"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)
Lori Gottlieb is rising to the ranks of Katie Roiphe and Caitlin Flanagan. That is to say that she is gaining infamy as an antagonizer of feminist values.
First, there was her 2010 book titled “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough,” which used her own 40-something singlehood as a cautionary tale, one that essentially says, “Don’t be as picky as me!” More recently, there was a New York Times Magazine cover story, which suggested that gender equality hurts couples’ sex lives. Neither piece alone was exactly an indictment of feminism. “Marry Him” is more measured than its explosive title suggests; and the Times piece at least allows that culture might play a role in how equality influences the connubial bed. Taken together, though, there is a consistent warning: Women want too much, and they will be punished for it — via spinsterdom or sexlessness. (This is a bit of a sore spot, given the way women are often judged by their ability to “have it all.”)
It’s no surprise, then, that Jezebel called “Marry Him” “possibly the worst book about marriage of this young millennium,” that Double X deemed Gottlieb to be “capitalizing on … panic,” or that I was critical of her last week in Salon. But I’ve often wondered: How accurately does Gottlieb’s public persona reflect her actual beliefs? Is it a media-savvy act, an effective feat of culture-trolling? I got her on the phone to try to find out. I encountered a thoughtful fast-talker who says she is greatly misunderstood. We talked about her book title regrets, gender differences and her own feminism — and even found some things to agree upon.
Let me start by airing a frustration I’ve heard women express recently in response to your latest piece: First you told us to settle for Mr. Good Enough. Now you’re suggesting that such domestic companionship isn’t sexy! Is there any contradiction there?
Well, those are not my messages. Neither is. So I’m a little bit confused by that. I think when people say “settle for Mr. Good Enough” they’re taking what a publisher used as a title and not having read the book at all. I never have advocated settling or lowering one’s standards or being with somebody that you’re not in love with. I don’t think anybody who’s read the book would think that’s actually what my message is. The message is, ironically, that women should have extremely high standards about who they marry. It’s sort of what Sheryl Sandberg said in “Lean In,” when she said that she believes the single most important career decision a woman can make is whether to have a life partner and also who that partner is. That’s pretty much “Marry Him,” but nobody got offended when Sheryl Sandberg said that.
If you don’t want a partner, fine. But if you do, then read this book. It’s not for the people who don’t want partners. It’s not saying, “If you don’t want a partner read this book because you’re making a mistake.” If I’m not interested in cooking, I’m not going to read a cookbook. If you’re not interested in finding a partner, don’t read a book on how to find a partner. “Marry Him” is really about having very high standards in terms of what women don’t pay a lot of attention to nowadays. Those are the things that are really going to predict whether you’re going to have a happy, lasting marriage. That’s what the book is about and I don’t see why that’s so controversial.
So then what do you think women should be looking for in terms of a happy, lasting marriage — and, related to your latest piece, one that also has a spicy sexual component to it?
I think [the “spicy sexual component” is] part of having a happy, lasting marriage. “Marry Him” isn’t asking people not to pick somebody that they’re attracted to and have good chemistry with.
Is it possible to — “settle” is such a loaded word — is it possible to find a person who isn’t Prince Charming but is a good man and have a hot married sex life?
I think that you need to think that the person you’re marrying is Prince Charming, just as he needs to think that you’re Princess Charming. Even though in reality we know that everybody makes compromises. There’s no such thing as a perfect person, and that sounds so obvious and so something that one learns when they’re a teenager but it doesn’t play out in the way that people date when they’re adults. The whole point in “Marry Him” is to say, “Let’s make sure that when you’re looking for this person that you’re hoping to spend your life with that you aren’t being unrealistic about what one human being is and what that person can offer, and what you are and what you can offer.” So, in answer to your question, you should absolutely feel like you’re marrying Prince Charming, but, again, he’s your Prince Charming, so that’s the difference.
The research in “Marry Him” shows that women tend to do this more than men, but again these are gross generalizations, that’s how research is. They’ll pick broad groups of women and broad groups of men and look at the differences. Then women get very upset and say, “You’re saying I do this and I’m a woman and I don’t do that!” Well, OK, you didn’t take that survey. I think that when people are in these surveys it shows women tend to have more inflated ideas of who this person is or what their idea of Prince Charming might be than men do when they’re picking who they want to spend their life with.
That’s an interesting thread I’ve seen in some of your recent pieces, both “Marry Him” and the New York Times Magazine piece. There’s this suggestion that women are wanting too much. They want the too-perfect man and the too-equal marriage. Is there an element here of scolding women?
That’s such an interesting word. I mean, I am a woman. I don’t know why people would think I’m scolding women. If anything I’m trying to help, in the way that I’m trying to help myself. I’m not taking myself out of that pool of women. I think because I’m the messenger of some things that people maybe don’t want to hear, people consider that scolding. I think that knowledge is really empowering. If we don’t look at what’s in front of us, we’re not going to be able to navigate our lives in a way that’s going to make us happy. I’m simply pointing out things that culturally we don’t tend to be aware of because the media and other forces are sending us very different messages. And unfortunately those messages don’t necessarily square with reality and then we wonder why our lives aren’t the way we were hoping they would be.
Is there an element of self-flagellation in your writing?
In what sense?
Just … writing about mistakes that you feel you’ve made and using that as a jumping-off point for advising women to do better than you’ve done.
I think that there’s an element of regret. I think in “Marry Him” what I’m saying is, “I never had anyone tell me these things. I never had anyone shift my perspective in this way. So I went through with the prevailing cultural perspective of the moment, which I realized was not only landing me, but also so many people that I knew, in a place that we didn’t necessarily want to be in, or ever expect to be in. We all just thought, “It will fall into place and we’ll find our career situation and romantic situation.” While our career situations tended to fall into place, our romantic situations tended to be across the board very different. There were a lot of us really surprised to be at that age and without a partner. Some of us wanted kids and some of us didn’t, but we all wanted a partner.
When you talk about self-flagellation, absolutely no. But I think there’s regret in the sense that I never [got that message], and the point of writing “Marry Him” was to say, “Hey, these are the things I wish someone had told me when I was in my 20s” — and even when I was in my early 30s or even now in my early 40s. Now I have a boyfriend and I’ve approached things very, very differently and it’s made me so much happier. I get letters from people every single day, literally, saying that this really helped them and made them happier. It’s not like people are now sitting by the stove with an apron and they settled for some guy they didn’t even like — that’s not at all what this is about.
Do you think you will ever get married?
It’s possible. I don’t care so much about the label. I care about going through life with a partner.
Looking back, are there partners that you regret giving up on, people you think you could have settled with and had a happy life?
Again, you’re using that word “settled.” It’s not about settling. It’s about people that I didn’t really get the opportunity to get to know because I would dismiss them after one or two dates, for whatever reason — and so did my friends. In the reporting for “Marry Him” it wasn’t like, “You and your demographic.” I just think we have ideas of who the guy is and if he doesn’t conform to that we feel like there are so many people out there, so moving on. We think it would be settling to be with this person — well, we haven’t even gotten to know this person yet.
Are there any controversial pieces that you regret or would write differently now?
I don’t think anything I’ve written is controversial! [laughs] I think that’s where we differ.
It certainly is true that both with the book, and this recent article, there have been people who loved it and agreed with it, and there have been people who very passionately disagreed with it.
I think that “Marry Him” has a controversial title. I don’t think the content of the book is at all controversial.I don’t see how anyone can really objectively argue with anything I say in the book. Does the dating situation change for women and men as we get older? You can find outliers to that, but overall is it going to be harder for a 45-year-old to find the kind of person she could have found at 25? Absolutely. Just, objectively, ask any man about that and he’s going to say, yes, that’s going to be a lot harder. Ask women who experience that if it’s harder. It absolutely is. I don’t consider anything in that book controversial, in terms of looking for character qualities that research shows predict happy, lasting passionate marriages. I don’t know, you could try to argue with the research, but that’s what the research shows. There’s always going to be exceptions to the research, and if you’re an exception to the research, more power to you, great! But for a lot of people who are struggling with these things, I think it’s really helpful for them to say, not only “here’s what the situation is” but “here’s what I can do about it. I don’t have to feel like a victim, I can actually make changes in my own life and get the outcome that I want.”
Do you regret the title of the book?
I hated the title. I didn’t want to use the title. I even told them I wouldn’t publish the book with that title, and I lost that battle. I could show you the emails. I had a choice: do not publish the book with us or use this title. That was my choice and I wanted to publish this book because I was passionate about it.
And the title certainly did a lot to get the book attention. Was it worth it, then?
Where we were in the publishing process at that point to try to switch publishers I don’t know what would have happened. So I really didn’t want to risk not having the message out there. We suggested so many alternate titles and they insisted on using the word “settle.” So we came up with all of these alternate titles that would let people know that it’s really not about settling. There was one that I thought was the perfect compromise, the subtitle was something like, “How to settle for the perfect man” or something where it had the word “settle” but it showed you would be happy in the end. That is something that to this day is upsetting to me. So many people did not read the book. On the other hand, back to your question, so many people did read the book, and those are the people I get emails from every day. So, once people get past the title, if you do get past the title — and many people don’t, many people are like, “there’s that Lori Gottlieb!” — people who read the book, it’s by word-of-mouth. People will be like, “I know the title is really off-putting and offensive but just read this book. I read it and it was really helpful.” Those are the people who are reading the book. People aren’t reading it because of any of the publicity or what the title was, because that completely put people off.
Do you feel like your message is being used by editors and publishers to exploit women’s worst fears?
I don’t think they’re trying to exploit women’s worst fears, I think they’re trying to sell books. I’m not a marketing person, they’re doing their job. Sometimes decisions are made that the author doesn’t agree with and that was the situation here. That said, editorially, I had a great experience with this publisher. It was really about the marketing. I loved the publishing house and I loved my editor, so I don’t want that message to get lost here. I’m simply saying that the title was something I fought vehemently against. It’s kind of like saying to people, “you’re going to buy an apple” but I’m selling an orange. It’s embarrassing. I was telling them, “I’m mortified, I’m going to have to go on television and they’re gonna say, ‘Lori Gottlieb feels that women should settle, coming up next!’ And then I’m going to have to go and the first thing I’m going have to say on the ‘Today’ show is, ‘It’s not about settling!’” And that’s exactly what happened! I went on the “Today” show and they kept trying to get me to say that it’s about settling and I kept saying, “No, it’s really not.” People say, “Well, why is it called that?” And you can’t go on in your three-minute segment, of which you have 90 seconds of voice time, and say, “My publisher made me do that!”
I’m not trying to be controversial, but I am trying to talk about the complexities of life, and the complexities of life are very nuanced. I’m saying things that may be uncomfortable for people. I’m saying certain things that people maybe wish weren’t true but are true. It would be fantastic if the way that dating changed over time didn’t affect men and women differently. That would be great! It’s just not the truth. So if you want to live in La La Land and believe that, then you can do whatever you’re doing and wonder why you’re not finding the person you want to spend your life with.
Life is complicated, for men and women. With this latest piece, I don’t think the people who choose these kind of peer marriages are going to say all of a sudden, “Well, let’s change our roles!” I’m simply saying, “These egalitarian marriages are complicated — no one wants to give them up, but they’re complicated, so let’s talk about that.”
In part because of the packaging of the book, you’ve become known as a retro relationship guru of sorts. It’s garnered you a lot of attention. Do you feel conflicted about the fame and attention? Has it come at a price?
Retro relationship guru? First of all, I’m so not a guru of any sort. I’m a psychotherapist, I’m a couples therapist, and I’m trained to do that, but I’m not a guru in any sense. The title of the book we’ve talked about. With many things that I write — headlines, you know? I don’t pick the headlines. It’s not just me, it’s with any journalist, especially nowadays on the Internet — you know, BuzzFeed and all these things — headlines are chosen to be catchy. I don’t have anything to do with that. I think what I write, instead of controversy, I write about things that are happening in the culture and I try to create a more nuanced discussion about them. That’s the kind of work that I like to do — not to create controversy but to create discussion and conversation so that we have a better understanding of our world and the lives we’re living — and I think that’s very consistent with my work as a psychotherapist.
I want to say one thing about “retro.” I’m hardly retro. It’s funny, I get attacked from both sides. It’s either “you’re too retro” or “you’re too forward-thinking,” and they’re diametrically opposed. I don’t think there’s anything retro about wanting to spend your life with somebody. People think that because my book helps people find somebody to spend their life with — that even talking about that is retro, because it’s supposed to be, “We don’t need another person, we’re so independent.” Modern life is all about independence and not needing. In the dialogue around “Marry Him,” I said repeatedly, “I don’t think getting married or having kids is for everybody.” That’s not what “Marry Him” is about. It’s not retro in the sense that the role of women is to get married and have kids. Not at all.
I think that many people, and I see this in my therapy practice too, people tend to want to be with somebody and that’s just human nature. There are people who don’t, there are people who are very happy being single. But the majority of people, let’s say over 50 percent, if asked what do you want in life they would say, yeah, I want to go through life with somebody. I don’t think that’s controversial or retro. Let’s say we agree on that premise, then why is it retro to say here are some of the ways that will help you find that person so that you can have that thing you really want. It doesn’t mean that you don’t want to have a professional identity or whatever else fills out your life.
Do you see anything retro in your latest piece? The idea that equality might actually be counterproductive to your sex life?
I think it’s really about starting a conversation about what equality means. I guess what I’m questioning in the piece is if sameness dampens sexual desire — whether that’s biological or cultural, that’s another question — and if we want to have better sex in our marriages, what does better sex mean? What’s better sex in the context of a long-term monogamous relationship? And then this idea of sameness. Is equality really about sameness or is equality about equal respect and equal power but maybe our roles are different? That chore study started the piece, but it’s really not about the chore study. So it doesn’t mean, well, now women have to do the laundry and men have to fix the light bulbs and that’s going to be that.
I think that’s what I got hung up on in that piece. My main issue with it was at points the conflating of parity with sameness. What you’re saying now I completely agree with.
Look at how some women might react to a man who is more culturally feminine, right? Then you look at how some men might react to a woman who is more culturally masculine. We have reactions to that. To pretend that we don’t in the name of whatever you want to call it, equality — we do have reactions to gender differences. We do. Not everybody, and I feel like I have to keep saying that because any time I say anything, I feel like people feel like if they don’t fit into what I’m saying then somehow I’m offending them. I’m talking about large groups of people in big studies. I’m also talking anecdotally, if you have conversations with your friends, there are some people who will fall into these categories. I think what I was trying to do with this New York Times Magazine piece was to talk about what equality means.
This is another thing, a lot of women who take issue with those other things might also take issue with this: this idea of who brings in the money and who makes more money. But it certainly affects relationship dynamics. I’m not saying women shouldn’t do this, I’m just saying it affects relationship dynamics, so let’s talk about it. Maybe if we understand why, maybe it won’t affect it as much. Maybe if we actually bring it out into the open instead of pretending that it doesn’t exist because we’re offended by the idea that it might affect our relationship in some way then it’s not going to get better. The only way it gets better is if we say, yeah, right now it turns out that when women make more it tends to make their relationships less stable. That doesn’t mean that I think men should make more. It’s what the research says, so let’s talk about why this is happening.
In the last graph of the piece I say maybe this is cultural. Like I said, is that really a tradeoff, does that mean that maybe that’s what the culture says now but maybe it’ll be sexy later? Again, I don’t see why it’s so controversial.
What I thought was interesting about your piece was it reminded me of the way people react, which is that most of these people, like you, are incredibly good writers, they are very thoughtful, and yet I’m really confused by the argument that’s being made. In your case, for example, I remember seeing quotes from the article, you know, what these experts said that you agreed with, which I’m quoting. I’m not sure why you’re assuming that I’m disagreeing with anyone I’m quoting.
I don’t think I assumed that you disagreed with anyone you quoted.
The very points that you quoted were things like Esther Perel talking about needing to have difference. If I say that, then people say, “She’s the retro relationship guru.” But if Esther Perel says that, “Oh, she’s so forward-thinking!”
For me, the difference was that her emphasis was on sameness. The focus was less on gender. The takeaway from that, for me, would be that you can have two people, regardless of gender, who are different, who are not exactly the same, and that that can lead to greater excitement and spice, which seems totally intuitive. It’s not that there is some inherent gender model for successful relationships that is biologically ingrained in us.
That’s so interesting that you bring that up. For some reason in today’s culture people get very offended for somebody to say there are differences between men and women. It seems so elementary and yet people take issue with that. That’s where I think the retro comes in.
I have a son and I had these ideas that I’m going to raise him to be completely gender neutral — and I’m a feminist, by the way. Whatever it means to other people, what it means to me is equality, equal opportunity. It doesn’t mean some of the things that other people attribute to it. If I had a girl I’d be like, “Let’s go play sports,” and with a boy, I gave him dolls. What does he do with it? He makes it into an airplane. He makes it into a gun. There are differences between girls and boys. If you’re a parent, you see it. No matter what you do as a parent, they’re going to gravitate toward different things. Not all kids, just the ones in the middle of the bell curve. So men and women are also different in a lot of ways in the bell curve. There are so many differences in the way that we relate in the world, in the kinds of things that interest us. This is a conversation that goes on about why there aren’t more women in the sciences, right? Why aren’t there more investment banker women? Part of it, a lot of it, are reasons that have to do with not having equal opportunities and those kinds of things, but part of it too is — what are some of the female-dominated positions and what are some of the male-dominated positions?
People are going to kill me for saying this right now. They are! And I know I’m being recorded and I’m going to say it anyway: It’s really important for people to acknowledge that men and women are not necessarily the same. I’m a math girl, by the way. I was the only girl on the math team in high school. I went to medical school. And yet I can say all the other people at my school had the same opportunities I did, but they didn’t necessarily have the interest. I happened to have the interest. When women are asked in surveys about what they’re interested in doing, they tend not to be as interested in being the hedge fund manager. There are lots of women who are and they do it just as well, if not better than, their colleagues that happen to be male. The point is that men and women can be different and that’s OK. It doesn’t mean that women are less-than or that men are greater-than. Sexually, there are differences too in terms of what turns us on.
It seems to me that we’re getting down to that nature-nurture question. None of us are raised in a vacuum, we’re all products of our culture. It’s hard to say what is biologically true and what is a result of growing up in this culture, in which we believe certain things to be true of men and certain things to be true of women. Your son, you might have tried to introduce him to playing with dolls but he’s growing up in a culture in which boys play with trucks and guns.
Right, right. It is hard to know. When they’re infants — I don’t know, you’ll have to ask someone who studies babies and cognition — my sense was they were too young to really understand gender stuff. I agree, it’s probably like osmosis, it probably just goes in, even if they’re babies, they pick all kinds of things, they’re like sponges. I don’t know the answer, so I can’t speak intelligently on it.
Well, few people do, right? Does anyone have a definitive answer?
Right, but I think the bigger question is, “Why is sameness so important?” I think giving people equal opportunity and power and respect is important. But why is sameness so important?
From my perspective, it isn’t that sameness is important at all. It’s the recognition that women can be very different from one another, men can be very different from one another, men and women can be very different from one another, that there’s a huge variation. In general you could find more variation comparing two women to each other than from comparing all men and all women.
Right. Well if you go back to “Marry Him” there are always going to be people who don’t fit into those paradigms. But so many people do that, why is thinking about these things harmful? If it doesn’t speak to you, then great. But there are a lot of people having trouble and why close yourself off to something that doesn’t help?
With the New York Times Magazine piece I think it’s the issue of sameness versus equality. Perhaps what’s controversial in some feminist circles, for example, is the idea that in order to have difference there has to be some sort of adherence to traditional notions of what it means to be a man or a woman. That there’s some kind of assumption of biological difference.
Do you think that any of these women have submission fantasies?
Oh yeah, definitely. Why do you ask?
I guess what I’m trying to say is when you use the word “traditional,” what is traditional? Are you talking about the ’50s? I think when people say traditional they’re talking about something very specific and they’re talking about the ’50s.
You bring up submission fantasies — so, is your feeling that within relationships women’s sex lives might be sexier if they gave up some power?
No! Where did that come from? A resounding no. In the submission section in the piece, Pepper Schwartz said we have a very different relationship to a submission fantasy than maybe women did in the ’50s. Because we have so much power.
Again, it’s not about power, it’s about difference. There are different ways that people can exert power or have a sense of power or agency overall. Stay-at-home moms have power. It’s not about whether you have a high-powered job or if you’re making more money. It’s about what the power structure is within your relationship. If you’re in a relationship where your husband makes a lot of money and you don’t make any because you’re taking care of the kids and your world is the domestic sphere or you’re doing nonprofit work that doesn’t pay anything, it’s about what does it look like in the relationship? Do you guys feel like you’re equals? Again, not the same, but equals. There’s so much overlap right now that it’s hard to tell, it’s part of this sort of cloning effect, that we’re married to our clones in a lot of ways. And all the article is saying is, well, what happens when that happens?
I am feminist and yet, at the same time, I really enjoy feeling — whatever this means, this is going to offend people just saying this — feeling like a woman. They will say, “How would you define it?” and “that’s our culture and that’s not inherently what it means to be a woman.” I like to put on clothes that make me feel like a woman. There are just differences. It doesn’t mean I’m less powerful in my relationship with my boyfriend now. It just is what it is. To me, he’s a man and I’m a woman and I feel that gender difference in a good way.
For you, “feeling like a woman” doesn’t come with any sense of sacrificing power.
I love being a woman. I find it powerful. I guess the thing is that I like having that difference in our relationship. We’re not different in terms of intellect. We’re not different in terms of earning power. But there are certain things that are more traditionally feminine — if we’re going to use that word “traditionally” — that I like to do. I don’t sit there and analyze it and go, “Oh my god, what does this mean for our relationship or for the power structure.” I’m a woman and I tend to like these things. Not all women do. I don’t cook at all, I don’t have any interest in it, I’m just retarded in the kitchen, I can’t. I don’t feel bad about that and that’s very not woman-like. He cooks, I don’t.
Well, there are all sorts of ways that we can fetishize — and I don’t mean that in a bad sense — our differences, whether it’s gender differences or differences in roles that we play in the relationship.
There was this one paragraph in “Marry Him” that people talked about a lot from both sides — whether they agreed with it or vehemently disagreed with it. It was this idea that women tend to, again, just those words I say with a huge disclaimer and caveat, that a lot of women will say they want somebody who’s really complex and a deep thinker and I can talk about all these different issues with, but then they might not want someone who is going to be complex in all those ways. That might feel a little bit overwhelming for them. I see that a lot in my therapy practice, this idea that men and women are emotionally wired similarly.
Again, there are a lot of men who could be considered more feminine on the emotional spectrum and a lot of women who could be considered more masculine on that cultural spectrum. I would go crazy if I was with somebody who was like me emotionally. My friends are my friends, I’m glad I’m not married to my friends and I’m sure they’re glad they’re not married to me. We have too much stuff going on with our emotional lives, I don’t know that I would want that in a partner. I sort of like that balance. You can call it gender difference or that I happened to pick a guy who was not like that. Again, there’s certain things that tend to be feminine and more masculine and I like having some of those differences. You get to pick and choose which ones you want or don’t want and I think that’s the beauty of feminism. You get to pick and choose.
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)