"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)
In my second year at Harvard Business School, I took an elective called “the Moral Leader,” the only literature-based course in the curriculum. Every week a small group of MBA students read a work of fiction featuring an ethical dilemma and discussed its implications for their own business decisions.
Using Russell Banks’ “The Sweet Hereafter,” the story of a town mired in litigation after a school bus crash, we analyzed the conflict between morality and justice: Was it ethical for one injured girl to end the toxic lawsuits with a lie? Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Remains of the Day” shaped our debate about personal responsibility in the realm of service: Was the uneducated butler of an English gentleman culpable for serving a Nazi sympathizer? With Robert Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons,” the story of Thomas More’s refusal to give in to Henry VIII’s break from the Catholic Church, we considered if a principle could ever be more precious than a life. And my favorite, Allan Gurganus’ short story “Blessed Assurance,” showed us how the simple act of collecting a few cents in life insurance payments could feel like the most vile thing ever to fall under the umbrella of business. In class we easily compared the scheme in the story to more familiar financial crimes like insider trading, the young protagonist taking minuscule sums from a large number of uneducated destitute in order to enrich sellers equipped with far better information. The debate around that story was tremendous and inspiring — it moved us, if only for one day, to recognize our own selfish desire for profit and the humanity of those we might hurt with our actions.
For me, “the Moral Leader” was a life-changing course, not only because it deepened my thinking on the practical aspects of morality, but also because in this class I fell in love with fiction. Shortly after that, I enrolled in a creative writing course. Later, I quit business and became a writer.
Now, watching the events surrounding the massive insider-trading investigation of the hedge fund SAC, and finding myself in frequent ethics discussions with friends in finance, I often think that much of what I learned while studying to be a writer could have helped me as a business student, and my friends as they grew into leaders in their various industries. In business school, I felt strong, immune to every frailty. Successful alumni loaded with gravitas empowered my classmates and me to be bold and to act, to trust our instincts. By contrast, in writing workshops, introspective scholars preached exactness, revision and the infinite gray of the soul. Every day they exposed us to our own capacity for wickedness, all our unexamined motives. As writing students we learned to analyze human weakness, to identify hidden vulnerabilities in our characters, and by extension, in ourselves. We learned to weave a convincing narrative by reaching for the bare-bones truth. And, most important, we learned to respect language. Words, we understood, are no place to hide.
Respect your audience, we were told over and over, by literary greats.
Now I wonder, shouldn’t we have learned how to do all that in business school? Was it acceptable that in the breeding ground for America’s leadership, we placed so much focus on developing and nurturing ourselves, our image? And what about the many ways we learned to abuse language, carefully tweaking every communication until it was emptied of all meaning? Of course, business school doesn’t, and shouldn’t, have the same aims as art school and I’m making no grand proposals that one kind of education can fix the inadequacies of the other. (On the contrary, I’m impressed that Harvard Business School has made room for a single literature course.) But I have studied at top institutions in both fields, and as time passes and the lessons blur together, I am amazed by the expanse of common ground between them, by the practical wisdom of art, and by its universality.
Lately, when I talk to friends in leadership positions, I find myself returning to the words of my writing teachers:
Language exists to illuminate, not to muddle.
In her essay “Close Reading” Francine Prose states that good writing means putting “every word on trial for its life.” Otherwise, the prose only seems accomplished when speeding through. It doesn’t inspire or stand the scrutiny of a close read.
When I was a consultant, we often played with words. We wrote, “McKinsey Analysis” at the bottom of slides, when what we actually meant was, “basic client data summarized by a 22-year-old.” Managers used tired jargon like, “don’t boil the ocean,” “don’t reinvent the wheel” and “pick the low-hanging fruit,” when they actually wanted their analysts to work until 3 a.m. Employees were never fired; they were “counseled out.” It was so absurd that it became a joke among the consultants at the firm. Once a colleague said about his breakup, “I’m trying to counsel her out of our apartment.”
I admit, I found the vague language soothing. I was 22 and believed I could never get fired. Besides, my firm, McKinsey & Co, had high standards, produced good work and took good care of me. They didn’t invent the soul-killing language. They existed in a larger business environment that had spawned this double-speak and everyone somehow learned to decipher it. Regardless, the opportunity for such vagueness — the simple way it removes accountability or guilt or consequence — creates a fertile environment for the worst behavior, even at the best firms. It’s easy for a weak, stressed-out investor to buy a few drinks for an insider, learn a little too much, and then spew a string of imprecise words, like, “I have a hunch that this might be a good buy based on a mosaic of non-material information I’ve gleaned using standard firm analysis.”
Recently I asked my teacher, the writer Charles Baxter, to say something about all the current misbehavior in the finance world. His response went straight to the heart of the matter: language. He showed me an article by Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times (June 2013) about the Anglo Irish Bank tapes in which disgraced executives displayed arrogance and greed, but no remorse, even as they discussed their own misdeeds. Says O’Toole of the executives caught on tape, “The bankers are acutely self-conscious about language,” using evasive linguistic techniques to distance themselves from their victims.
Baxter and his peers constantly tell young writers that language is supposed to bring us closer to the truth. In the writing world, we celebrate brevity, clarity, precision. We talk about avoiding clichés and generalities and empty jargon, because readers see through these things. No one is dazzled by a mess of words revealing nothing. And yet, such is the accepted language of the business world. It doesn’t stand the scrutiny of a close read. The truth is lurking somewhere behind piles of words, scraped of meaning and jumbled together to create a desired image, a likeness that looks great only from far away.
Real people have all kinds of frailties. Don’t write characters as saints or villains.
Over the years I’ve had many friends who work in the hedge-fund industry. The consensus among most is that insider trading isn’t just rampant; it’s necessary to survive. “It’s not just tolerated. It’s encouraged, even mandated,” said a former investor. “The fund manager’s in your face all the time saying, ‘You have no edge, you have no edge, you have no edge. You haven’t even talked to the banker on that deal.’” Insider trading is one of the toughest crimes to prosecute. It would take a giant of morality to resist the temptation, to defy the manager screaming in your ear.
Among my peers, none of us were giants of morality. We did, however, all think that we were.
In business school ethics courses, my classmates and I were so good at correct answers, hands thrust in the air, always capable of spotting the wrongdoings on each page of a case, like a game of “Where’s Waldo.” We loudly endorsed the concept of ethical purity, hardly ever stopping to think that the fallen businessmen in our cases didn’t wake up one day and decide to be villains. It happened slowly — and it could happen to any of us. It seemed to me that the vehemence with which we condemned the wrongdoers signaled a certain susceptibility in us. We were determined to ignore our own darkest potential, and so, in that way, we were defenseless.
Some months after my graduation, a classmate started a movement called “The MBA Oath.” His team rallied business students, starting with the ones at Harvard, to sign a pledge containing seven promises like, “I will refrain from corruption, unfair competition, or business practices harmful to society.” Many signed it. It got loads of press, and its creators published a book based on the notion.
Seven simple promises … Problem solved, right? It was a neat and elegant solution, as one would expect from trained strategy consultants. To be blunt, the oath was nothing more than another P.R. opportunity. Image-savvy MBAs jumped all over it. It seemed so dubious to me, so foolish to disregard the extreme challenge of facing very real temptations in a foggy world.
In a way, the signers saw themselves as the saintly stick figures that literary fiction teaches us don’t exist. And this should be no surprise. After all, which is more compelling: Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” or J.M. Coetzee’s “Disgrace”? It is uncomfortable to acknowledge that the feeble protagonist in the latter is the one that best resembles us.
If I had to come to a conclusion about what happened to all the insider traders who were caught or confessed in this and other cases, I would point to this blasé self-assurance as the culprit. It permeates this country’s finance culture, where humility is hardly valued, and admitting to human frailty or uncertainty or temptation is laughable. As a cohort, the graduates of my business school class were fearless and proud, believing more than anything in our own potential, our enduring momentum. We thought ourselves invincible and so we didn’t guard against ourselves. In the end, I’d say that the future leaders Harvard Business School unleashed unto the world were idealistic, ambitious and sharp — and unknowingly vulnerable to whatever culture we were dropped into.
Life doesn’t happen in passive voice. Every outcome is and must be a direct result of someone’s decisions.
Any writing student can tell you that characters must move actively through the world, that passive voice weakens a story. The writer must attribute every outcome to someone’s decisions or the narrative fails to have a perspective. It becomes a series of random events, strung together flimsily, signifying nothing.
And yet the passive voice has become a favorite tool (in business, in media, in everyday conversation) for watering down uncomfortable truths. “When business people say, ‘Mistakes were made,’ they create dysfunctional narratives in which no one is to blame,” says Charles Baxter. “It creates a climate of mistrust and disavowals and irresponsibility. The buck, lately, doesn’t stop here. It doesn’t stop anywhere. We’re in the era of the ceaselessly moving buck.”
In business school, we didn’t prepare to someday ask for forgiveness. If the time came, we would do damage control. We would stick to party lines. We would let our lawyers talk. Undoubtedly, the passive voice would come in handy. But how can you make amends without using the word “I”? One of the first things I learned as a student of fiction was this: True redemption is a violent act of purging. It is an active thing. It strips the protagonist bare.
In J.M. Coetzee’s “Disgrace,” a fallen professor slowly accepts the repugnance of a crime he has committed. He travels to the home of his victim’s family, whose humanity and suffering he can finally admit to himself. He drops to his knees, lays his head on the ground before them and wordlessly begs for forgiveness. There is nothing passive about it, no image to salvage. He is kissing the dirt.
In describing the beauty of penitence, the great Persian poet Rumi says, “There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” It seems that today’s business leaders know none of them, and, more important, they see no beauty in it.
I wish business schools offered more classes not about how to lead, but about how to be a regular person in a world of regular people — how to put yourself humbly in the place of a stranger and to inhabit that space like a writer inhabits a character. I wish business leaders were required to read Saramago, Robinson, Coetzee, Hedayat and Carver, and that more than 30 or 40 in a class of 900 would take “the Moral Leader.” Of course, I’m not suggesting that reading literature will rid the business world of wrongdoing — plenty of the most remorseless offenders have been well read. What I’m proposing is simply that we pull out a dusty tool at the bottom of a massive toolkit.
At the end of a good story, characters transform. In the best morality tales, the protagonists begin to fear themselves. They accept their own worst instincts and learn to question every motive so they can grow into thoughtful people. They live in three dimensions. They stumble and fall. And they move, actively, unambiguously, in a world stained by the consequences of their actions.
Dina Nayeri is the author of "A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea" (Riverhead Books 2013). Her work is published in over twenty countries. She is a graduate of Harvard Business School and the Iowa Writers Workshop. She lives in New York City.More Dina Nayeri.
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)