Jonathan Kirsch's article "Literary L.A." (Book Review, April 20) and Anna Sklar's response to it (April 27) touched off a tempest in a not-so-mini teapot. Is the hoopla of the recent book fair at UCLA an expression of nothing more than a gathering of "mutual admirers," as Sklar claims, or the "renaissance" of Kirsch's vision? Josh Getlin's "Writing L.A." and Steve Wasserman's "Culture Shock" (Book Review, April 27) suggest that something more than a "two-day mutual admiration fair" is going on. I hope I can act as an honest broker here by offering a third view that incorporates the truths voiced on both sides.
A long life gives one not just a personal but a historical perspective. At the same time, a slow, inexorable build-up of moraine-like cultural deposits isn't obvious while it is happening, but in looking back over 50 years, something becomes more clear--a renaissance of sorts has indeed occurred.
Upon my discharge from the Army in late 1945, I came back to a Los Angeles that, in many respects, was the Philistia Nathanael West acidly etched in his "The Day of the Locust." The literary picture in late 1945 had scarcely changed since those days of the locust in the 1930s. There was small interest in the literary arts back then, much less hope for a renaissance. Occasionally, a few hardy souls would meet in Clifton's Cafeteria on South Broadway where we read our poems and stories to each other. But unlike San Francisco's North Beach or New York's Greenwich Village, L.A. has always been too diffuse to boast a Bohemia of its own, where writers and artists could meet, socialize and exchange ideas. That may well be another reason for the lack of a visibly literary community until now.
At Los Angeles City College (and later UCLA) where I signed up for my first courses under the GI Bill, I found myself gravitating toward fellow students who, like myself, had literary aspirations--if not pretensions. Like me, many were veterans on the GI Bill who nursed ambitions to write the Big War Novel.
At first, we wrote for a Los Angeles City College-sponsored literary magazine. But some of the material published in this magazine, Kernal, was too raunchy for the rather strait-laced LACC administration of those times--its first issue was its last. The demise of Kernal presented us with a challenge: We would start a literary magazine independent of any institutional connection. Line was our first venture. Helen Curry, a fine poet who was to make her debut in Poetry, was an early editor, as was this writer and Leroy Robinson, who eventually expatriated himself to Nagasaki, Japan, where he taught English at Nagasaki University and where he still lives. But with not enough copies sold of the 500 printed and with advertisers dropping off, Line survived for just three issues. Some years later, Coastlines, under the editorship of Neal Weisburd, made a second (postwar) attempt at creating a literary revival, but it too folded after a longer run than Line's run, but only after such young talents as the British-born Denise Levertov and the L.A.-born Bert Meyers, a fine, much neglected lyric poet, had made their appearance in that magazine.
In the late '60s, to boost interest in L.A.'s literary history, I wrote an article that appeared in the Calendar section of The Times. Its title was "L.A.'s Little Magazines--a Lively Legacy." That was long before there was a Book Review section--a revealing commentary itself on how far L.A. has come! The article dealt with the literary scene between the wars, mostly failed efforts whose skeletons lay strewn about L.A.'s literary wasteland.
Fast forward to 1997. Now when I skim through the offering of poetry readings, book signings and Barnes and Noble writing seminars listed on the back page of the weekly Book Review, I recall those early days when the literary community was made up of writers who were isolated by distance and the lack of a literary center and I am convinced that a literary renaissance has indeed taken place. What Sklar has to say about the sad state of book publishing is all too true, too; the conglomerates have indeed taken over and brand names are regnant, with little new blood infused into the literary bloodstream. But that's a national malaise for which L.A. can hardly be blamed. And how long can we appeal to the ghosts of Nathanael West, Christopher Isherwood, Carey McWilliams, Edmund Wilson and Alfred Kazin before we move on to serious new writers? Wilson and Kazin were East Coast figures and were never really part of the L.A. scene. Even West was a transplanted Easterner.