by Lisa Cordaro I was never too keen on Morrissey. In fact, I didn’t even like The Smiths when everyone else did. The reason is partly because, back in the grim, Thatcherite 1980s, everyone I knew who did like them wore black and was horribly right-on. However, it was mostly because there was a slightly obnoxious cult of alienated shoegazers who’d decided the bloke with a quiff and a tree in his back pocket was God. Since then, I’ve mellowed in my views and come around to The Smiths. Lyrically they’re razor-sharp, and Johnny Marr’s guitar work is nothing short of sublime.
As noted in a recent Rocking Vicar podcast, Morrissey post-Smiths has forged a pretty successful path out of being a contrarian. Recently, he has stirred up controversy by requesting his publisher release his memoirs as a ‘Penguin Classic’. ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’, you ask. Surely imprint doesn’t matter; isn’t a ‘Penguin Classic’ just a book by any other name?
Well, for one thing, publishers spend years – decades, even – building their lists. Most books are commissioned, and editors select titles carefully: few manuscripts, if any, ever make it beyond the ‘slush pile’ of unsolicited submissions. These days it’s far easier to self-publish than to get a book deal. The downside is that you have to organise everything in the process yourself: editorial, production, marketing and distribution. The upside is that you have complete creative freedom.
Getting a book deal is no mean feat. It means you’ve arrived, especially if a publisher is willing to invest their time and money in releasing a serious autobiography. Nonetheless, there is a pact involving some measure of compromise – honouring that deal means at least trying to meet each other halfway.
Secondly, Penguin Classics are, as their title suggests, classic works of literature. With Autobiography, Morrissey is now rubbing shoulders with Plato, Jane Austen, Tolstoy and more historical luminaries than you can shake a quill at. At my university, where I read English and European Literature (with Russian minor – please don’t ask me about Dostoyevsky), Penguin Classics were a staple of our department’s reading lists. We were told specifically not to use cheaper versions – those famous £1 classics – because they were unedited, and quite possibly abridged. Penguin Classics are scrupulously edited, carrying extensive notes and introductions by respected academics.
This may all sound a tad elitist, but it is relevant in the context of Morrissey’s desire for his oeuvre to sit alongside revered pioneers such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Charles Darwin and John Stuart Mill. As Morrissey said back in 2011: ‘I don’t see why not. When you consider what really hits print these days, and when you look at the autobiographies and how they are sold, most of it is appalling.’
True enough. However, there is also plenty of fine contemporary literature out there – including autobiographies – by gifted authors who haven’t the chutzpah to suggest that their work merits ‘classic’ status… and before it’s even been published.
Penguin Classics, as an imprint, means a lot to those with a passion for literature. What I’m about to say may be a controversial statement – and indeed, Morrissey may have written his book extremely well – but since he seems to revel in courting polemic, let me respond in kind.
Autobiography is not a classic work. When – and indeed if – it begins to be accepted into the canon, then perhaps we can call it a classic in the making. But not yet. Right now, Morrissey has as much business being in a classic works list as Coleen Rooney has being published by Virago.
Steven Morrissey is a talented wordsmith. He has a way with imagery and a wit that surpasses many of his musical peers. He has raised, and sustained, a highly individual persona from the ashes of The Smiths. This time he has laughed all the way to the literary bank, and secured his place in history in the process – but quite frankly, that joke isn’t funny anymore.
Lisa Cordaro – November 2013