"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)
It’s one thing to say the literary landscape has been radically transformed in the past four decades, and something else again to revisit the territory of 1963 by leafing through Esquire magazine’s special literary issue published in July of that year. The society it depicts seems startlingly remote. There’s a charming naiveti to the magazine’s confidence in its ability to suss out the scene, from the seven full pages it gives Norman Mailer to evaluate nine books from his chief competitors (yes, they’re all men) to the photo essays about the swingin’ lives of a beatnik poet and a young Hollywood screenwriter, to the cover story about Allen Ginsberg’s jaunt to India — a piece that manages to deftly skirt the small matter of the poet’s homosexuality. But most endearing of all is a “chart of power” assembled by L. Rust Hills and stoutly entitled “The Structure of the American Literary Establishment,” complete with biomorphic shapes indicating “The Red-Hot Center,” “Squaresville” (the New York Times, naturally) and “The Cool World.” Twenty-four years later, Hills rather sheepishly reprised his guide to “the literary universe” for Esquire, noting that, in the years between 1963 and 1987, “everything began to come apart and change more or less entirely.”
That sense of protean fragmentation prevails today. The world of established literary giants, each one solemnly tapping out his version of the Great American Novel on a manual typewriter, has since dissolved into a fluid, unpredictable marketplace where the next critically acclaimed, hit first novel might be written by a 57-year-old horse breeder from North Carolina or by a 36-year-old former aerobics instructor from India. The teapot of the literary world has weathered several tempests — controversies over trends, styles and personalities — in the past 40 years, but the sense of a monolithic shared culture seems to be gone for good.
Before I go into how and why that happened, it’s important to note that if people in the book business often have shapely wrists it’s because they’ve elevated hand-wringing to the level of an Olympic sport. Decrying the precipitous decay of literary culture has been a popular activity for as long as writers have lamented their fates, in other words, as long as there have been writers. In his 1891 novel, “New Grub Street,” George Gissing complained that “more likely than not,” a really good book “will be swamped in the flood of literature that pours forth week after week and won’t have attention fixed long enough upon it to establish its repute … The simple, sober truth has no chance whatever of being listened to, and it’s only by volume of shouting that the ear of the public is held.”
The decline of bookselling is a venerable tradition as well, as an 1887 letter to Publishers Weekly, written by the publisher Henry Holt, attests. Long before the advent of television — in fact, even before radio or movies — Holt grieved the passing of the days when “many a substantial citizen” would “drop into the book-store of an evening … Now most of those book-stores no longer exist, at least as book-stores. They are toy-shops and ice-cream saloons with files of Seaside Libraries in one corner.” Those insidious “files of Seaside Libraries” were contributing to “a real diminution … in the reading habit” long before the Internet threatened to destroy civilization as we know it.
Nevertheless, things have decidedly changed. The literary establishment Esquire mapped in 1963 stood on the verge of the counterculture-led upheavals of the late ’60s, the anti-novel metafictional experiments of the ’70s, the identity-politics-inspired attacks on the canonization of “dead white men” in the ’80s, and a whole cavalcade of much-reviled crazes and trends, not to mention the ascension of such formerly lowbrow media as TV and popular music to the role of defining the spirit of the times. The writers surveyed in this book published their fiction against this tumultuous backdrop.
At the beginning of the 1960s, most novelists took the greats of previous generations — particularly Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald — as their models. Writers pursuing more idiosyncratic paths in the manner of Faulkner, writers like Vladimir Nabokov and Flannery O’Connor, were active and even celebrated, but at the center stood the ideal of a big, bestselling, realist novel of social reportage, a form whose obsolescence the young novelist Jonathan Franzen bemoaned in an essay he wrote for Harper’s magazine in 1996. Franzen maintains that the last “challenging” novel to find a mass audience and to “infiltrate” the national imagination was Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” published in 1961. “Catch-22″ is a satirical war novel about the yawning gap between officially sanctioned reality and the experiences of its characters, and its success indicated that American culture had begun to entertain doubts about all authoritative pronouncements, including, perhaps, the Great American Novel.
As the decade closed, authors like Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Richard Brautigan and Ken Kesey were sharing young readers’ shelf space with such icons as J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Heinlein and Carlos Castaneda, whose writings were more likely to blow the mind than define the age. Books by literary lions like John Updike, Saul Bellow and William Styron still made it to the No. 1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list, but women and blacks were already protesting the way they had been portrayed by such writers. The audience for literary fiction had begun to splinter, and the very notion that one novelist could speak for an entire nation or generation seemed worse than improbable; it was outright and inexcusable hubris. By the 1980s, the bestseller lists belonged to authors of fat volumes of commercial fiction, books whose visceral, rather than social or psychological, concerns could be counted on to appeal to the largest number of readers: thrillers, sagas, horror stories and the women’s genre sometimes known as “shopping and fucking” novels.
In the 1970s, members of various groups who had once compliantly read the designated big book of the moment by authors like Mailer and his designated “Talent in the Room,” increasingly demanded fiction by and about people like themselves. Women, in particular, defected, leading to a boomlet in novels of middle-class female discontent, a trend that helped launch the career of Margaret Atwood among many other female writers. Because women continue to buy and read more fiction than men, this development profoundly changed not only the publishing market but the way authors see their place in the world. Franzen wrote, “Writers like Jane Smiley and Amy Tan today seem conscious and confident of an attentive audience. Whereas all the male novelists I know, including myself, are clueless as to who could possibly be buying our books.”
This interest in fresh perspectives also fostered a literary blossoming among racial and sexual minorities. Although multicultural idealism would eventually become problematic, it provided early support for major talents — Toni Morrison and John Edgar Wideman in the United States, Salman Rushdie and Ben Okri in England — who otherwise might never have been read, or perhaps even published. At its best, multiculturalism expanded the horizons of the literary audience and immeasurably enriched the variety of fiction available in the average bookstore. Later, at its worst, it led to the glorification of second-rate writers, the establishment of a subtle climate of bad faith and the exasperation of successful authors of color who chafed at multiculturalist demands that they properly represent their races.
In the meantime, during the 1970s, a coterie of white male novelists retreated to American universities to pursue a variety of experimental writing sometimes called metafiction (because it was often about the nature of fiction itself) or, more generally, postmodernism. Writers like John Barth, Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin, Donald Barthelme and William Gass were still enshrined in the reading lists of college-level English classes in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but they increasingly fell by the wayside as fiction writers and editors outside the academy embraced realism. In a sometimes bafflingly abstract 1977 diatribe entitled “On Moral Fiction”, the novelist John Gardner attacked the postmodernists for what he considered a solipsistic obsession with form over the concerns of “true art,” which “seeks to improve life, not debase it.” (This salvo, notorious for its disdainful naming of names, further confused readers who had thought that Gardner was himself a postmodernist.) “On Moral Fiction,” like the feminist and multicultural critiques of its time, is a classic example of the American penchant for denouncing perceived schools of writing on grounds that fuse aesthetics and ideology — in other words, bad writing isn’t just bad, it’s evil. (British writers prefer simply to attack one another’s character, a tactic that makes their quarrels much more entertaining.)
The 1980s gave critics much to complain about, beginning with a literary trend often called minimalism, but also, less sympathetically, “Kmart realism.” Was minimalism indeed the prevailing American literary form of the 1980s? It certainly seemed to be, what with the New Yorker and Esquire, two of the foremost American showcases for literary fiction, firmly in its thrall and so many emerging writers naming Raymond Carver as their model. Carver wrote spare, stoic prose about working-class people whose lives hover at the brink of despair. In his style, if not his subject matter, he was an heir to Hemingway, and after his death in 1988 he was held in particularly great reverence. The teacher and editor Gordon Lish (whose own experimental novels would suggest a greater affinity with the metafictionists) was a tireless advocate for minimalism and is known to have stripped Carver’s early stories down to their very bones.
Carver wrote mostly short stories, a form that had come to seem marginal in the 1960s and ’70s as fewer and fewer magazines published fiction. The short story, however, proved to be ideally suited to the needs of the writing workshops and MFA programs in creative writing that were sprouting up in many universities during the 1980s. Critics who disliked minimalism often blamed the trend on these programs — particularly the creative writing program at the University of Iowa — and accused universities of graduating indistinguishable writers of “cookie cutter” fiction. It’s true that the clean, declarative sentences that are a signal trait of minimalist fiction are the easiest kind of competent writing to teach, and that minimalism’s restrained, quirk-free, almost documentary approach is the least likely to offend or irritate a classroom of 10 fellow writers. However, it should be noted that university-level creative writing programs also trained such original voices as David Foster Wallace and Denis Johnson (not to mention Flannery O’Connor).
There did seem to be an overwhelming number of young minimalist writers coming up in the mid-1980s, and they did tend to sound an awful lot alike, a situation that, more than anything else, may have stoked the irritation of critics. That irritation, however, paled in comparison with the seething wrath inspired by the rise of the Brat Pack, a trio of mediagenic young writers who emerged at about the same time. The actual books written by Jay McInerney, Brett Easton Ellis and Tama Janowitz don’t have much in common, but the three became permanently linked in the minds of the public. They stood for an attempt to introduce the devices of celebrity culture into the literary world, and despite the handsome sales figures the Brat Pack enjoyed at first, in the end the operation was not a success.
The Brat Pack was young, photographed well, and seemed to lead exciting, glamorous lives. McInerney and Ellis hung out at nightclubs with pop stars and models, and Janowitz even made a video that was aired on MTV. The press treated them as the voices of a generation, and people who didn’t read a lot of novels bought and read the Brat Pack’s books. But the core audience for literary fiction has always regarded them with suspicion. Ten years later, it’s remarkable how much outright animosity still greets mention of their names, considering that, since the 1980s, they’ve had lackluster careers and have exerted no noticeable influence on American fiction. For those idealists who cherish the literary world as the last refuge of the genuine and profound in a larger culture driven by artifice and hype, the Brat Pack interlude is a past trauma whose psychic bruises have yet to heal. Publicity certainly does sell books, but many readers remain leery of any new writer introduced to the public with an excessive amount of fanfare; the writer’s second book, justly or not, is quite likely to tank.
In Britain, an influx of fiction from writers dubbed “post-colonial” paralleled the multicultural movement in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s, after the Angry Young Men of the 1950s and ’60s (a loose grouping of writers, including Kingsley Amis and John Braine, who offered an often scabrous alternative to the genteel upper-middle-class literature of the preceding generation) had for the most part devolved into unvarnished misanthropy and neoconservativism. At the same time, the creative writing program at the University at East Anglia founded by Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson fostered an impressive roster of graduates, including Rose Tremain, Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan — a decidedly eclectic crew. McEwan became associated with Julian Barnes and Martin Amis as part of a cadre of stylish, sometimes controversial younger writers, championed by Bill Buford, an American who had taken over the editing of the literary journal Granta. In 1983 Granta put out a list of “The 20 Best British Novelists Under 40″ that proved remarkably prophetic and furthered the impression among minimalism-weary American readers that most of the really exciting new books were being written on the other side of the Atlantic or in Latin America, which was exporting such magic realists as the Nobel-Prize-winning Gabriel Garcma-Marquez to a worldwide readership starved for epic, imaginative fiction.
Of course, the version of history that I’ve just presented — of a unified literary establishment that fractured into an array of niche interests — is only one way to interpret the changes in English-language fiction in the past 40 years. Some observers see the various permutations of the novel and short story as a response to the movies. Film can use straightforward storytelling to reflect the way we live now as well as or better than the traditional realist novel. As a result, writers increasingly turned to techniques that can’t be accomplished on-screen, or at least not easily: formal experimentation, fabulism, and above all, the artful deployment of voice. Few in 1960 would have predicted that Vladmir Nabokov’s 1955 novel “Lolita” would, by the end of the century, be cited more frequently and more fervently by young American writers naming their influences than books by Hemingway or Fitzgerald. The quintessential novel of unreliable narration, written by a novelist who prized an elegant, imagistic style and an elusive authorial stance while despising philosophy and moralizing in fiction, “Lolita” didn’t conform to midcentury notions of an era-defining work. The wizardry of Nabokov’s masterpiece, however, was irrevocably literary: No movie could convey such a shimmering suspension of multiple realities.
Narrative nonfiction has also become a competitor for readers’ attention. Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” (1966), which he described as a “nonfiction novel,” and Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song” (1979) are among those writers’ finest books and have the advantage of applying the artistry of the novelist to stories made all the more compelling for being true. Tom Wolfe, a founder of the New Journalism of the ’60s, wrote a much-discussed essay, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel,” for Harper’s magazine in 1989 in which he reviled minimalism and called on novelists to bring the research skills of journalists to bear on their work and to paint panoramic portraits of our times. Wolfe had the wild success of his own 1987 novel, “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” to back up his claim that the public craved this kind of social novel, but his call-to-notepads inspired more critical debates than fiction. In 1996, as autobiographies like Mary Karr’s “The Liar’s Club” extravagantly outsold literary fiction, James Atlas heralded the “Age of the Literary Memoir” in the New York Times Magazine. “Fiction isn’t delivering the news,” he wrote. “Memoir is.”
The critic Sven Birkerts, on the other hand, blames the evaporation of “the Great American Novel, that elusive, totalizing entity that would register like a faithful mirror the hopes, energies, contradictions, and failings of postwar America,” on the triumph of a culture of ceaseless, vapid electronic babble in which literature just isn’t taken seriously anymore. Although Birkerts belongs firmly in the tradition of those cultural Cassandras and doomsday scenarists who have been depicting society’s imminent slide into darkness since the age of Aristotle, he has a point. Authors often seem to be returning the slight by excluding pop culture and the media from their fictional worlds; such emphemera are often thought to trivialize or date the work.
However, a handful of literary novelists have been intent on conveying the media-saturated texture of contemporary life, most notably Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, perhaps the most critically revered writers of fiction working today. These authors depict a world of disorienting complexity and outlandish, even absurd events often directed by unseen, sinister forces. They pack their hefty novels with science, history, philosophical ruminations and dozens of characters, techniques that earned them the epithet “encyclopedic.” The encyclopedic novelists borrowed material and themes from all corners of high and popular culture, but particularly from the intellectual vein of science fiction, a genre with a tradition of speculation about the nature of humanity and about the more monstrous aspects of complex technologies and the societies that create them. (Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” was nominated for a Nebula, science fiction’s most prestigious award, in 1974.) The visions of writers whose work resides solidly within the science-fiction genre — William Gibson and Philip K. Dick in particular — gained wider audiences as readers found startlingly prophetic reflections of contemporary life in their fantastic and often outright paranoid scenarios.
The question of how contemporary fiction should deal with mass culture was explicitly taken up by an heir to the encyclopedic tradition, the young novelist David Foster Wallace in “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” an essay published in the Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1993. Wallace describes a new generation of “Image-Fiction” writers so acclimated to the mass media that they “use the transient received myths of popular culture as a world in which to imagine fictions about ‘real,’ albeit pop-mediated characters.” (Mark Leyner, one of these writers, produces fiction that incorporates influences ranging from ad copy to scientific treatises, in what Wallace describes as “witty, erudite, extremely high-quality prose television.”) Wallace then questions the “irony and ridicule” deployed by these writers because, he claims, television is already ironic about itself, and thus the medium has deftly co-opted its would-be satirists. “Television … has become able to capture and neutralize any attempt to change or even protest the attitudes of passive unease and cynicism that television requires,” Wallace maintains. He ends by calling for sincerity and for novelists who “treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction.”
Most (if not quite all) of the authors covered in this book consider themselves to be aiming for something like that, whether they deal with life in the U.S. or in Nigeria, whether they write complicated, brainy epics or quiet domestic dramas, whether they take as their subjects urgent political situations or eternal metaphysical quandaries. It’s conventional to bemoan the fact that the novelists of 2000 mean less to their society than the novelists of 1960 meant to theirs, but the literary landscape I explored in the process of editing this book also seems much richer and more varied than the one of 40 years ago. Readers themselves — from Oprah Winfrey to the organizers of the private reading groups that have proliferated across the nation to the participants in Internet discussion groups like Salon’s Table Talk community — are increasingly determining which are the “important” books from a staggering array of new titles published each year, based on criteria that often defy the literary establishment’s. These are tough times for publishers and perhaps for authors as well, but for readers, an abundance of voices and stories await at local (and virtual) bookstores. The red-hot center maybe impossible to find, but we have the whole world instead.
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -
Read author entries from the “Salon Reader’s Guide”:
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)