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Introducing Los Angeles to itself

An L.A. novelist says the city's writers need to create a more complex and accurate picture of it — for itself and for the way it resides in the world's imagination.

April 22, 2012|By Janet Fitch, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Author Janet Fitch.
Author Janet Fitch. (Little, Brown )

To write about this city is in some essential way to create it. Not in cement and steel, but in the imagination of its citizens, as well as in the minds of people who will never come here but who nevertheless carry an image of it in their heads. An image that is, in its way, as important as the concrete place where people live and sleep and look for places to park.

So many people come to Los Angeles with an idea of the city, some apotheosis of the American Dream with palm trees plus a really nice car. Then they settle down into ordinary jobs and don't even understand the part of town they live in, let alone how it fits into the city as a whole or how the city started and grew.

Is it that they lack curiosity? Or is it that curiosity requires a nub of knowledge, as a pearl requires that first grain of sand to irritate the oyster? All they feel is that vague dissatisfaction that the Los Angeles they came here for must be somewhere else, and if only they had enough money or success, they could find it. Meanwhile, they live in a sad vacuum of car and home and freeway.

My project in writing about Los Angeles is to introduce the city to itself. I grew up here, my mother grew up here, my grandmother came here in 1922, at age 15, married to a wardrobe man. I've seen Culver City go from a quiet nowheresville where you visited the Helms Bakery on a field trip and got a small loaf of bread, a place so anonymous Patty Hearst hid there for two years before being discovered by the FBI, to a flourishing biosystem of music, galleries and restaurants.

I remember when Santa Monica Boulevard was the worst street in town, with its picket fence of high power lines, the buzzing transformers, the abandoned streetcar line down the middle, a million ugly billboards and porn theaters. Now it's adorable, complete with park median and terrific bars and shops. I've seen quiet, anonymous Mid-City become Koreatown, with its high-density shopping and late-night scenes. I remember when there was a kiddie amusement park where the Beverly Center is now. I remember the Los Angeles County Museum of Art when they hadn't yet killed off the Ahmanson gallery by walling in the atrium. There used to be a pretty gift shop that ornamented the entry, full of unusual trinkets and bright Japanese paper goldfish kites, and I still can taste the excitement of looking across and seeing all the open galleries, how electrifying it all was. Now it looks like King Tut's tomb. Before they opened it.

Novelists can explain the town to itself so it's not just the blur you see from the freeway and a vague sense of being cheated because it didn't match what you'd come here for. Los Angeles in particular needs an introduction. It's a private city, complex, it doesn't roll itself out for you like a welcome mat, though it pretends it does. It's more like a complex person, full of contradictions, worthy of a long conversation.

Once the citizens of a city begin to understand a place and value it, once its writers clean the mirrors and let people see themselves whole — not just a slice of eye or ear — only then does the city become a certain specific thing, conscious of itself, with politics and a history and cultural depth.

Los Angeles needs its writers to create a more complex and accurate picture of itself, not only for itself, but for the way it resides in the imagination of the world. Glossy entertainments depicting wealth and sybaritic pleasure no more reflect the real city than the slick Photoshopped image of a 16-year-old supermodel helps people better understand women. The L.A. I want to show has freckles, hips, laugh lines. Sorrows, fury, secrets.

How important a task is writing about this? As a writer, I see the glaring consequences of our failure to demand reality every day — how we have allowed commercial mythologies to dominate the perception of the city. I see it in the way people receive literature from Los Angeles. Tell people Susan Sontag was from here and you'll see what I mean. It's true in all the arts, and perhaps in other fields as well. It's harder for our writers to be reviewed seriously. L.A. writers still must navigate the entrenched notion that we're all out here lying by the pool with a margarita in one hand and a phone in the other.

So it's crucial to get the real place on paper, not only to help Angelenos understand the place they negotiate every day, but also to create a more accurate picture of it in the imagination of the world. We're never going to be able to explode that image completely — the glossy, mythical Wonderland is too valuable a commercial product — but we must at least put the real thing on the shelf beside it. It's often a matter of outgrowing the images that you came here with, the dreams that drew you, and replacing them with genuine, observed reality.

Each novelist who relays his or her own personal vision truthfully is contributing to the composite, complex city of the mind that is the real Los Angeles.

Fitch is the author of several books, including the novels "White Oleander" and "Paint It Black."

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