"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)
Rare is the book that infuriates and captivates like Lori Gottlieb’s latest. From its unapologetic goal — to help unhappy single ladies get hitched! — to its grabby, “oh no she didn’t” title (“Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough“), women haven’t argued about a dating book so ferociously since we first learned he just wasn’t that into us. “Surprisingly, unnervingly convincing,” wrote Alex Kuczynski at O magazine, while over at the Daily Beast, Liesl Schillinger tarred it as “whining, capricious, corrosive.” In the meantime, Tobey Maguire’s production company snapped up the movie rights, and Gottlieb has been interviewed everywhere from Dr. Phil to the “Today” show.
Gottlieb is an accomplished journalist, best-selling memoirist and 42-year-old single mother who would like to find a husband. After more than two decades of dismissing potential dating partners for silly reasons (one doomed fellow is guilty of nothing more than being a redhead), she sees the error of her unrealistic, perfectionistic ways. “This isn’t an advice book or a dating manual,” she writes. “It’s an honest look at why our dating lives might not be going as planned, and what our own roles might be.” At its best, “Marry Him” is a sensible, old-fashioned plea to look past the superficial, to discard the toxic fantasy of romantic comedies and think realistically about what makes a solid partnership.
But that’s not all it is. As in the 2008 Atlantic essay that started it all, Gottlieb’s depiction of single womanhood can be practically monstrous, a misery parade of boring happy hours and appointments with the bikini waxer, nights staring at a phone that won’t ring. She uses her life as a cautionary tale: Make the right choices, little missy, or you could end up like me. As she explains in the book, “I’m trying to help. It’s kind of like those graphic anti-drunk driving public service announcements that show people crashing into poles and getting killed … It’s not until you see people ending up brain-dead, lying in a coma in the hospital and surrounded by beeping monitors, that the message has an impact.”
Gottlieb is no doubt articulating the panic of a certain high-achieving female who believed a perfect man was her birthright — the same kind of baffled woman likely to consult the pricey matchmakers whose wisdom fills up much of the book, by the way — but her insistence on universalizing that experience can be downright maddening. Then again, her larger audience — women who are single and do not want to be — is no doubt a robust one. And as she told me, “This isn’t some regretful 40-something giving you matronly advice. I spoke to scientists and experts in neurobiology, psychology, sociology, marital research, couple therapists, behavioral economists, regular folks married and single.” Don’t like what the book is saying? There’s more than Lori Gottlieb to blame.
I spoke to Gottlieb by phone from her her home in Los Angeles, where we began with that fiesty little grenade lobbed into the book’s title.
“Settling” is a powerful word, and it’s created a lot of pushback. Why don’t you define what you mean by “settling”?
I think what people are missing is the irony in the title. People are taking it very literally. There’s a survey I cite in the book which says that when women were asked if they got 80 percent of everything they want in a person, would that be OK? They said, “No, that’s settling.” And when men were asked the same question, they said “That’s a catch.”
I think when people hear the word “settling,” they think I’m saying “go pick a guy who you have no physical attraction towards, who you don’t love but who can provide a stable home for you.” I wouldn’t marry that guy, and I wouldn’t suggest anyone else should marry that guy.
The title has become such a lightning rod, though. If that’s what you’re saying, I wonder if the term doesn’t do a disservice to your general message.
I’m surprised by the reaction to the title. The title is used as a way to get people thinking about what it really means to be in love. Never in the book do I say you shouldn’t feel passionately about your partner. Of course you should!
You put yourself in this book a lot, and it’s clear you’re wrestling with this notion yourself — of keeping high standards while trying to focus on qualities that truly matter. There’s a point in the book where you say, for instance, you won’t date anyone who’s bald. I wonder if the advice of this book is really directed at you?
Well, I’m not giving any advice. I’m the messenger. I’m the one who says, look: It seems to me, based on my observations, that women are looking for the wrong things, because the women I know who are super-happy in their marriages put a different emphasis on things than I did and that some of my friends who are still single did. So I went to the experts to find out what is important in long-term love, and are we looking for those things when we’re dating? Are we giving those things enough emphasis?
When the Atlantic piece came out I was actually dating someone, which was real fun for him. He was a great guy, smart, funny, sexy, successful. But in terms of what I now know I want in a spouse, in a husband, in a father to children, those kinds of things — not so much. Those are things I think people need to look at.
One of the things I like about this book is that you’re puncturing this idea of “The One.” That’s a fantasy I see in literature and movies, and one I see reflected in conversations with my friends. Can you talk about why this idea is so powerful to us, this idea of “The One”?
It’s such a lovely idea. I mean, who wouldn’t want to believe in that? But I like what Rabbi Wolpe said when I interviewed him, “This notion of soul mates is a nice one to believe in, but in truth, we could be happy with a lot of different people. It’s not that there’s one soul mate out there — it’s that our soul develops differently with each person.”
It seems to me that experience is often the best instructor — and sometimes we meet partners because experience and loss and romantic failures have shaped us so that we’re ready for those partners. Do you think you would have listened to the message of your own book back when you were in your 20s?
I think it was all in the abstract back then. And what I hope I’m doing with this book is saying, look, this isn’t just my uninformed opinion. This is what the country’s most respected researchers and scientists who study marriage and love say about what you should look for at any age, but especially when you’re younger and you might be dazzled by the wrong things.
It’s interesting that you’re writing about marriage at a time when marriage as an institution is less imperative for women than it’s ever been, in terms of finances and independence and families and all these things that marriages historically provided. Can you talk about why marriage appeals to you?
I want somebody to go through life with. I want a soft place to land at the end of the day. I want somebody who has my back and whose back I have, and I want somebody who, when the kitchen sink breaks, can help with that. Do I need that? No, I’m fine on my own. But I want it.
And I know there are women out there who don’t want that. And I don’t know why they’re so offended by my book — that they haven’t read by, the way. If I’m not interested in golf, I’m not going to read a book about how to improve my golf game.
There was a lot of vitriol aimed at me for admitting I want a husband badly. It’s not that I need one. Obviously, I make a good living. Obviously, I take care of my son. Obviously, I function well in society. But I crave the companionship. And I don’t think that’s unnatural. And I don’t know why that made me seem weak or desperate or needy or codependent.
Well, I know for me, I’m very interested in your experience but I didn’t feel like it reflected my own. And I had a strong kickback while reading it, thinking, “But that’s not me!”
Right. I don’t expect my experience to be everybody’s experience. But I think there are two things that are going on in the book. One is that I’m trying to get some answers that are more universal from these experts about what qualities matter in a marriage. And then there is my own story. I never thought of myself as picky, by the way. Obviously, I was off-the-charts picky, but I think a lot of us talk to our friends and say “well he’s kind of like this” and they’re like “yeah.” We’re yes-women for our friends. We don’t really tell them the truth, we’re always agreeing with their perspective, because we think that only they know what’s good for them.We’ll support them in whatever they feel they need. And at a certain point I think that changes people’s expectations. I don’t think my experience is everybody’s experience, but I think there are elements of my experience that lots of women can relate to.
This reminds me of a chapter in the book in which you talk about the “girl power” movement and these ideas that you can have it all and shouldn’t settle for less. I actually felt that cultural moment came out of a real feeling that women were selling themselves short. That too often, women weren’t asking what for they wanted in a relationship. I feel like you’re reporting from the pendulum swing of that, where you’re saying that we pushed too far.
No, I’m not saying we pushed too far. Let me clarify that. I don’t think we pushed too far. My understanding of the feminist movement is that it’s a social movement about equality. I’ll say on the record, I’m a feminist. But a lot of women twisted the ideas of feminism. Feminism never told us that we should have it all in our marriage. Feminism never told us “you need to find the perfect man.” Feminism, as I say in the book, never wrote a dating manual. But a lot of us said, “Oh, we have this idea that having it all is feminism, that compromising is bad, and that we should apply this to our dating lives.” I think it’s an unconscious thing. We grew up so empowered in all these ways that we just thought we should have it all in our relationships too, and I’m not going to compromise because that’s not being true to myself. So if I don’t like short guys, why should I date them?
I’m glad you brought up feminism. But I was actually referring to the girl-power, “Sex and the City” moment and what, at its worst, might be disparagingly called a princess culture. I’ve heard people talk about that whole movement creating this sort of generation of spoiled brats, a serious entitlement.
None of my friends are princesses. They’re smart, they’re ambitious, they’re interesting people. But while they have all of these qualities, they have their flaws, too, as do I. And when we’re looking at guys it’s almost like shopping for a guy. A guy is a package deal, and you can’t just order up the qualities that you want. And that might sound unbelievably obvious to anyone older than 16, but I think we still look at it that way. And we forget that a guy is also looking at us. When a guy is dating me, he may have ideally wanted somebody taller. He may have wanted someone less perfectionistic. But we think our own less-than-appealing qualities are actually quirky and endearing. It’s like, “Yeah, I’m a perfectionist, but it’s kind of cute that I’m so compulsive. Won’t somebody who loves me find that really cute and quirky and endearing and adorable?” And no, he’s going to find it really annoying, but he’s going to love you so much that he’s willing to overlook that to spend the rest of his life with you. We have to say that this guy doesn’t have quality X, or he has annoying quality Y, but we’re going to have to overlook that because we love him so much. You never get to the point of knowing whether you’re going to fall in love with somebody, because you’ve already ruled them out.
I believe you that it’s your experience. But there has never been a time when I didn’t think a guy was choosing me, when I thought certain deficiencies would be perceived as quirky and endearing. And I was reading your book and thinking, “Wow, this person must be really pretty –”
Oh, no, not at all.
“And this person must be really gregarious. Because she had all these suitors in her 20s, men falling all over her, and that just wasn’t my experience.”
Are you in a relationship? What was your experience? How old are you?
I’m 35, and I’m single now, though I’ve had wonderful relationships. But I really didn’t date much in my 20s. I guess I was a bit of a workaholic, I traveled a lot, and I have to say that it never occurred to me that I was shopping for a guy. That idea of pickiness, I don’t think it ever occurred to me.
I’ll bet, actually, there were guys who were interested in you but who you didn’t consider or even notice because they weren’t on your radar. And those are the guys I’m saying should be on our radar, especially in our 20s. I interviewed my cousins in their 20s — and these aren’t Angelina Jolie, either. But it’s a very vibrant social scene. They’re dating or going out all the time. I think it gives the illusion you are in that situation of endless supply, that this is always going to be the case. And so you don’t look as carefully at somebody, because why should you give somebody a second glance when you can look over here?
A writer on Jezebel made a connection between your previous memoir, about your eating disorder, and your search for a partner. “Gottlieb treats dating like dieting — an unpleasant exercise in self-denial, meant to achieve a socially acceptable result,” she writes. Do you see any truth in that?
I see it as the opposite of denial — it’s about the opening up of possibilities and not denying ourselves the opportunity to fall madly in love with someone because we’ve intellectualized ourselves out of getting to know someone who isn’t our culture’s ideal of Mr. Right.
The funny thing is, this writer and I probably agree on everything — that nobody needs a man, that marriage isn’t the answer, that you have to be truly attracted to and in love with your partner. But the idea that you might not get your ideal and might have to compromise on some things in order to find that guy makes her think this is about self-denial when it’s really about giving yourself permission to look at more than just “your type” and see who you fall in love with organically.
You do have a very a grim view of singlehood.
You’re right about that. For me, it’s harder to go through life alone than with a partner you love. But I don’t have a grim view of singlehood for those who embrace it. It’s that, for me and many women — we’d rather have the teammate in life. And no matter how many friends we have, there’s a qualitative difference between what those friendships can offer — it’s a completely different level of intimacy and involvement in the minutiae, the little moments in life that have so much meaning to a lot of us, especially as we get older and our priorities change.
But when I read what you write about the pain of singlehood, it reminds me of people I know who are or have been in painful marriages, who are lonely in their marriages.
Oh, absolutely. I don’t think marriage is necessarily a solution to loneliness. It’s normal to go through periods of loneliness whether you’re married or not. But a painful marriage — that’s the wrong marriage. And that’s what I’m telling people in the book not to get into. I’m saying, if you want to marry, marry for the right reasons so you don’t end up in a painful marriage. But even if you’ve found the right partner, life is hard at times, and if I have the choice between going through both the joyful and the hard parts of life by myself or with someone else, I choose with someone else. The right someone else. Not the idealized someone else.
Sarah Hepola is an editor at Salon.More Sarah Hepola.
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)