October 21, 2013

Who says Morrissey can’t write a classic?


As you’ve probably heard by now, last week saw the publication of Morrissey’s Autobiography by Penguin Classics in the UK. The book’s release met no shortage of hand-wringing online and in the British press, where most commentators heaped scorn upon Penguin for tarnishing its reputation by adding a pop singer’s new memoir to its library of canonical literature. Boyd Tonkin, the literary editor of The Independent, wrote a diatribe whose breathlessly hyperbolic tone could only be matched by Morrissey himself: “Penguin Classics, as a noble idea of affordable, accessible enlightenment, has certainly died this month. The verdict has to be suicide.”

Elsewhere, the publication was taken with a dose of good humor: our own Zeljka Marosevic went to the trouble of abridging the book with help from friends including Marcel Proust, Jane Austen, and Herman Melville. And writing for The Awl, Rebecca Rego Barry reminds us that the literary canon has always been “a largely imaginary list,” subject to the whims of marketers and the personal tastes of a handful of publishers, before interpreting the whole thing as an extravagant prank in classic Morrissey style. (A view I largely share, since I find so many of his lyrics and public pronouncements hilarious—as he intends them to be. Also: lighten up, everyone!)

But whether they’re morally outraged or willing to laugh along at the joke, the one thing no one seems to have considered is that Morrissey might actually be capable of writing a classic. And why not?

Here in the US, Bob Dylan is considered by many to be one of the greatest figures in American literature. At my college campus, “The Lyrics of Bob Dylan” was the English department’s most popular course, with seats much harder to come by than tickets to a concert by the man himself. Pop lyrics are an important component of the literature of modern culture, known backwards and forwards by millions, and it’s only snobbery that prevents songwriters from receiving the recognition they deserve as the prominent literary chroniclers of our age that they are.

And is there any doubt that Morrissey ranks among the best of them? That critics of the Penguin Classics publication can’t resist turning his lyrics against him—“So for once in my life / let me get what I want,” Tonkin imagines him begging of Penguin—only reinforces how iconic and unforgettable they are. Sure, Moz has turned out some duds in his day—no one’s extolling Dylan’s born-again phase either—but songs like “Cemetry Gates,” “This Charming Man,” and “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” could only be the products of a brilliant writer.

My copy of Autobiography is in an airplane somewhere over the ocean now, so my own literary judgment will have to wait for another day. Maybe the book really is nothing more than another extension of his famously petulant public persona, a prank being foisted on all of us. To me, it seems just as likely that the book will be great. But more than anything, I’d like to see this as an opportunity to reconsider just what a classic can be.


Christopher King is the Art Director of Melville House.