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L.A. Lit (Does It Exist?)

A Symposium

April 25, 1999|D. J. WALDIE and GAVIN LAMBERT and RICHARD RAYNER and JOHN RECHY and YXTA MAYA MURRAY and NORMAN KLEIN and DAVID RIEFF and MIKE DAVIS and CAROLYN SEE and SUSAN STRAIGHT and AIMEE BENDER and CLANCY SIGAL and BERNARD COOPER and MICHAEL TOLKIN and MICHAEL SILVERBLATT and MICHELLE HUNEVEN and PAULA WOODS and CAROL MUSKE-DUKES and GARY INDIANA and KATE BRAVERMAN and SARA DAVIDSON and WANDA COLEMAN and HECTOR TOBAR and APRIL SMITH and ERIC LAX and SANDRA TSING LOH and JONATHAN KIRSCH and FRED DEWEY

Editor's Note: Is there a Los Angeles literature? And, if so, what are the factors (sense of place, climate, speech, character) that define it? Or, to put it another way, we perhaps know what we mean when we speak of Nathanael West, Raymond Chandler and Joan Didion, but does the Los Angeles they so well described (and which is now so well established in the popular imagination), any longer exist? Or is there another Los Angeles that is emerging in the novels of the last years of this century? Or which have yet to be written?

We asked a number of writers to participate in a symposium to explore these questions. We also asked each of them to choose a handful of essential novels that anyone interested in Los Angeles ought to read. We hope their answers will encourage a conversation between writers and readers alike. We invite you to respond by sending your thoughts (no longer than 300 words) to us at the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.

D. J. WALDIE

The former literature of Los Angeles is nearly finished--the literature of Anglo unease with race and sunshine in our ruined utopia. The literature that runs from Nathanael West to Joan Didion is passing away. The literature to come isn't here yet. When it is, it will finally be comfortable with the autumn heat and the pitiless light in a season of drought.

Its writers will be more familiar with the real streets of Tehran or the imaginary ones of Tenochtitlan than those of Greenwich Village. They will be disturbingly frank about the presence of God (or gods) in the suburbs. They won't be Emersonian. Because many of them will have gone in a day--not in a lifetime--from birthplaces in villages and barrios to East L.A., Glendale or Long Beach, their writing will be crowded with ancestors whose grievances cannot be dismissed by our longing for perpetual adolescence.

Our literature won't be like the South's literature of remembered guilt or the East's literature of transgression and assimilation or the West's literature of isolation by Nature's indifference. The best of the literature to come will be tragic.

The standard for the excellence of its stories won't have been set in the Iowa Writers' Workshop but by women talking at a hearth baking chipati and men whispering in Spanish before slipping between strands of barbed wire across any border south of here. It will be a literature that cures our willful amnesia about Los Angeles and restores Los Angeles as the northernmost capital of the tropics.

It will be a mongrel literature for a mixed people. It will not be written for the comfortable. It may even be redemptive.

L.A. readers and L.A. writers have a past to acquire before they can read or write the literature that is to come. They might begin with:

* "Southern California: An Island on the Land" by Carey McWilliams;

* "Los Angeles A to Z: An Encyclopedia of the City and County" by Leonard and Dale Pitt;

* "The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory" by Norman Klein;

* "The Ethnic Quilt: Population Diversity in Southern California," edited by James Paul Allen and Eugene Turner;

* "The Reluctant Metropolis: The Politics of Urban Growth in Los Angeles" by William Fulton.

D.J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir," which received the California Book Award for nonfiction in 1997. He is a Lakewood city official.

GAVIN LAMBERT

In the beginning was L.A. noir. Raymond Chandler was the first writer, in his brilliant novella "Goldfish" (1936), then in "The Big Sleep" (1939), to perceive the city as a mainly immigrant accumulation of people and power (it still is), where wealth and crime were intimately connected (they still are), and a sense of lonely space and prehistory haunted the machinery of ambition and dreams (it still does).

Chandler's fastidiously hardboiled style was a personal mix of Hemingway and Black Mask pulp magazine. In James Ellroy's novels of late 1940s and '50s L.A., the tone is similar but grittier, the melodrama bloodier and less ironic, the sex often obsessively brutal, but L.A. hasn't changed, only grown more so. And it's still growing in Michael Nava's "The Burning Plain." Focused on West Hollywood, this is the kind of novel Chandler might have written if he'd been alive and gay in the 1990s.

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