"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)
“Wait, I think the stairwell is over there,” said a San Francisco Chronicle editor, accompanying me to the paper’s book-review department. “I’ve actually never been down there.”
The wry editor and I were leaving the newsroom, a fluorescent hive of conversing reporters and editors. Down we descended into the basement and into a scene right out of “Norma Rae.” We stood in a windowless lunchroom, a grim assembly of colored-plastic tables and vending machines. The few folks eating their sandwiches here were clearly not the Chronicle’s executive staff. A sign on a far wall said “Book Review,” followed by an arrow.
We headed down a dimly lit hallway, past a janitor’s office, a storage space with extension cords on the floor and an abandoned copy-machine room, and finally arrived at a stockroom. Inside, pressboard shelves sagged with books. The floor was piled with padded envelopes stuffed with a lot more.
Near the door, and behind a small desk, sat 30-year-old book editor Oscar Villalon, who less than two years before was slaving away at the Chronicle’s copy desk upstairs. Now he sat by himself typing titles from publishers’ catalogs into a dingy computer. If the wry editor and I didn’t know better, didn’t know how smart Oscar is and how hard he works, we could have mistaken him for a stocky receiving clerk, waiting on the morning delivery of steno pads.
Oscar and I were glad to meet, as I often write book reviews for the Chronicle, but we had only spoken on the phone. In person, he was garrulous and enthusiastic, telling me how much he loved the new Peter Carey novel about Ned Kelly, how great Carey was on Australia’s violent prison system and its own Wild West days.
But Oscar was also nervous. Earlier, when I called to ask if it was OK to stop by, he said he positively couldn’t say anything about the recent shake-up at the newspaper. Now, as if to protect himself from any slip of the tongue, or to prevent me from asking a question, he talked about new books without pause.
Oscar’s anxiety stemmed from the Chronicle’s action, two months earlier, to do away with its pullout, 12-page book section and demote book reviews to the back of its Sunday entertainment section, a tabloid called Datebook. The book editor at the time, David Kipen, was shifted to “book critic,” responsible for reviewing two books per week, and Oscar got the job of overseeing Sunday’s seven book pages, which now fall between “Dining Out” and “Get Together,” the personals.
The Chronicle’s Sunday circulation is a little over half a million, making it the most widely read paper in the Bay Area. And it’s not the only metropolitan daily to trim its book coverage this year. The Seattle Times, the San Jose Mercury News, the Chicago Tribune, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Boston Globe have all put their papers on a diet by cutting back on book reviews. Even the nation’s most influential Sunday book supplement, the New York Times Book Review, killed two pages, resulting in the loss of six “In Brief” write-ups and one full-page review.
The reason for the cuts is not exactly front-page news. In our “age of corporate newspapering,” as the American Journalism Review calls it, the $60 billion-a-year newspaper industry is “now culminating in a furious, unprecedented blitz of buying, selling, and consolidating of newspapers.”
To keep hitting those high quarterly profit targets, conglomerates such as Knight Ridder, which owns more than 50 papers, including the Mercury News; the Hearst Corp., which owns 30 papers, including the Chronicle; and the New York Times Co., which owns the Boston Globe, are streamlining costs at every turn — including personnel. Knight Ridder and the New York Times Co. alone have laid off a total of 2,900 employees this year.
The guiding philosophy of newspapers today may well be epitomized by this comment from Wall Street media analyst Lauren Rich Fine: “Until you can show me that your subscribers are willing to pay more money because of the quality, I sort of feel like the average reader isn’t that sensitive to the quality at a certain level, and you really do need to make decisions that sometimes seem short-term in nature, because you chose to go public, and shareholders really do deserve a return.”
When newspapers were independently owned, quality did matter. Good editors could please small segments of their communities, like people who love books, because the money in the balance wasn’t a frightening amount. Now, paranoia rules in newspapers because the big company’s billions are at stake. Editors are now under extreme pressure to tap the widest possible audience. As a result, they are abandoning the journalistic risks and literary quirks that once made the morning paper feel alive and important.
The mad drive to stay in touch with the mass audience has also put newspapers under the reign of almighty market research. Ask executive newspaper editors why book coverage is among the first elements to go and they direct your attention to their focus groups, which they insist show that book reviews rank lower in readers’ esteem than the Wednesday column on flower arranging. Whether focus groups accurately reflect what people really want is beside the point. Book reviews are being cavalierly dispatched by newspapers because they have become disposable.
Now that’s the place to pause. After all, you might think newspapers would benefit from courting their community’s most passionate readers. People who read about books, not to mention those willing to crack a book itself, are inclined to ignore the putative enemy, TV, and get their news by reading — that is, from a newspaper.
But in their frenzy to gain a mass readership, pump up ad revenues and keep shareholders happy, newspapers end up dissing their most sympathetic audience. You have to admit that seems a little soft in the head. Cutting book reviews from newspapers is like Porsche saying, “Our customers really love to drive, so let’s install lousy shocks in the chassis and make the engine sputter at high rpm.”
For those with a sense of humor, this cockeyed approach to publishing is a shining example of how the corporate world has completely warped the value of the written word. For those who believe that newspapers should be a lively part of America’s literary life and culture, that book reviews help keep us hungry to read, well, it’s not quite so funny.
What happened in San Francisco reveals how editors, their eyes glued on the bottom line and market research reports, have become blind to their actual community. One focus group told Chronicle editors that readers wouldn’t mind losing the stand-alone book section because they couldn’t find it in the bulky Sunday paper anyway. But that theory didn’t hold up too well when another focus group found that readers wouldn’t miss the book section because they immediately pulled it out of the center of the Datebook, where it obscured the movie section.
Nevertheless, the week after the Chronicle canned the stand-alone Book Review, readers pounced on the paper with more than 400 e-mails and calls. Local lights like Stanford literature professor Diane Middlebrook and novelist Herbert Gold led the epistolary charge. They reminded the Chronicle, politely at first, that the Bay Area had a few readers in its midst — teachers, physicians, scientists and writers — a few internationally renowned universities and even a few hundred bookstores.
And then not so politely. When Hearst took over the Chronicle last year, Gold said, “They promised they were going to produce a ‘world-class newspaper.’ By eliminating the book-review section and making more space for entertainment gossip, they are producing a world-class disgrace.”
The Chronicle’s top editors claimed they were surprised at the reaction. “Astounded, really,” said senior editor Narda Zacchino. “The number and passion of complaints we received were beyond anything we got over other changes in the paper.” If executive editor Phil Bronstein “had anticipated this kind of reaction to doing away with the stand-alone section,” she said, “he wouldn’t have done it.”
It might be surprising that a major metropolitan paper wouldn’t anticipate an angry reaction from a community that loves books. But it’s only surprising if you don’t know that top editors — “just another replaceable face in the management constellation,” in the words of the American Journalism Review — are now holed up in their shaded offices, where word from the outside is often communicated in the PowerPoint presentations of hired consultants.
Newsrooms have become cultures of fear — “the fear of offending readers,” said Charles Layton, who has conducted a nationwide study of the negative impact of market research on newspapers. Layton is co-editor of a new book on the newspaper industry, “Leaving Readers Behind,” and was a foreign affairs and magazine editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer for 22 years.
Editors now rely on the safety in numbers — demographic studies and reader polls — to determine what stories to pursue and what sections to keep or cut loose. But pre-business school journalists would like to tell the world that market research is a pitiful tool for guiding a newspaper. Ask a bunch of readers what they want, and results inevitably skew toward the middle. Independent or original views are ignored when hunting for a consensus.
And today, the consensus in boardrooms, where editors and marketers meet, is that advertisers are in love with young people, who supposedly do nothing but go to movies every night and so can’t get enough articles about Reese Witherspoon. To editors, Layton said, in his slow, ingratiating drawl, “book sections appeal to a small, elite, older readership — not a real high priority.”
Layton doesn’t doubt that book reviews rank low in reader polls. But in his view, newspapers have a responsibility to operate like a supermarket, offering a variety of enticements to a wide range of people, including fresh book reviews. Interestingly, he added, given newspapers’ hallowed traditions of editorial integrity, newspaper managers don’t want to be viewed as indentured servants to lordly profits, and so hide behind their polls. “It’s nothing but a fig leaf for their cuts.” Although, more recently, executives don’t even bother citing the research, Layton said. “The attitude now is, ‘Fuck it, let’s just cut costs.’”
And make room for ads. The Chronicle, in particular, was anxious to clear the Book Review out of the middle of the popular Sunday Datebook to make room for double-truck movie ads. What’s more, editors at the Chronicle and other papers claimed that financing a stand-alone book section is now prohibitively expensive, as the downturn in the economy has also affected book publishers, who aren’t buying as many ads.
True? Not at St. Martins, said John Murphy, vice president and director of publicity. “Our ad budget has climbed every year.” It’s just that the bulk of ad money goes to promote potential blockbusters. And often goes in one fell swoop, as a full-page ad in the New York Times Book Review runs around $40,000. In fact, Murphy had just come from a meeting where the discussion was whether to spend $25,000 on a quarter-page ad in USA Today to back a new thriller by Stephen Coonts.
Book industry insiders vehemently deny newspaper executives’ claim that the viability of book review sections depends on their ability to attract book industry advertising. Sports sections don’t rely on ads from Major League Baseball to justify their publication, and business sections don’t rely on ads from the New York Stock Exchange, so why should book reviews be tied to the likes of Random House and Simon and Schuster? “Sports and business are of interest to the general public, just as books are, and therefore part of what a newspaper should cover,” said Gold. “Newspapers don’t get advertising from Bosnia. But they still publish news about Bosnia.”
In truth, book review sections have always been alien departments within the American newsroom’s just-the-facts culture. Jimmy Breslin in a dusky bar, drumming information out of a jaded district attorney, a no-bullshit metro reporter doggedly piecing together the mayor’s ties to a crooked port developer — these are the icons of the daily newspaper, not a pasty-faced bookworm poring over the latest catalog from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
“For the most part, shoe leather and the ability to jawbone are the most important things in the newsroom,” said Steve Wasserman, book editor of the Los Angeles Times. “Ruminative thought and the ability to paint a larger cultural picture get little respect. They are seen as dispensable sideshows.” Michael Skube, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic, put it more bluntly: “Editors read newspapers. They don’t read books.”
Layton added that at most newspapers these days, “the book editor sits by himself in an isolated room without much clout. He’s not even visible to newsroom editors. So in terms of the internal politics at a paper, book sections are that much easier to cut.”
“Yes,” I said, thinking of Oscar in his stockroom office, “I got that impression.”
While book reviews rank as steerage in most of the nation’s dailies, they still merit first-class treatment in the Sunday New York Times. In the Los Angeles Times, too, though certainly without the same national profile. But the two Times papers are not free of the financial pressures that squeeze other newspapers; indeed, the Los Angeles Times is owned by Chicago’s mighty Tribune Co., which also publishes Newsday and the Baltimore Sun. But according to the papers’ respective book editors, anyway, book coverage has the full support of the papers’ top editors.
Charles McGrath, editor of the New York Times Book Review, said he was forced to cut two pages earlier this year because, during the current advertising slump, his section was “expected to do its fair share of belt-tightening along with the other Sunday sections,” including Arts and Leisure, Week in Review and the magazine.
Would the New York Times consider saving money by getting rid of the stand-alone book section and folding it into the rest of the Sunday package as other papers have done? “That would never happen at this paper,” said McGrath, who oversees a staff of eight editors. “There has been a historical commitment from the publisher and newsroom to support us. Books are part of culture, and culture is part of the news. So we cover books just as intently as we cover sports or theater or anything else.”
Wasserman, who has been the Los Angeles Times book editor for nearly five years, sounded a similar chord. “I’m proud to report that I’m fortunate to work for men and women of vision. They understand quality and excellence in reporting and know that includes a vibrant book section. They know that an engaging book section raises the journalistic stakes for the city, the newspaper and readers.”
After listening to numerous journalists who have practically apologized for wanting to cover books in their papers, and paranoid editors who won’t dare speak on the record about their bosses’ real view of books, McGrath’s and Wasserman’s self-assured comments sound refreshingly civilized.
As, in fact, does San Francisco Chronicle senior editor Zacchino. After 31 years at the Los Angeles Times, where she was the one to hire Wasserman, Zacchino arrived at the Chronicle a few months ago, only to be thrust into the role of flak catcher for the cancellation of the Book Review. In Los Angeles, Zacchino, on behalf of the Times, started an annual weekend book festival that consistently draws over 100,000 people. Now at the Chronicle, she plans to produce a similar book fair for Bay Area readers. She is also a driving force inside the Chronicle to revive more Sunday book reviews, either in a new tabloid or in a separate broadsheet adjacent to the opinion pages. The voices of 400 readers, she said, were definitely heard: “So there’s a good possibility we will restore some of the reviews.”
Unfortunately, Zacchino’s views are not typical of newsroom czars. Book criticism is an increasingly endangered beat in a chain-dominated newspaper industry now permanently fixated on the bottom line. Its pleasures are too quirky and cerebral to easily fit newspapers’ marketing formulas. Books are the fountainhead of our culture, the idea and entertainment source that stimulates debates on everything from the Burr-Hamilton duel to the most riveting home run. But, with few exceptions, newspapers treat book criticism as filler, good for a few column inches when the Backstreet Boys review runs short. “It’s horrible,” said Layton. “And don’t expect newspapers to stop dumbing themselves down. As it is, they no longer connect us to the world, only to a shadow of it.”
But there is a bright side. As newspapers lose their most literate customers and recede further into cultural irrelevance, we can spend more time in the one place where the world does live radiantly in words. You got it: We can read a book.
Kevin Berger is the former features editor at Salon.More Kevin Berger.
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)