Los Angeles: Our Literary World

July 6th, 2004 · No Comments
by Booksquare

There we were in the triangle pose, celebrating the work of art that is us (which was unfortunate as we were positioned in such a way that the mirror reflected said work of art right back), when it all became clear: the author of today’s story on Los Angeles authors is either from another state (like Manhattan) or country (like Texas). Or maybe even another planet, though we’re not sure which currently has life evolved enough to write newspaper columns.

First, for those of you who aren’t familiar with our home, Los Angeles is a big place. Bigger than you can comfortably imagine. You really have to explore it to understand. You also have to define your terms: to include Orange County or not; to include Pasadena or not; to include the Inland Empire or not; to include the entirety of Los Angeles County or just the city. It’s something that informs writers:

To Glenn David Gold, one advantage of Southern California for writers is the diffuse urban geography, which means that people form communities by choice, not serendipity, granting space to the growing number of writers – both new and established – who have made the region their home.

From a civilization (Western, that is) perspective, LA is fairly young. By the time the first Los Angeles-based author sent precious manuscript pages back to a mysterious publishing house in New York, writers from Chicago eastward were long considered part of the establishment. Los Angeles writers were upstarts talking about their crazy paradise and infusing their works with then foreign concepts like tortillas and frijoles.

Today, Los Angeles is the kind of place where Korean grocery stores translate their sales pitches into Spanish — and where English-only speakers read the translations without ever once considering the fact they’re not seeing their native language. There is no single defining geography (though we fight tool and nail against the fact we’re a desert). The only true thread that weaves us together is the automobile. To be without car in Los Angeles is to be in a rough spot, indeed. Yet, we think other cities sneer at us for loving our cars the way they love their subways and such. Just as you can live your life in isolation while riding trains every day, we can build community from behind the steering wheel.

It is with this view that we read today’s Los Angeles Times article on what Carolyn See is calling the “naissance” of Los Angeles literature. How long does the writing scene here have to gestate before it becomes mature? We’ve already mastered an unique style of writing (the screenplay, similar to, but not the same as, the regular play); we have a time honored place in pulp fiction; we have all sorts of literary communities (it’s that geography thing, not to mention the sheer diversity of writing interests represented here). We’re not sure what point See is trying to make with her comment:

“…I think we really are experiencing, not a renaissance – because we’re not being reborn – but a naissance. The literature is being born every day.”

… to the point that it makes us wonder if her quote was shoved into a preconceived thesis. After all, See has been writing in and about the area for a long time.

The article “gee whiz’s” the idea that LA-based authors infuse their work with tales of homelands or other cultures. Of course that’s what’s happening. It’s a town of immigrants (though we are proud to say we are Southern California born — if you allow us to stretch the concept to include any region where Vin Scully is the readily accessible voice of your childhood). Sure, there are those who arrive in paradise and still complain that you can’t get a decent bagel, but mostly people come here because it’s where they want or need to be, and they thrive just fine (though with housing prices, we’re not sure how).

Yet, the article states:

Like Walter Mosley, who reinvented the classic noir mystery genre with his black investigator, Easy Rawlins, the new novelists create their fictional worlds from insider perspectives, See said. Chandler “never graced South-Central with actual human beings,” See said – and even John Steinbeck’s most respectful portrayals of Latinos were written as an outsider. But many of today’s new Southern California writers are African American, Latino, Asian or foreign-born. A number are women.

Yeah, the women. Who knew? Why is this revelatory? Surely there were one or two pre-Joan Didion Los Angeles authors. Helen Hunt Jackson comes to mind, but she remains relatively obscure outside of the state. The sentence bothers us because, well, the author throws it out without explaining why it’s there. We feel a bit like a special interest group rather than one of the more common genders. The closest we get to understanding the statement comes here:

Novelist Samantha Dunn thinks Los Angeles’ more open-ended society makes it a good place for writers to take stylistic risks. Dunn, author of “Failing Paris,” is editing “Women on the Edge,” an anthology of female writers who she believes benefit from L.A.’s nonpuritanical culture. “These are women who have a daring view,” she said of the writers she has selected. “Inside, something really wild is going on. It manifests itself in language.”

… except we think this is pretty common in a lot of women’s writing, at least in our experience. It’s been simmering since Grace Metalious drafted Peyton Place. Dunn’s theory is interesting to us, however, especially in light of the dominant entertainment industry in this town. Going hand-in-hand with our non-puritanical culture is the motion picture business — not necessarily a bastion of strong female role models. And don’t get us started the bad twin — the adult film industry. But that’s another subject for another day.

We suspect the reason behind Chandler’s less-than-deep portrayals of some characters may come more from style than lack of experience (though we can honestly admit we don’t know how much time he spent in South-Central — or much about how the community differed from today. Quite a bit, we suspect.). Just as Steinbeck was functioning, in part, as a reporter, Chandler wasn’t necessarily exploring the issues of today’s writers:

“What you hear about in ethnic neighborhoods in Los Angeles is always strife,” [Nina} Revoyr said. “You don’t hear about cooperation and community. It’s a great place to be a writer because it’s all happening here. If you’re interested in race, the environment, social class, we’re in the center of all of those burning issues.”

This would actually be a great subject to explore. Certainly the idea of the American melting pot has been written and written again. But the modern melting pot? The post-European (for lack of a better definition) melting pot?

Man, we’re feeling a little bit cranky about this article (and you probably will be too, because the paper really makes it rough to get to content in the Calendar section, so some of you will rely upon our admittedly biased analysis; if you can’t access it, contact us — we know people who know people). Which is probably unfair given the huge subject matter the author tried to tackle. It’s hard to knit together scene when the 405 is perpetual gridlock. And maybe that’s where our discomfort lies: it’s too much subject for too little article.

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