“It comes in waves,” Michael Silverblatt tells me. We’re standing next to the new releases section in The Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles, a former early twentieth century bank that has been ecstatically retrofitted into a two-story used bookstore. He’s talking about the literary scene itself, that community of budding novelists, essayists, and hammy solipsists who commandeer back rooms to read their work. In the last eight months, I’ve come to know them as a group of chapbook making, Greek mythology quoting, Joan Didion loving sorts who also know how to dance and screw. To me, their vitality and supportive vibe is revelatory. To Silverblatt, who has been hosting “Bookworm” on public radio station KCRW for the past twenty-five years, it’s notable but not noteworthy. I respect his opinion, but I think it’s probably also mildly cushioned by the fact that he has a pretty steady gig. He grew up in an era of steady mediums, a time when television stations and radio networks had staying power. For my generation, there is no right way to consume media. This reality gives literature, and the corresponding literary scene, a far more urgent pulse. LA’s literary scene is fomenting not only the new voices of a generation, but the platforms on which those voices will carry. And it’s doing it in a way that is weirdly genuine and passionate. Unlike so many self-glorifying scenes, where a messiah king or queen sucks all the air out of the room, this lit scene appears to actually be about literature: and that, I think, is what makes it so mind-blowingly rare.
Consider the internet. Now, consider Los Angeles. They’re both vast and, for most people, incomprehensible. They change constantly. Large pockets of both are sketchy and, if dealt with in the wrong way, can destroy your livelihood. This is why, in an age of media innovation and globalization, Los Angeles has become the default capital of literature. No one person can control nine hundred square miles of city that speaks half as many languages. It’s like a drive-through empire; every last nationality and viewpoint is represented here. Because Los Angeles has long been perceived to be somewhat déclassé culturally, the traditional hierarchies of who gets to read what, where, aren’t nearly as established as they are in cities with a lengthy literary pedigree. In other words, LA is the microcosm of the global economy, and of our shifting relationships to each other. And literature helps us understand ourselves better by understanding others first. Where else, but in a city that is as global as it is American, should literature thrive?
The combination of LA’s relatively cheap digs and people who are too enthusiastic to know better has produced an incredibly nurturing environment that is also, thankfully, laissez-faire. Show up, submit your work, read it in front of others. Receive applause and critiques. Go away, show up with more work. Pay your own bills doing whatever. Fuck whoever. Drink, smoke, stay away from the real heavy stuff because it ruins your cognition. But do good work. Always do good work. It’s like skatepunk Garrison Keillor.
Like a dance floor rabbit hole, I’ve been drawn into readings at bars and independent bookstores and caves. I’ve watched porn stars share the bill with teetotaling ex-Marines. I’ve seen bestselling novelists duke it out with zine-published newbies. I’ve seen all of this in an environment where nobody heckled, or booed, or was even faintly catty in the myriad after-drinking spots on sun-varnished Silverlake streets. Basically, I witnessed the improbable: a thriving scene that loved and respected itself, and wasn’t out to pyramid-scheme anybody.
As volume-oriented Amazon wrestles with quality-oriented publishers, as twentieth century vintage cynicism finally hits a Great Ebullient Wall of Reality, Los Angeles offers enough room and lack of preconceptions, yet firm enough standards, to grow exceptional, enduring talent. With live reading series, a supportive and thoughtful community, and enough youthful inexperience to make media innovation fun, Los Angeles is where literature now resides. At least, that’s where I keep bumping into it.
Who are these people? Will they remain this loving and supportive, or will success tear them apart into sniping, miserable, non-email-answering cads? Obviously, this kind of beauty is rare, and therefore almost certainly fated to fade, or at least change. In the way that newlyweds make love non-stop in the first years of their marriage, only to gradually taper off to enjoy a much deeper love, I expect that the literary scene in LA will continue on in this joyous zenith for a while and then start to deepen. Hierarchies will emerge. New writers will come and provide energy and enthusiasm and the city will at last be a recognized beacon of literature. But it is in this time, this unprecedented hyperlinked now, that literary Los Angeles is coming to know itself.
It’s a scene hot enough to evaporate cynicism. It’s not ironic; it’s observational. It’s thoughtful without being ponderous, giving without being idiotic. It’s literature for the twenty-first century.
Julia Ingalls is primarily an essayist. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Slate, Salon, Dwell, The Nervous Breakdown, The LA Weekly, Forth Magazine, and 89.9 KCRW. She's into it.