"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)
Topics: Politics News
When I went for my first interview at a national magazine I was told they were looking for a “text editor.” I remember thinking, “Isn’t text what editors edit?” I don’t mean the people in art or production who carry titles like “photo editor.” This particular magazine had at least a dozen editors on the masthead, and to hear the fellow who hired me tell it, not one of them could line-edit a piece, let alone take a story apart and put it back together.
Not one of these editors, in other words, could edit.
Then I moved to New York, hay sticking out from under my hat, and went to work for women’s fashion magazines. There it was a given that the fashion editors weren’t generally editors in the green-visor sense, and weren’t supposed to be. The titular head of one magazine where I worked seemed to do nothing but attend parties and chase girls: It was like working for a French Harpo.
At Vogue, where my wife worked, the division was more straight-ahead. They broke the editors down into two categories, the Show Ponies and the Work Horses. The Show Ponies did just that: They showed up at swank events, went to the collections, got their name in the gossip columns and in general represented. The Work Horses, well, they put the magazine out.
Now, one recession later and post-Internet, there are more magazines than ever (not to mention Web sites) and fewer editors to go around. And, not surprisingly, a lot of these editors can’t edit. Text, that is.
Sure, they can write and probably edit (in Quark, preferably) little bits and blurbs of copy. They can make a reference to ‘N Sync or “Survivor” in the wink of an eye. But they can’t sit down and edit a long story. In some cases they may have never read one. But there is certainly no sense that the art of editing a long narrative piece is much valued in these hypertext times.
“I don’t think it’s being lost,” says Esquire editor David Granger. “I think it’s being devalued somewhat. When magazine companies look at what earns money, there’s no tangible way to make the case that great stories earn magazines money. You can point very directly to cover lines about sex or women with large breasts or even service as things that bring readers, and by extension advertisers, to the magazine. But I think it’s a little bit more of a leap to say that great writing is one of those things that should be treasured in a business sense.”
That lack of respect on the business side often filters down to the peons toiling below (the work horses, if you will). And Granger is in the fortunate position of editing a magazine that still makes its bones with long pieces, at a company (Hearst) that has been extraordinarily patient with him as he has helped the venerable title find its way. (All of that patience seemed to have paid off when Esquire was nominated for five National Magazine Awards this year.) Most editors don’t have that luxury. The company generally wants results and wants them now and the Condi Nast habit of sacking its editors in a nanosecond has spilled over to places like Time Inc., which dumped Real Simple editor Susan Wyland after only two issues.)
“Magazines used to have three to five years,” says veteran magazine editor Lisa Chase. “Now it’s one. And a good magazine doesn’t often find its legs right away; it’s tricky.”
Chase was last an editor at Talk, a magazine that, it could be argued, is still finding its legs. She left rather famously when she and editor Tina Brown disagreed over the treatment of a story on Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. (The story, by writer Stephen J. Dubner, was later published in Time.) But she liked Brown’s approach to other aspects of the magazine.
“Talk was extremely entrepreneurial, which is one of the reasons I went,” says Chase. “I also wanted to work with Tina. But afterwards I got the idea in my head that it would be nice to have my own business.”
Making the rounds of the magazines in New York, Chase found some common complaints. “A lot of people are desperate for someone to help them with pieces, help fix pieces, edit pieces, do triage on pieces.” Many editors she spoke to were keen to hire her, but she was determined to be her own boss. As she found herself offered more work than she could possibly handle, she realized that she held the solution to the many editors’ problems.
“There was this sort of simultaneous problem: more magazines, fewer editors,” says Chase, who worked on Outside magazine in its Chicago locale. “And, having not spent a lot of time in New York, I know a lot of people who have chosen not to come here for various personal reasons. I’m in my mid-30s and a lot of my contemporaries are having children. But they want to work.”
From this supply-and-demand situation the Editor’s Room was born. She was driving past Lenox Hill Hospital with a friend when he said to her, “That’s what you should do.”
“What,” she replied, “I should go work in a hospital?”
No, he said: emergency room. Editors’ room. You should have an ER for stories.
True, much of the language of editing is borrowed from medicine. A bad story needs CPR, triage, is going into the ICU. With fellow Outside alum Laura Hohnhold she started the Editors’ Room, which now features a floating staff of six editors and is taking on more work than it can handle. Early clients have included Offspring, Wired, Us Weekly and Men’s Journal — and the offers keep on coming.
Which is not necessarily to imply that the magazines engaging the ER’s services don’t have capable editors on hand. In many cases they just don’t have enough.
“Ideally you’ve got all those skills and then some on your own magazine staff,” says Men’s Journal editor Mark Bryant, who worked with Chase before at Outside. “You’ve got a lot of people who can edit at that level. And they all have time to do that. But it’s very labor-intensive and it’s far from a perfect world and I do find there are times that a piece needs an enormous amount of attention that you know will be worth the effort. But it’s attention that no one on the staff has time for.”
Complicated stories are not the mitier of most magazines, obviously, and the skills required for dealing with them are not in as much demand as they may once have been. “Let’s face it,” says Bryant, “there are not very many magazines, and not very many magazine editors, who still care about storytelling. The emphasis at most magazines is not on great reporting and writing.”
Indeed, says Chase, many editors — and writers — are frightened by the very prospect of reporting. “I can’t tell you how many editors entice writers by saying, ‘You won’t have to do any reporting.’ I thought reporting was the building block of journalism.”
Clearly she hasn’t been looking at the lean, mean, thinner-thighs versions of magazines out there now. Condi Nast’s Lucky has all but done away with meddlesome stories by making a magazine all about shopping (it’s the shoes, stupid), while a new magazine called List will feature nothing but, well, lists. Try editing your way out of that.
Chase is quick to point out that there are a number of great line editors still out there doing the thankless task of editing difficult stories, line by line. She mentions Pat Towers at Elle, Susan Morrison at the New Yorker and Ilena Silverman at the New York Times Magazine.
Silverman, who recently arrived at the Times after years of working for Art Cooper at GQ, says she is no triage artist: She can’t make a sick story dance. “My skill is not taking a piece by a so-so writer and making it great,” she says. “What I can do is try to help a writer who is really good, and push them and push them.”
And how do you push a writer without making him angry? (There’s a joke there involving drink but we’ll let it go.) Often, according to Silverman, it’s just a matter of talk. “Sometimes writers have a more interesting story in them than what they sent in. A lot of it is talking. I do a fair amount of talking to people before they start writing.”
And when the piece is closing and she is still fussing and finessing the last little word choice, she often finds her writers gratified by the attention. “They can’t believe someone cares as much as they do.”
For Chase, a lot of what she sees missing is that sense of care — care for the writers and care for the business. “We have a real love of writers,” she says of her nascent shop. “It sounds like a corny thing to say but it really is what we’re about, that relationship, that editor-writer relationship. I think it’s been lost in a lot of the business in the last 10 to 20 years.”
She credits much of her love of stories and writers to mentors like Bryant and former Outside and Men’s Journal editor John Rasmus. (The idea of a mentor seems itself passi, she says, and impossible to find when you leave your job every nine months.) They gave her stories by Gay Talese and Hunter Thompson, long pieces that broke the mold and redefined the magazine feature, stories that grabbed the reader by the collar or took him by the hand, saying, Get a load of this. Not much need for those at a magazine like List.
“I think the emphasis has moved to pop, heat, buzz,” she says, invoking the modern magazine equivalent of snap, crackle and pop. “The problem with all three of those is that they are all fleeting; by definition they’re not going to last long. Something can be hot but eventually it’s going to become cold.”
Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.More Sean Elder.
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)