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Hit the town, read a book

A salon in a saloon? L.A. book fans are getting lit in a whole new way.


FOR far too long, Los Angeles -- the largest book-buying market in the country -- was stuck with an undeserved reputation as a cultural wasteland where nobody reads. It was a ludicrous put-down, given L.A.'s well-documented literary pedigree as home to a multitude of talents both native (Ray Bradbury, Charles Bukowski) and imported (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Evelyn Waugh, William Faulkner). But the truth can no longer be denied. L.A.'s lit scene continues to grow and thrive, powered by a battalion of independent bookstores, small presses, writing programs and blogs.

"People dismissed L.A. as a serious literary presence because it's hard to pin down," says Los Angeles Times Book Review editor David L. Ulin. "It doesn't have a central, edifying sensibility here the way other cities do -- it has multitudes." But there's an upside to not being taken seriously, Ulin adds. "It allowed people to explore things they wouldn't if a lot of people were paying attention."

It has also produced a literary scene entirely unique to L.A., where the more homely book clubs of the '90s and glaring lights of bookstore events have morphed into a new twist on the literary salon -- club-like and often celeb-studded affairs. Like the ones organized by Wendy C. Ortiz and Andrea Quaid, Antioch alumni and producers of the Rhapsodomancy reading series, who hold bimonthly evenings at Hollywood's Good Luck Bar. "Andrea and I were sitting in a restaurant talking about all the things we hated about author appearances in bookstores," remembers Ortiz. "They're overlit, they're not comfortable, they're so obviously geared toward moving units. We made a few attempts at holding salons in peoples' houses, but it was always too hard for people to find parking. So we started fantasizing about having a reading series in a bar. We both lived near Good Luck at that time, and we loved the atmosphere, the jukebox, the character."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, November 03, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Literary L.A.: An article about literary events in Southern California in The Guide on Thursday said that actor James Franco was in UCLA's master of fine arts program for creative writing. Franco is pursuing his bachelor's degree in English at UCLA.

On a recent Sunday night, an enthusiastic throng has crammed into the M Bar in Hollywood for another group's literary event. WordTheatre features marquee-name actors reading the work of well-known writers. This particular evening's theme was "Novel Beginnings," and its lineup included actor James Franco ("Spider-Man 3"), reading a chapter from "Five Skies," Ron Carlson's first novel in 25 years.

"I first went to WordTheatre because I heard Tobias Wolff was going to be presenting one of his stories, and he's one of my favorite writers," says Franco, who is in UCLA's MFA program for creative writing. "I met [artistic director] Cedering Fox at that reading, and she invited me to be part of the next one, which featured stories by Rick Moody. I love Moody's writing, so it just snowballed from there. Now I'm on the board of directors," he adds. "My responsibilities are mostly on the casting side, bringing other actors in. The rewards have definitely been greater than the effort."

"People can get so disconnected here in L.A.," says Fox of her motivation for starting WordTheatre. "Everyone's in their car or on their BlackBerry. But great writing contains universal truths that can bring us back together and renew our sense of community."

Community is a big buzzword at 826LA, the nonprofit franchise founded by Dave Eggers with the mission of turning elementary and high school students on to writing. A few weeks ago, about two dozen hipsterati swigged Tecates and milled about its newest center, an extremely raw storefront space on Sunset Boulevard, waiting for the inaugural event, dubbed "Inside Voices," to start. Though the event had been described on 826LA's website as a reading by some of the center's volunteers, it also turned out to be a recruiting fair. "If any of you have any construction skills, like you know how to build a wall, we could really use you," pleaded 826LA's Mac Montandon. In addition to tutoring stations, the plans call for the construction of a time-travel-themed shop (its motto: "Wherever you go, we're already then.").

Also making their mark on L.A.'s literary landscape are Adam Parfrey and Jodi Wille, the husband-and-wife publishing team. The couple operate counterculture imprints Feral House and Process Media out of their home in the Silver Lake hills, where they also throw legendary literary salons, such as the recent one hosted for Feral House's new book about a '70s cult, "The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, YaHoWha 13, and the Source Family."

"We've had some amazing events here," says Wille, who believes a big advantage to L.A. is its unending opportunities for exposure to different types of people -- eccentrics included. "A favorite memory is a salon we hosted for Mel Gordon, who passed Chinese aphrodisiacs with questionable ingredients out to everyone. But [the parties] started to get a little too crazy, with too many people we didn't know coming through the house."

"We don't mind having strangers come over," Parfrey adds, "just not a hundred of them."

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