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The pros and cons of being an outsider

The authors in 'Women on the Edge' challenge publishing's boys' club but savor freedoms.

October 14, 2005|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

Darlene and Jimmy just got married. They're on a road trip across the West when Darlene turns to Jimmy and tells him he might think less of her if he knew about her past.

Jimmy doesn't care what she's done. "I need to know what you're going to do. What we're going to do together," he tells Darlene in "Ludlow," a story by Lisa Glatt in "Women on the Edge," a new collection of short fiction by Los Angeles writers.

In this anthology, which went on sale this week, all women have pasts, and yet the past is not much of a burden. The authors invited to be part of it are "women who have very brave voices," said Samantha Dunn, co-editor of the collection, "women who have a very daring view."

The collection rests on a central conceit, one that Los Angeles cherishes: that its geographic center at the continental edge allows individuality to flourish. This, the book proposes, is especially true for women. Here, far from the institutions that might quickly show them the door on the East Coast, female mavericks are unfettered, this thinking goes -- even at the doorstep of a Hollywood world that seems to have reinvented the 1950s paradigm of the wealthy alpha male and the exquisitely interchangeable trophy wife.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 18, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Author Kate Braverman -- An article in Friday's Calendar section about the Los Angeles literary anthology "Women on the Edge" referred to "the late Kate Braverman." In fact, Braverman is living, in Northern California.

"Women writers specifically ... are the ultimate outsiders," says the foreword by Los Angeles writer Janet Fitch, who became something of a literary insider with her bestseller "White Oleander." "While out on the perimeter, women discovered the freedom of badlands. They were curiously free to invent, without having to liberate themselves from the forms and rewards of the cultural norm."

This has allowed many local writers to peel away conventions and reveal a more intimate geography, where issues of sexuality and power are confronted more fearlessly, Fitch said in an interview from her Silver Lake home.

"Most women experience issues of power and sexuality, but very few women talk about it," Fitch said. "There's the threat of the loss of approval."

It's a point of view that even some contributors to the book don't want to push too far, noting that boundary-crossing female voices are emerging across the country. "There are a lot of edgy female writers on the East Coast," said contributor Michelle Latiolais, co-director of the UC Irvine writing program. "The talk about the tension between the East and West Coast -- I'm just not into it."

Yet, like Joan Didion, whose latest book, "The Year of Magical Thinking," was named a finalist for the National Book Awards this week, the contributors to "Women on the Edge" feel that the geographically atomized, socially fractured nature of Los Angeles has allowed them a freedom from the kind of self-consciousness that might have fettered them in, say, New York.

"Part of the strength that the writers in Los Angeles have had is their relative isolation," said John Rechy, author of "City of Night." "New York has a coterie of writers who almost seem to write for each other."

Perhaps paradoxically, a local writing community has emerged in recent years, from a broad network of literary salons, independent bookstores, journals, literary festivals and writing workshops. Yet like Los Angeles, it has multiple heartbeats, and "Women on the Edge" riffs from one corner of this growing world.

Some contributors are well established, such as Carol Muske-Dukes, the author of seven books of poetry, one of them a finalist for the National Book Awards. Glatt is the author of the 2004 novel "A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That." Aimee Bender won critical praise with a 1998 short-story collection, "The Girl in the Flammable Skirt," and followed that with a novel, "An Invisible Sign of My Own," in 2000. Other contributors, like the co-editor of the collection, Julianne Ortale -- who wrote "Milk," about a 60-year-old woman who begins to lactate -- are known only in literary circles.

The literary world has always been clubby, from Manhattan to Bloomsbury, and the writers in this collection are no exception. Dunn and Ortale were in a fiction group with Fitch 10 years ago, led by the late Los Angeles poet and writer Kate Braverman. So was Mary Rakow, the winner of a Lannan Literary Fellowship, whose debut novel, "The Memory Room," appears in a short excerpt in the collection.

Ortale was a student of Latiolais at the UC Irvine writing program, which has launched a number of local literary figures, , including Glen David Gold, the author of "Carter Beats the Devil," and Alice Sebold, his wife, the author of the bestselling novel "The Lovely Bones."

"This is all people who knew people," Latiolais said.

The collection came together when Dunn wrote the novel "Failing Paris" for Toby Press. Her editors asked her if she would consider submitting another book. "I said, 'I'll do it if you publish my friends,' " Dunn said.

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