this somewhat condescending assistance in how to think correctly about the plot and characters? And not only might a bound-in reading guide be an unfortunate intrusion into the reading experience, I suspected it might also offend some potential readers who would simply choose not to purchase the sort of book into which a reading group guide has been inserted. Call it the Oprah backlash effect.
Sometimes publishers print up separate reading group guides for distribution to bookstores, which often maintain a separate rack just for these guides. (Reading groups definitely seek them out and often look to this rack as they choose books for future discussions.) But the added expense meant this wasn’t an option for my book, so if I wanted a printed reading group guide, it would have to be bound right in the book. Did I want it or not?
Growing tired of my own ambivalence about this decision, I turned to some fellow readers. I posted a question about my dilemma in a fortuitously timed conversation thread about reading group guides in Salon’s Table Talk Books discussion area, which I frequent. (That discussion thread is no longer extant.)
Several people replied instantly to say they’d be happy to see the bound-in guide, or at least, they wouldn’t be especially put off by it. “No one forces you to read it, and some people may find it useful,” said one. “The consensus of my reading group is thumbs-up for the guides … I don’t see them as a crutch — they’re just a tool like any other,” chimed in another Table Talk regular. But quite a few people denounced such bound-in guides and said they wouldn’t buy a book that included one.
“I don’t like to be led around by the nose — I’m allergic to being marketed to,” was the way one well-read participant put it. “The bound-in presence constitutes defacement, and I would not buy the book unless I had a compelling reason,” were the emphatic words of another regular whose views I respect. A reading group guide “tends to act as a signal to me that I don’t want to buy or read the book,” said yet another.
What a dilemma. Like most novelists, when I write, I’m imagining the “ideal” reader — a literate, thoughtful, insightful, analytic, informed reader who responds with deep appreciation to every nuance of the writing. This is the perfect reader, someone on whom nothing is wasted, to borrow a phrase from Henry James.
Regrettably, the world isn’t exactly overflowing with such paragons. Of course, I want a wider audience than that — one that includes all those readers who aren’t necessarily very sophisticated or deeply read at all. I write for the average reader as well. Of course I do. This isn’t a Mensa admission exam, this is my livelihood!
I welcome readers who are completely under Oprah’s spell. In fact, anyone who reads books at all is a potential reader of my novels, as far as I am concerned, and I want as many of them as possible. Book groups? Yes, please — lots and lots of book groups.
Would a guide really help us sell more books? The experts definitely thought so. “Because the existence of a discussion guide helps the group stay focused, titles for which discussion topics are available are indeed most popular,” confirmed Mark Kaufman in an e-mail in answer to my query. Kaufman is the editor of “Reading Group Choices: Selections for Lively Book Discussions,” a book the publisher, Paz & Associates, says sells some 20,000 copies annually. (Paz also maintains a Web site full of such guides.) But how to go about attracting the greatest number of readers without alienating that top layer, those “alpha readers” who might be turned off by the merest whiff of a reading group guide?
I dropped by a bookstore to see how a bound-in reading group guide might strike me if, as an ordinary browser, I happened to come face to face with one. Ballantine Books, I noticed right away, heralded the existence of bound-in guides with a “Ballantine Reader’s Circle” designation in the form of little tromp l’oeil seals on certain book covers. It looked at a glance as if these books had been awarded something, though of course this seal is a marketing strategy, not a literary prize. (And an ungrammatical one, at that.)
I picked up the Elizabeth Graver novel, “Unravelling,” published by Harcourt Brace, which sported a little “Harvest Reading Guide” emblem on its cover. Harvesting sounds pleasantly productive, so I looked inside. The reading guide, which occupied the last four pages of the book, consisted, simply, of 10 separate paragraphs of statements and questions. This was the first one:
“Unravelling” is a contemporary novel set in the nineteenth century. In what way does it feel modern? In what ways does it seem to be about another time and place? Do you think that girls and women today struggle with similar issues and concerns? What links do you see between “Unravelling” and other recent novels set in the past, such as Margaret Atwood’s “Alias Grace,” Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Jane Smiley’s “The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton,” or Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain”?
This, it turned out, was typical of the sort of discussion suggestion I would find as I browsed through dozens of guides for contemporary fiction, both in the bookstore and online. Most of them offered just these sorts of comfortable and only vaguely challenging questions that would not fluster someone with a limited literary background. (As to the question about those other books, I’m betting that one thing they have in common is that they’ve got reading guides, too.)
I noticed something else. Many of the “talking points” are not actually very literary in nature. They’re the kind of general conversation openers that would be equally valid if applied to films or television shows, or even current events from the newspaper. Though almost every reading guide I saw contained some worthwhile stuff, most also seemed to dish up a lot of very lightweight chat fodder — at its worst, this can read like the agenda-laden propaganda of women’s studies courses in the continuing ed division of a community college.
Most of the questions in the guides I found avoided the uniquely literary considerations of writing and language; instead, they depended heavily on the more accessible issues of plot and character. Quite a few of the guides were really well-written. (My favorite might be the impressive guide for the dazzling Kate Atkinson novel, “Behind the Scenes at the Museum.”)
But lots of others were pedestrian at best. The Reading Group Choices guide for Lorrie Moore’s “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?” for example, was full of such questions as “Berie’s mother tells her that Sils was always a bad influence. Was she really? Is it possible to influence someone else’s behavior or is there more personal responsibility than people occasionally care to admit?” I began to wonder if the publishers care as much about the contents as they do about trumpeting the presence of these guides in order to snare the sort of readers who like to read the sort of books that have reading group guides.
And, the truth was, I wasn’t just ambivalent about having a guide bound into “The Music Lesson,” I had mixed feelings about reading groups themselves. I’d been invited to participate in quite a few of them when my novels were under discussion, and I knew how exhilarating it can be to sit in a room with a dozen smart people who have plenty of thoughts about your work. It can be disconcerting, as well. I’ve had sublime book group experiences and I’ve had ridiculous ones.
Some of my most terrific book group experiences have been courtesy of Mickey Pearlman, author of “What to Read,” a virtual bible for reading groups. She is employed as a leader by a couple of book discussion groups in New York and New Jersey, and my visits to those groups when they were talking about my novels have been an author’s dream. Under Mickey’s guidance, these groups hold serious, literary conversations.
I e-mailed Mickey to ask what she thought about reading group guides. She agreed that it’s hard to generalize; the good ones are good and the bad ones can be atrocious. Beyond that, she cautioned that “a prolonged biographical discussion of the book’s author isn’t very useful: ‘Oh, Katharine Weber has a house in Ireland so she must be this woman who has this affair’ and so on.”
“A reading group guide is probably a selling point for the average reader but a deterrent for the serious reader,” Mickey confirmed. “In a book club situation, the risk is everyone in the group looking at the book in the same way, thereby losing the different viewpoints and questions that would emanate naturally from having a variety of people approach the book.”
Then there was my ridiculous book group experience. While I was pondering my dilemma, I was invited to drop in on a book group whose conversation was so unfocused and superficial that it made it abundantly clear to me how helpful a good reading guide might be:
“I didn’t think she should have done that.”
“I wouldn’t have done that at all.”
“She was wrong.”
“It didn’t work for me because I wouldn’t have done that.”
And so on. The discussion never ventured beyond a kind of desultory gossip about the characters in the novel. It was vague, uncentered, without insight and completely without momentum. I listened in dismay as this group of bright professional women chatted aimlessly about the characters and who should play them in the movie before moving on to a slightly more animated conversation about the cookies and plans for the next meeting. The discussion circled back in a listless way and then ended without any resolution or conclusive observations.
How could the women in this group be satisfied by such an un-dynamic monthly meeting? Had my presence there somehow stifled or inhibited them? The friend who invited me assured me that this, in fact, had been a “good” discussion. I went home that night intending to write the kind of notes that I wished they’d had in hand.
But why not first ask another author for some advice? I e-mailed my friend Elizabeth McCracken, author of “The Giant’s House.”
“I’m all for reading guides,” she replied, “But then, as a librarian, I’m all for directives — in moderation.” Control freak that I am, I was surprised to learn that Elizabeth had had no hand in writing the guides for her own books, though she did say she’d written the author interview in the guide for her friend Ann Patchett’s book, “Taft.”
“It’s decidedly odd,” she added, “to find out what people think the point of your work is, much odder than being reviewed.” When Elizabeth’s publisher sent her some copies of the guide for “The Giant’s House,” she asked a friend to read her all the probing questions at the back and “I couldn’t answer most of ‘em.”
Just as I’d decided to opt for the bound-in guide at the risk of losing more sophisticated potential readers, I learned that I could have it both ways. My publisher would post the reading group guide on its Web site and print the address for the site on the back cover of the book in letters discreet enough to avoid scaring away the guide-phobic but big enough to attract the guide-friendly.
Would people find the guide online? Apparently. Mark Kaufman assured me that his publisher clocks in upwards of 30,000 monthly visits to its Web site and has surveyed several hundred book groups. They learned that some 75 percent of book groups have Internet access.
Who knows if the guide will attract readers or reading groups to the book? Ultimately, what makes a book succeed with groups — or for that matter, with those elusive ideal readers — remains a mysterious process. I’ve sent my second novel out into the world in the form that seems best to me; now it’s up to the world to figure out what it thinks.
Questions for Discussion:
1. Katharine Weber seems to be a literary snob. Can you find some examples of her snobbery? Does reading this article make you want to read her books or does it make you want to avoid her books? Would you invite her to visit your book group? Why or why not? Give examples.
2. Some authors are grateful for any readers and attention they can get. Do you feel that it is appropriate for this author to nitpick about the ways people discuss her books, or do you feel that she should just count her lucky stars that a) her books have been published at all and b) that anybody reads them? Can you think of other things Katharine Weber should be grateful for?
3. If you published a novel, would you want a reading group guide bound into it? Would you discuss it with your spouse or would you make the decision on your own? What sort of author photo would you want, or would you choose to have no author photo at all? Decision-making can be a time of crisis. Can you think of other decisions you have had to make that relate to this decision? Can you think of decisions faced by characters in some books you have read?
Katharine Weber is the author of two novels, "Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear" and "The Music Lesson." She teaches fiction writing at Yale.More Katharine Weber.
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)