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The Blockbusters : Few See Them as a Literary Circle, but They Make L.A. a Book Capital of Sorts

July 13, 1988|MARY ROURKE | Times Staff Writer

It's not exactly the Bloomsbury group--London's turn-of-the-century literary circle of Virginia Woolf and friends--and hardly the Lost Generation that Gertrude Stein hosted in the Paris of the '20s, but a circle of world-famous writers has quietly formed in Los Angeles.

And while they all have international reputations and seem to prefer one another's company, as a group they've never attracted much attention--not even in their own celebrity-conscious city.

Literary lions may roar with laughter at the mention of their names, but millions of passionate fans say they're the best storytellers around. And whatever their limits as stylists may be, they've mastered the business of producing books like nobody before them. They sell more copies, see more of their stories turned into movies and mini-series, and make more money while they're at it, than a pack of lions all together.

Self-Described Entertainers

They are L.A's other celebrities, not screen idols or rock stars but self-described entertainers who lead glamorous lives and write best-selling books with titles as familiar as pop songs. From Sheldon came "Windmills of the Gods," from Collins "Hollywood Wives" and Krantz is the author of "Scruples." Robbins wrote "The Carpetbaggers," and Stone completed "The Agony and the Ecstasy" while Wallace penned "The Prize."

No garrets or fifth-floor walk-ups for this group. They write their books in decorator digs from Beverly Hills to Brentwood. Some, like Collins, write to the sound of cool water splashing in the back-yard swimming pool. Others, like Wallace, work in an at-home office that resembles a small-town public library.

And at the end of the day they all have endless offers to "do" the night-time talk shows, dodge the paparazzi and bump into each other at A-list parties. It's hardly the life of the struggling artist. "The lowly literary writer isn't the nature of this town," Wallace explains.

If as a group they have never really "made it," some say it is because New York still holds the title as the center of the book business and Eastern publishers have a skewed view of the West. "Their attitude is that L.A. is a movie town, not a book town," maintains Ed Victor, a London-based literary agent about to open an office here. "Los Angeles is a secret book city," Victor believes. "New Yorkers don't think about the fact that a lot of major commercial books come from here."

Along with the biggest names on the city's blockbuster list, Victor notes, there's a healthy support group of locally based best-selling authors, some of whom critics regard with kindness. Among the names Victor mentions are Joseph Wambaugh of "The Onion Field" fame, Michael Crichton, best known for his chilling "The Andromeda Strain," and Steven Shagan, who wrote "Save the Tiger."

But many consider the core of the L.A. writers' circle an embarrassment, not something to mention, let alone elevate to the status of a literary scene. "It's not writing, it's typing," says Jack Shoemaker who quotes the famous barb by Truman Capote. Shoemaker co-founded North Point Press, an outlet for serious literature, near San Francisco.

He thinks it's ridiculous to call Sheldon, et al., the chroniclers of their place and time. "Next we'll hear that Danielle Steele is the Charles Dickens of San Francisco," he says about that city's best-selling author.

But in fact Sheldon and friends are writing about the places they know, from the offices of Hollywood moguls to the boutiques of Rodeo Drive to the rock music clubs along Sunset Strip. Their steamy tales romanticize these haunts for readers around the world for whom their books are translated to foreign languages. (Sheldon's stories are reprinted in 18 foreign languages, Krantz's in 22.) And that's before the books find their way to the silver screen.

In the tradition of true showmen, the writers make it look easy. They squeeze out another hefty tome every two years or so. Krantz has completed five novels in 10 years. Sheldon has written eight books in a dozen years, Collins has 12 to her credit in just under 20 years.

The city's critically acclaimed literary stylists, Irish-born Brian Moore among them, aren't impressed. Moore, a world-class author of slim, introspective volumes such as "The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne" and most recently "The Color of Blood," calls L.A.'s blockbusters schlock.

"These books are just another stick with which the East can beat California," he laments. The reclusive resident of Malibu adds, "there's never been a literary community in Los Angeles. Not in my 20 years here."

Judith Krantz agrees that "West Coast writers always get a bad rap." She came West from New York more than 15 years ago and entered the ranks of the L.A. blockbusters her first time out with "Scruples" in 1978. Two years later she made the front page of the New York Times when her "Princess Daisy" sold to Crown Publishers for a record-breaking $3.2 million.

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