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Writing Los Angeles

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As a then-unpublished novelist, I felt a bump of resentment, for myself and all the other local writers present — and not present — at the event.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

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.

 

 

There are external reasons why the city feels more literary. For one, Los Angeles is the biggest book-buying town in the country. People here read, and buy books, and for this reason there has also been a glut of readings in bookstores. Until the marketing departments of publishing houses come up with better ideas for publicizing new books, authors will be duly escorted to Dutton’s, Book Soup, Vroman’s, Esowon, Barnes & Noble, etc. This steady stream of writers, both local and not, creates a steady literary buzz, albeit of a fairly mainstream timbre. Sooner or later all but the most hermetic or obscure writer will appear in L.A. It’s

a good place to live if you’ve a hankering to see authors in the flesh.

Reading series intensify the traffic. Beyond Baroque — consistently supportive of local writers for more than three decades — continues to persevere, and has been joined in recent years by the more mainstream Lannan Foundation and Writers Bloc series. UCLA sponsors a poetry and a new-fiction reading series, and the L.A. Library, LACMA, the Armand Hammer, the Skirball, the Huntington, the Pacific Asia Museum all bring in writers.

L.A.’s literary life has also, in varying degrees, been prized and supported by its periodicals. The Los Angeles Times, while largely still afraid of seeming provincial, does not go out of its way to review and promote L.A. writers specifically — many still receive more attention in New York — but the L.A. Times’ annual book awards and Festival of Books have helped put Los Angeles on the map for any author with a book to sell. The L.A. Weekly displays a strong allegiance to local literary talent and in 1998 published the first-ever guide to literary Los Angeles featuring over 80 local writers. Again, the poet complains — rightly, I feel — that his ilk are under-reviewed and -profiled in all local venues.

Some of the city’s growing literary awareness arises from what I call “workshop culture,” which stems from the seemingly universal desire of people to write, to be writers and also create new writers. (This phenomenon is not limited to Los Angeles, but it does flourish here.) We see it in the proliferation of local MFA programs, the vast UCLA Extension offerings, all the private workshops by both established and young writers that allow countless L.A. writers to eke out a living — never mind that, as Flannery O’Connor pointed out, they’re encouraging the competition in the process. Good teaching opportunities have lured many name writers to town. (I don’t want to give names lest I leave out too many.) Certainly, the bounty of such employment opportunities has made Los Angeles a much more viable home for writers.

Even more than creating jobs, workshop culture has its own ethos. Writing has been so discussed and theorized, systematized and codified that the difficulties and challenges are well-known. Workshop culture tends to be supportive — although competition, under all the carefully worded, positive-comments-first criticism, is alive and well. But the ethos of support and mutual endeavor — as evidenced in many an acknowledgment page — has made the city a warmer, fuzzier place to write. Still, I’m unnerved when unpublished and untalented neophytes fresh from some class or program are uncannily conversant about comma placement, hot literary agents and the dangerous mood swings of a writer’s life.

But it seems to me that the real reason Los Angeles is more literary is that the old clichés of place have died out, and Los Angeles has become simply another place to live — and to write. The weather is alluring, and the city has, in the last few decades, matured culturally. While local authors are still producing Hollywood novels that chronicle the tweaked cynicism of the uncommonly ambitious, and neo-noir practitioners are churning out new works of startling imagination, the scope of the L.A. story has broadened immeasurably. Multiculturalism and interest in immigrant experience have opened whole subcultures of the city to literary exploration and invention. And there are many resident writers who feel under no obligation to write about the place where they live, writers who break ground in all areas of literary endeavor, who give no thought to the idea that being a writer in Los Angeles means they are selling their soul and killing time before they can return to New York.

 

Joan Didion forsook L.A. years ago. And Kate Braverman doesn’t live here anymore. But the rest of us pencil gnawers — hundreds and hundreds of us — do. We simply live day by day in the sunshine and smog, coaxing sentence after sentence from our computers, publishing, and announcing on the back flap of our books that so-and-so lives in Los Angeles, California.


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