L.A.'s hot, new indie-lit scene
No one notices actress Geena Davis, disguised under an oversized beret, skulking in the magazine section at Skylight Books in Los Angeles. But cult writer Dennis Cooper gets an enthusiastic greeting from the chin-pierced proprietor of this hub for readers of indie-lit persuasions.
Mr. Cooper has just vacated his sitting room two blocks away - a room that's straight out of "High Fidelity," complete with stacks of vinyl records. To get to Skylight Books, Cooper passes by trendy haunts such as Fred's 62 and Café Psychobabble, where tattooed Angelenos eat paninis and salads while listening to Radiohead on digital radio.
His unself-consciously bohemian existence has become more evident in neighborhoods like Echo Park and Los Feliz, which he describes as "the center of grooviness," and which are home to a daily parade of L.A. chic mixed with boho edge: tattoos, black tanks, chunky Mary-Janes, and ugly bags.
The Skylight vicinity is also a sort of spiritual home to a group of underground writers and artists finding commonality - if not actual community - inside this culture of endless freeways, gated communities, cellphones, and liposuction. Many of this underground literary set are friendly with some of Los Angeles' most celebrated new writers - Alice Sebold and Glen David Gold, Michael Chabon, and Mona Simpson - all of whom come out of the MFA program at University of California, Irvine.
A handful of current developments point to the city's rising importance on the national literary scene.
Public-radio station KCRW's "Bookworm," based in Los Angeles, provides a serious forum for introducing literary authors to the nation. The books coverage in The Los Angeles Times has attracted attention from media watchers nationally. And the Atlantic Monthly's literary editor, Benjamin Schwarz, recently decided to relocate from Boston to L.A., while keeping his job at the Atlantic.
"There is an important literary scene in Los Angeles," said Mr. Schwarz in a recent phone interview, adding that he doesn't tend to view any city - even New York - as a "literary center" as such. But he points out that Atlantic Monthly writers Caitlin Flannegan, Mona Simpson, Sandra Tsing Loh, and Christopher Hitchens all currently reside in the Los Angeles area. And, he says, "for the kinds of stuff that we do, it's a better place to find fresh talent."
Writers like Mr. Cooper, his friends Benjamin Weissman and Amy Gerstler, and others such as Gary Indiana, Wanda Coleman, Aimee Bender, and Nina Revoyr are different.
They don't discuss six-figure advances and movie deals. Their artistic touchstones include pop music, art, drugs, sex, and what seems to be a prevalently southern California curiosity about murder. Most important, many of L.A.'s contingent of talented underground writers are influenced by, if not graduated from, the art programs at this city's increasingly prestigious art schools - Cal Arts, Otis College of Art and Design, and the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. The writing coming from these programs is something like the art - there's a tendency to use frank, bold, anti-intellectual forms to filter raw, sometimes lurid, content.
"I have no interest in writing conventionally," says Cooper, whose work tends to the dark and transgressive. "It's really hard to get published when you do work like me."
Cooper has been published, though. In addition to several novels and a few art-book collaborations, he also compiled 1999's "All Ears," a collection of his own essays and interviews with people such as Courtney Love, Keanu Reeves, and a pre-"Titanic" Leonardo diCaprio. He says the newer crop of L.A. writers are like previous writers in that they have always tended to be geographically, as well as stylistically, fragmented - like the city itself.
"Los Angeles is such a strange place physically," Cooper says. "There's no structure to Los Angeles. Or it's actually highly structured but it feels kind of loose.... You spend a lot of time in cars, so it's like you're on your own. I think the way people travel here, the way you live, all these things have a huge effect on the way everybody out here writes."
But, he says, this is beginning to change.
"There's more of a sense of community than there has been, for me, in a long time," he says. "Our common interest in visual arts actually has kind of created a scene."
It's not as if Los Angeles doesn't have a literary history. Aside from the noir classics by Raymond Chandler and James Cain, and the expatriate poetry of Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden, the city's literary lights include Aldous Huxley, Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski, Jack London, Thomas Mann and, more recently, Hubert Selby and T.C. Boyle.
But major publishers and national book reviews mean little to L.A. writers such as Ben Weissman and Amy Gerstler.
On a Saturday night, this literary couple sit in a comfy circle of mismatched old chairs on their deck overlooking a canyon in Echo Park. Their house, shabby and chic with wood floors, arty knickknacks, and paintings on every wall, sits in a cluster of quiet residential streets.
Down the hill, it is twilight, and Echo Park is exploding with energy. Older Mexican businesses like El Carmelo Bakery merge with ambitious art galleries like Ojala, Delirium Tremens, and The Love Gallery, where hipsters are already beginning to gather.
"The thing about writing here is it doesn't impose itself on you," says Mr. Weissman. "It's just a big, wide-open space." Ms. Gerstler echoes that she likes the "privacy" of writing in L.A.
Weissman's story collection, "Headless," is due out in February as part of a series curated by Cooper. Gerstler's fourth book of poetry is due from Penguin this spring. Both teach in the writing program at the Art Center College of Design, and Weissman runs an ambitious reading series at UCLA's Hammer Museum. Both have collaborated with high-profile artists and were part of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art's 1992 "Helter Skelter" exhibition that put the city's artists and writers together, as well as putting many of them on the map.
But the pair are obviously less interested in the bohemian literary scene they helped create than they are in their own work and the work of their friends.
"Some people [in L.A.] are very desperate for huge success and attention and stardom," says Weissman. His writing circle, he explains, is different.
"I think coming out of an art building you're accustomed to just making the peculiar art you make ... and you're communicating with your peer group, and it's great," he says. "I'm also not striving for the largest-dollar successful thing," Weissman says. "Just writing the emotional thing. You know, what hits you."