"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)
When a book sells 5 million hardcover copies in its first day, it’s inevitable that there’s going to be someone who slams it and tells us that what we’re seeing is merely a pop phenomenon that bears no relation to literature. That esteemed gasbag Harold Bloom, in his guise as self-appointed keeper of the canon, did the honors after the fourth Potter book, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” telling us that reading should enrich us (without ever getting around to declaring whether it should entertain us) and shortly thereafter launching his own compendium of children’s lit that, in his view, did just that. Right on schedule, just a mere two weeks after the new Harry Potter release, it’s A.S. Byatt, apparently having made peace with Martin Amis’ dental work, who steps into the ring against J.K. Rowling’s books in a New York Times Op-Ed.
Byatt’s argument is just what you’d expect from someone shouldering the mantle of high culture. To show that she’s not a total killjoy, Byatt allows that Rowling’s books are entertaining and reveal “a sure instinct for childish psychology.” To answer the bigger question of what explains the series’ huge success with adults as well as children (uh, because J.K. Rowling is a master of narrative?), Byatt decides that the books represent “comfort” for their readers, embodying Freud’s notion of “family romance” (finding the surrogate family where we are appreciated for ourselves) and the chance to regress to a safe world where good and evil are readily identifiable and we feel that we are given control over the unpredictable.
Byatt may have a valid cultural point — a teeny one — about the impulses that drive us to reassuring pop trash and away from the troubling complexities of art. The problem is that her argument has nothing to do with the experience that anyone I know has had reading the Harry Potter books. Perhaps operating from the assumption that anything positive written about J.K. Rowling’s work is little more than publicity or evidence of lowered cultural standards, Byatt wastes nary a syllable on the subject that has been widely written about and discussed with both “The Goblet of Fire” and the new “The Order of the Phoenix”: the increasing darkness of the books. Rowling has conceived of the seven-book cycle as tracing Harry’s growth from childhood to late adolescence. And as the books have gone on, the dangers he faces have not only increased but, as happens with age, become less easy to shrug off, inflicting physical and psychological wounds that are not so quick to heal. In the climax of “Goblet of Fire,” Harry witnesses the murder of a classmate, an event that is still giving him nightmares in the new book. Having witnessed death, he is now prone to seeing things, not at all reassuring sights, that his classmates who have been spared experiencing death can not. And increasingly, he finds that the power that allowed him to survive the attempt Voldemort made on his life as an infant links his brain with that of the dark lord, making him feel that his goodness is forever imperiled by this access to the dark side.
In “The Order of the Phoenix,” Harry experiences the death of another character, someone very close to him, and increasing alienation from his best friends, Ron and Hermione, who don’t bear the burdens he does. Young readers who were the same age as Harry when the series began may be growing with him. But a younger group of readers who are just now beginning the series may find that the later books are too upsetting for them (in the same way that some teenage viewers of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” abandoned the show when it began dealing with the complications of young adulthood). But even if, at this point, they only read “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” they will find themselves confronted with loss. Remember, this is a character whose parents are murdered when he is an infant, and who himself is under the continual threat of death from his parents’ killer. That first book features the devastating scene where Harry encounters a mirror that reveals the heart’s truest desire and, looking into it, sees himself happy and smiling with the parents he never knew, a vision that lasts only as long as he looks into the glass, and a metaphor for how fleeting our moments of real happiness are. This is Byatt’s idea of reassurance?
Of course there’s something comforting in the Harry Potter books. I defy Byatt not to find the same qualities in all great children’s literature. She has confused comfort with escaping reality. Not only do all great fantasies relate back to the real world, any reassurance they offer always comes at a price. Kids suffer loss in the great works of children’s literature and then find that they have the strength to cope. They don’t forget their losses, but they learn to live with them. And that’s as true of the young heroines in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Secret Garden” and “A Little Princess,” or the boys in Walter Farley’s “The Black Stallion” and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ “The Yearling” as it is of Harry Potter.
From the question of comfort and reassurance, Byatt moves on to even shakier ground, complaining that Rowling’s form of magic is ersatz. “Ursula K. Le Guin’s wizards inhabit an anthropologically coherent world where magic really does act as a force,” Byatt writes. “Ms. Rowling’s magic wood has nothing in common with these lost worlds. It is small, and on the school grounds, and dangerous only because she says it is.” Excuse me? Anything exists in any novel only because the author says it does. That does not excuse the author from making it dramatically plausible, and if what Byatt intends to say is that for her Le Guin’s worlds are magical and Rowling’s are not, then that is an honest admission of taste. But to imply that there’s some objective standard dividing books where “magic really does act as a force” from ones where magic is a gimcrack concoction is bunk, and Byatt knows it.
And still Byatt trudges on, claiming that “Rowling speaks to an adult generation that hasn’t known, and doesn’t care about, mystery. They are inhabitants of urban jungles and not the real wild.” Well, if the author biography in my Modern Library edition of Byatt’s “Possession” is correct, the closest she has ever come to the “real wild” is growing up the daughter of a barrister and a schoolteacher in darkest Yorkshire. Unless those pages are missing an episode where, Jane-like, Byatt swung from the jungly tendrils, then it’s fair to ask how a life spent in boarding school in the British city of York, then Cambridge, Bryn Mawr and Oxford before settling in London, gave her experience of the real wild.
But this is where the crux of Byatt’s argument makes itself plain, and she is extraordinarily upfront in its snobbishness. Contemporary adults love Harry Potter, she tells us, because “they don’t have the skills to tell ersatz magic from the real thing, for as children they daily invested the ersatz with what imagination they had.” In other words, we’re too stupid to know the difference between diamonds and cubic zirconia. Byatt names us poor uncultured adult Harry lovers for what we are, “people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip.” How’s that for putting us in our place?
It’s clear that we’re dealing here with an acolyte at the temple of high culture barring the doors as the ignorant masses who love pop culture come a knockin’. Loath as I am to resurrect the old canard accusing writers or critics who dislike a popular work of art of being jealous, in Byatt’s case it might be true. Remember, this is the same writer who went into a highly publicized hissy fit some years back when Martin Amis was given a lucrative advance against future books. It’s only human for writers or filmmakers or musicians to feel resentful and even contemptuous when what they consider good, serious work is being passed over in favor of some pop artifact. But sooner or later, if you choose the life of a writer, you damn well better be able to make peace with the possibility that in all likelihood you will not enjoy spectacular commercial success. Byatt has it better than most, enjoying a modicum of fame, more than her share of respect, and the distinction of being one of the relative few who has been able to make a living at literary fiction. But success on the scale of J.K. Rowling’s clearly gets under her skin.
She’s not alone. Around the time that “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” was published three years ago, the New York Times Book Review, reportedly in response to complaints from publishers and literary agents, created a separate listing of children’s bestsellers and relegated the Harry Potter books there. The arguments put forth in favor of that move all claimed to be concerned with fairness. A slot on the Times’ bestseller list could mean great success for an author, the arguments went, and with Rowling threatening to occupy four slots on the list, it kept some books just bubbling under the top 15 from making it on. Tough. (When the Beatles occupied five slots in the top 10 they weren’t relegated to a British list to make room for the Beach Boys.)
There’s no doubt that publicists and agents use the Times list to sell books. But promotion can never be a consideration of people who put together a bestseller list. Either such a list is going to report the bestselling books in the country or it is not. And when a children’s novel sells 5 million copies in its first 24 hours on sale, clearly it’s not just children who are reading it, and it’s a baldfaced lie to pretend that any other book is the No. 1 bestseller. And did Rowling’s exile make room for those other lesser-known novelists? Of course it didn’t. Occasionally, a left-field success like Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones” earns a spot. But the exclusion of Rowling’s books means that this week the bestseller list has more room for hacks like Clive Cussler, John Grisham, Nicholas Sparks and the born-again team of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.
Nothing deserves our respect (or scorn) simply because it’s popular, no matter how popular. But literary critics almost never concern themselves with what people actually read. Sometimes there are good reasons not to. Faced with shrinking space for all sorts of reviews, I’d prefer for the novel of some unheralded new writer to get coverage rather than the latest hernia-inducer from Tom Clancy. But the literary novelists who get themselves worked up over popular fiction never stop to consider what it is that readers are responding to except, like Byatt, to put it down to the stupidity of the masses. It would be disingenuous to claim that literary fiction has altogether abandoned narrative and character. But enough literary fiction seems to have so little connection to the reasons people began reading — and keep reading — that it has to bear at least some of the blame for its own marginalization.
You would think that Byatt, whose most popular book, “Possession,” is a fat, satisfying read that offers the pleasures of narrative and character, would understand that. But maybe the book offers a clue as to why she wouldn’t. I don’t know anyone who loved “Possession” who didn’t skim through all the interpolated Victorian poems. (Reviewing the novel, enthusiastically, for the New York Review of Books, Diane Johnson quipped that Byatt’s ventriloquism of epic Victorian poetry proved the old adage “nobody likes an epic.”) People ate up the parallel stories of the two pairs of lovers, but every few chapters some damn poem about fairies or something got in the way. Byatt admits that she conceived the book as, among other things, a romance in the flavor of her childhood favorite Georgette Heyer, and as a parody of another favorite, Margery Allingham (whose books, she doesn’t seem to understand, are already parodies of the English country house mystery). “Possession” is a resounding demonstration that a contemporary novel can be literary and still be a great, engrossing read (not a distinction that would ever have occurred to the great 19th century novelists). But maybe, for Byatt, those basic pleasures, no matter how nuanced and rich her rendering, were not enough.
In making J.K. Rowling the repository of everything that’s cheap and phony in contemporary culture, Byatt seems to be arguing not just against what she sees as the inevitable cheapness of popular culture but also against the basic pleasures that draw people to books. Which is why for Byatt, as an academic as well as a novelist, the advent of cultural studies making their way into the sacred halls of academe is a betrayal. She may admit to loving Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances as a child, but now, my God, she has lived to see people actually reviewing Heyer. Heaven forfend. What doesn’t occur to Byatt is that the excesses of cultural studies (and she’s right that some of it betrays an unseemly preoccupation with crap) was a direct response to the academics who deemed any study of popular culture inappropriate at the university level. And it’s worth remembering that at one time, that bias would have prevented the study of Shakespeare, Dickens, Mozart or Griffith (or any movies, for that matter).
It’s not making distinctions between high culture and pop culture that I object to. It’s the either/or scenario proposed by high-culture guardians like Byatt that seems so churlish, so ready to make the appreciation of high culture seem the dreary duty it was when we were schoolchildren. “The only reason people read is pleasure,” Leslie Fiedler once said. And I’ll end by offering another Fiedler quote that should keep Byatt and the other keepers of the cultural flame up nights. In a Salon interview a few weeks before his death, Fiedler related a story about enraging a group of academics by announcing that when he and they were all dead and forgotten, people were still going to be reading Stephen King. The ugly truth that A.S. Byatt and Harold Bloom have yet to face is that when they have been reduced to footnotes, people are still going to be reading and enjoying the Harry Potter books. And somewhere, J.K. Rowling, keeping company with Dumas and Conan Doyle and the other “nonliterary” writers who live on, will be laughing.
Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.More Charles Taylor.
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)