L.A. Without a Map

Has the American literary imagination gotten Los Angeles wrong?

Last year, the Library of America published the excellent Writing Los Angeles, a massive anthology of a century of writing about the city. But if you are a native of Los Angeles, paging through all the travel notes and memoirs and short stories is a strange sensation. Where you expect to find the city itself, there is only a carnival of metaphors.

Again and again, writers with the briefest experience ofLos Angeles use it as a blank screen on which to project their own fantasies, prophecies, and fears. For Nathanael West in The Day of the Locust, it was famously a “dream dump,” a “Sargasso of the imagination” in which civilization is reduced to “plaster, canvas, lath and paint.” For Truman Capote, it was a nightmare city where “a crack in the wall, which might somewhere else have charm, only strikes an ugly note prophesying doom.” And those are some of the milder opinions. H.L. Mencken thought “there were more morons collected in Los Angeles than in any other place on earth.” Aldous Huxley wrote that “the truest patriots, it may be, are those who pray for a national calamity” to wipe the smile off the face of “Joy City.”

What did Los Angeles do to deserve all this? Writing Los Angeles makes the answer clear: Although it is the second-largest city in America, in the literary imagination it is still a colony. Instead of speaking for itself, the city is spoken about. Our classic descriptions of Los Angeles were written by visitors who spent only a few weeks or months in the city; or by imported slaves of Hollywood, who act out their rebellion against the city at large; or even by natives writing mainly for an audience somewhere else. What is missing, with a few notable exceptions, is a Los Angeles literature unconcerned with the outside world, intent on explaining the city to itself—as Dickens did with London, or Balzac with Paris. Instead, visitors from the East or from Europe write about it just as English visitors used to write about Ireland or India, or for that matter the United States itself. Only such breezy condescension could explain some of the nonsense in the volume—for instance, Umberto Eco’s remark that “for a Californian, leaving his car means leaving his own humanity,” which sounds like the kind of thing an early anthropologist might have said about a Polynesian tribe.

What makes this condescension so irritating is that, in every arena except the literary, Los Angeles is a powerhouse of American and even world culture. West’s “dream dump” is really a dream depot, supplying every city from Tokyo to London with its indelible images. In fact, that may be the very reason literary visitors since Huxley have taken such joy in imagining the city’s destruction: Hollywood is the capital of post-literate culture, the place where writers were first transformed from unacknowledged legislators to “content providers.” No wonder that, as Mike Davis wrote in The Ecology of Fear, “at least 138 novels and films since 1909” have dealt with the destruction of the city by fire, flood, earthquake, nuclear holocaust, or alien invasion. Apocalypse is the writer’s best revenge.

Or so it might appear in Writing Los Angeles. But now a new book offers a more serious and hopeful view. The Misread City, edited by journalist Scott Timberg and poet and National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia, attempts to rebut the Library of America volume with its very title. A collection of essays and articles by and about L.A. writers, it shows that the city is more than ready to leave its colonial days behind.

In fact, Gioia’s essay “On Being a California Poet” expresses the very paradox that has driven post-colonial poets, from Ireland to the West Indies: “The classics of English—Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Keats and Tennyson—are my classics. … And yet this rich literary heritage often stands at one remove from the experiential reality of the West. … There’s no use listening for a nightingale in the scrub oaks and chaparral.” It is almost exactly the same sentiment as in Derek Walcott’s poem about his Caribbean youth, “Another Time”:

from childhood he’d considered palms
ignobler than imagined elms,
the breadfruit’s splayed
leaf coarser than the oak’s …

Yet as Walcott’s own achievement shows, the collision between an inherited language and a new world should be a fruitful one, provoking entirely new ways of writing. To write about Los Angeles as it feels to those who live there is just the kind of challenge that led to Walcott’s poetry about Saint Lucia, or Saul Bellow’s novels about Chicago.

The Misread City suggests what needs to be done to create the literary culture in which L.A. writing can flourish. In a city where architecture is replaceable and films ephemeral, there needs to be a solid understanding of the literary past. David Fine’s “Surviving Apocalypse” and Paul Skenazy’s “A World Gone Wrong: L.A. Detectives” contribute to this understanding by surveying two of the hardiest tropes in Los Angeles writing, while essays on John Rechy and Walter Mosley size up the strengths—and the limitations—of major local figures.

The great hole at the heart of Los Angeles literature has always been the lack of venues where L.A. writing can be published and discussed. As Timberg writes, “Los Angeles keeps to itself, favors the private. … What L.A. has always needed is institutions that can knit the private factions together and instill in people a sense of living in a community.” Several pieces in the book talk about how radio shows and lecture series provide such a community; and the Los Angeles Times Book Review is now widely recognized as perhaps the best newspaper book section in the country. (Full disclosure: My father writes a column for it.) An immense amount of good could be done by introducing a few literary quarterlies in the model of the Southern Review and Sewanee Review, which in the 1930s made the South the home of the most intelligent literary criticism in the English-speaking world. In fact, The Misread City often reads like such a magazine, and with the right patron could become one.

Most important, however, Los Angeles literature should resolutely ignore the issue of authenticity. The poet Laurence Goldstein takes note of the “sense of cultural inferiority passed from one literary person to another in the Southland like some swamp fever on the lowest slopes of Parnassus.” No wonder, since visitor after visitor has told the world that L.A. is a simulacrum, a fiction—”a perfect imitation,” in Eco’s words. But Christopher Isherwood, who lived in the city for half of his life, was closer to the truth when he wrote that “It is silly to say that Hollywood, or any other city, is ‘unreal.’ ” When Los Angeles achieves the literature it is capable of, no one will dare to say it again.