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Writing Los Angeles 

When the city joined the literary conversation

Thursday, Dec 11 2003
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Photo by Anne Fishbein

Eight or nine years ago I went to a friend’s reading at a synagogue in Brentwood. Five other L.A. writers were sharing the stage, John Rechy and Kate Braverman among them. Braverman, when she took the stage, looked at Rechy and said: “It’s good as ever to see you, John. There have been years on end when it seemed like we were the only two writers in Los Angeles.”

As a then-unpublished novelist, I felt a bump of resentment, for myself and all the other local writers present — and not present — at the event.

Of course, I also knew what Braverman meant. It was difficult, as I had discovered, to find a writing community in Los Angeles; hard to intersect with other writers, to locate in the sprawl of freeways and sensibilities those who were trying, in the isolation of their offices, to produce literature. It was tempting, even easy, to believe there were no literary writers out there. But Braverman was basically giving vent to an easy and collapsing cliché about Los Angeles: that the city couldn’t produce, lure or sustain literary writers. I, too, used to assume this was true. But times were clearly changing.

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In 1979, when I moved back to Los Angeles from the Midwest, I was fresh from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In Iowa we were all fixated on the New York publishing world and gave not one thought to literary Los Angeles or even the possibility thereof. Moving back to my hometown, I certainly didn’t expect to run into any great writers because, well, great writers lived elsewhere. Even the Los Angeles writers I did read about — Braverman, Didion, Rechy, See — were of a different generation and far beyond my social ken. Having just spent two-plus years in a nonstop literary conversation — and competition — I suddenly felt stranded.

Then I heard Saul Bellow speak at Caltech. He predicted that the best new writing would come not from the streets of Greenwich Village or other centers of culture, but from the far reaches of the country, the fringes and hinterlands, where writers lived outside the mainstream and could report on life from an outsider’s unacculturated perspective. This, I felt, gave some legitimacy to my chosen home. Pasadena, Los Angeles, a.k.a. the hinterlands.

 

Many theories have been advanced for the supposed paucity of serious writers in Southern California. The weather is said to discourage the necessary sequestration, the year-round sunshine and foliage lures a person outdoors, the writing enterprise is too easily eclipsed by fair-weather imperatives — surfing, sunbathing, gardening. Without bleak winter landscapes and crushing energy bills, a writer lacked the external pressure and motivation to sit at the typewriter and focus, concentrate, produce.

Another theory held that if good writers came to

Los Angeles, they did so for the buckets of bucks in TV

and movies. Like the evil sunshine, the glittering industry seduced the likes of William Faulkner and Dorothy Parker into abandoning literature for filthy lucre. Los Angeles

had the reputation of a grifter’s paradise, a place to hit

it big, then get out; only it could also chew you up and

send you packing, broke and ripe, finally, to join your father’s company.

In fact, even writing about Los Angeles itself seemed a dubious enterprise. A quarter of a century ago, few of Los Angeles’ regionalists had achieved the literary ranking of other regionalists. It wasn’t clear how to write about the place in the way it was clear how to write about the South, where the legacies of slavery and race and miscegenation and the Civil War all festered in the collective imagination. Los Angeles in turn fostered the Hollywood novel and the noir detective novel — I made a project of reading them when I moved back. Didion’s Play It as It Lays bespoke a barbiturate-soaked world of corrupt wealth and cynicism as remote and arcane as Alain Robbe Grillet’s Marienbad. James Cain and Raymond Chandler’s noir efforts seemed stylized, pleasurably anachronistic, and generated nostalgia for a terse, tough-talking Los Angeles that never existed. Nathanael West alone wrote of an L.A. recognizable to me — because I lived in a bungalow court.

Of course there were writers, good writers, out there — and always have been. But literature was not part of Los Angeles’ identity.

So what has happened that has made Kate Braverman’s words — and my own churlish, childish assumptions — increasingly obsolete? For today, Los Angeles is rife, thick with literary writers — good writers, great writers, promising and fully realized writers, well-known writers, writers struggling in obscurity, writers famous elsewhere in the world but unknown and invisible to the public here. Even given the annoying distances between us, crossing paths, meeting up with other writers seems more possible than it was 25 or even 10 years ago — though here I run the risk of conflating my own experience with cultural fact. A poet I know claims that there is no change, that Los Angeles is as unsupportive of poetry as it has ever been. From my own perspective, as a midlist novel writer and food journalist — stalwartly middlebrow credentials, I realize — Los Angeles is teeming with writers, and we’re finding each other.

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