LA Writing is Dead?

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Over at the Guardian they have an article about the absence of LA literature. Yes, I agree that the screenwriters often overshadow the novelists (and yes, I have to justify myself at parties as well) but I have to disagree with the main point:

In retrospect, the years from the late 1930s to the early 1970s constitute a golden age of LA writing, both in the quality of the work it produced, and the fact that it was during these eras that the city’s literary personae were most fully shaped. Since then, however, pickings have become decidedly thin.

Decidedly thin? What exactly are the overly pretentious criteria by which Los Angeles writers are being dismissed so flippantly? Because in my view, LA writers are on the upswing, creating a veritable renaissance of writing.

As far as concrete ways to rebut the claim in the Guardian, I could take a number of paths. One would be to simply list the many influential authors since 1970s. But this is almost beside the point (however, check out the list in the comments, and add T.C. Boyle). The deeper problem at play here is one that often causes people to lament the absence of good literature currently being created. The problem is one of distance. We simply do not have as clear a view of the ossified past as we do of the recent past. Therefore, we can create categories (the “golden age”) and name groups of writers (Beat poets) that allow us to praise the good old days. But I would argue that the overarching themes and resonances of the present and recent past will come into sharper relief once we get more distance, once our hyperopia (the opposite of myopia) lets us clearly see the past forty years of LA writing. Then we’ll be able to give names to the important work being done in the literary scene in Los Angeles.

After a caveat in the article where several influential crime writers are mentioned (in addition to Raymond Chandler, of course), there is an attempt to compare importance:

Despite these highlights, however, it is hard not to come to the conclusion that LA’s literary heritage still lags well behind the city’s economic and cultural importance.

I’m not quite sure how you would measure either in order to make that kind of comparison. To me, they seem rather incommensurable. But to take a stab, I suppose that yes, the heart of literary culture and the publishing industry seems to be in New York, and yes, at least in terms of mythic imagination, screenwriting tends to dominate Los Angeles. But the myths of our biggest urban environments do not define what it’s actually like to live in the city. That is, just because someone across the world might perceive LA’s economic or cultural importance to be at a level of X that vastly supercedes LA’s literary value of Y means nothing to someone like me, who is engaged in literary communities, going to readings, buying books at independent booksellers, studying under LA writers, and generally living the lit life in LA. Existentially the city has enormous literary importance, even if it hasn’t been codified yet.

Los Angeles writers, however, also have to deal with a temptation that those in other parts of the world rarely have to face so directly – the lure of the entertainment industry, which can provide fantastic pay for comparatively easy work.

This seems to imply a couple of things. First, that screenwriting is comparatively easy. No. No, it’s not. Two, the pay has the potential to be fantastic, but boy can it be difficult to get there. Three, that someone who gives in to this “temptation” is somehow abandoning the call of being a writer (writing cross-genre work can help a writer quite a bit – dabbling in playwriting or screenwriting is a great way to improve your dialogue in fiction). Four, that someone who is really called to be a fiction writer will somehow be sidetracked into writing jokes for Leno and never write that Great Los Angeles Novel. I guess I believe that the person with that kind of talent and perseverance to write that novel will end up writing it. But maybe that’s just my optimism as a writer trying to write that very novel.

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