Essays

Going Native: Writing Place in Los Angeles

By posted at 6:00 am on April 20, 2011 32

1.
I’ve been feeling isolated lately.  In the mornings (if I’m being good), I work on my new book, and, once I’ve been sufficiently humbled by the limits of my own skill and talent, I take my dog for a walk.   On these jaunts, I wave hello to the neighbors and the gardeners, the local barbers and the auto mechanics.  Maybe I’ll stop by the nearby coffee shop, and get something to go.  On every walk, I’m likely to see a raised sprinkler–that little metal head–protruding from the edge of a lawn.  When I see one of these heads, I do like I’ve always done: I tap it down with my foot and I make a wish.

It feels pathetic to admit this, but, lately, most of my wishes are about my writing, and my career.  Lately, to make sure the Gods are listening, I’m as specific as possible with my wishes; I don’t want a higher power ignoring me because of an ambiguity issue.  The other day, I caught myself wishing on a sprinkler head with a renewed fervency, my whispered prayer very long, and very specific.  I thought: Edan Lepucki, you need to get a grip.

And then I thought:  Does anyone outside of Los Angeles wish on sprinkler heads?

It’s like this:  My sister Lauren and I grew up thinking that a snowflake was the size of an 8 1/2 x 11 piece of paper.   I mean–that’s how you make a snowflake in school, right?

It’s also like this: After 3 pm on a weekday, I don’t expect to hear from anyone in New York.   It’s dinner time there.

2.
When I go to my aforementioned local coffee shop, I often see other writers working diligently.  But then I see that they’re writing screenplays, not prose.  Most of these writers are men, most of them beleaguered (unless they look like Grade-A assholes), and I often feel sorry for them.  Why?  Because Hollywood is such a difficult industry to break into, where talent rarely has any bearing on success (or so it seems to me).  I actually find myself feeling superior for writing fiction, which is probably a Grade-A asshole thing to feel.

But also: I feel lonely.  It’s true, I do.

In January I went to New York, where I ventured into a few different coffee shops.  In these fine establishments, I saw people writing not screenplays, but prose. Maybe some of them were working on philosophical dissertations or letters to their senators–but, in my mind, I imagined they were all writing novel manuscripts.  It was exciting to witness this kind of widespread devotion to prose!  It was also a little scary.  In L.A., I feel a little lonely, but kind of special.  In New York, I’d probably never write in public, for fear of turning into a cliche.   It’s a trade-off, I guess:  you get a robust community in exchange for being a dime-a-dozen.

It’s like this: In graduate school, I loved being around writers–it was one of the most valuable aspects of my time there. I also found it exhausting, and I’m sure my peers did too.  At a Workshop party, if a non-writer showed up–oh man.  A geologist could  get laid every night of the week by a different poet.

It’s also like this: When I was a teenager, whenever my dad and I saw a group of people my age, he’d point to them and say, “Your people.”  It was an observation, a joke, an insult.

3.
Not that Los Angeles doesn’t have a lovely community of writers.  It does, it’s just smaller and more spread-out.  We meet a few times a year at a random bar to trade war stories and talk about books.  Maybe we make fun of the east coast, or trade impressions of Michael Silverblatt.  Sometimes Janet Fitch stops by.  Last time, Meghan Daum was there, and I had to pretend not to be starstruck.  We’ve got the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, which basically kicks ass, as do our local independent bookstores.  The ALOUD series at the downtown public library showcases Steve Martin, Rebecca Skloot, and Colson Whitehead, among other luminaries.   And this week, The Los Angeles Review of Books launches with an impressive array of essays and reviews.  Its mission statement alone has me all hot and bothered:

Since the 19th century writers have bridled at New York’s seeming monopoly over publication.  Bret Harte in The Overland Monthly, Hamlin Garland in Crumbing Idols, John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren in I’ll Take My Stand, and writers and readers in a thousand other places—including even New York—have called for a more representative literary world.  The internet has started to bring this to fruition, and Los Angeles, the largest book market in the country, is taking its rightful place as the new center.

Hurray, I say!  But is this claim really true?   I’m not sure I want Los Angeles to be the new center of literary activity.  Do writers in Omaha want that moniker?  How about in Amherst?  I doubt it.  After all, the distance any of us non-New York writers have from New York is frustrating, but also valuable.  There’s an option to retreat from the noise–or, okay, the music–that I don’t think a writer in, say, Brooklyn has.  This distance has benefited me for the last four years, as I write and write, without looking up, or around, me.

4.
covercoverBut it’s also this distance, this sense of being an outsider, an underdog, that makes me territorial about where I live and write.  I am barely tolerant of non-L.A. writers poaching Los Angeles for fictional fodder.  For instance, Charles Baxter’s unoriginal take on L.A.’s billboard-celebrity Angelyne in his novel The Soul Thief had me rolling my eyes.  And don’t get me started on Jonathan Lethem’s novel You Don’t Love Me Yet!  I refuse to read the damn thing, which supposedly depicts the lives of hipsters in Silver Lake.  A friend on goodreads said the book gave her an “overall feeling that the author had spent a grand total of a weekend in Los Angeles before writing this book, and threw in random details from looking at a GoogleMap.”  For me, it’s not so much the name-dropping of locations that would bother me, but that they’d come from the same writer who penned The Fortress of Solitude, a novel that’s so sensitive to the issues and complications of gentrification.   Maybe now that Lethem’s moved to the Southland, he will render my homeland with more depth.

Why limit my rage to books?  In recent years, Noah Baumbach’s film Greenberg ruffled my feathers, too.  Anyone who knows Los Angeles geography was up in arms about how place worked–or didn’t work–in the film.  Take one example: Ben Stiller’s character is staying in an Orthodox Jewish community, but then walks to the nearby hills to hike?   Uh, no.  Go back to tennis playing in Brooklyn, Baumbach!

My other problem with his film Greenberg, and with Baxter’s Soul Thief, is the sense that these artists are coming to my city to wrest profundity from it.  There’s an implicit suggestion that we need an outsider to find the profound for us, to make order out of chaos.  It makes me feel like I’m part of a rain forest tribe, being observed by pasty white men in wool suits.   The problem is, these artists’ observations feel like 4AM stoner revelations.  At the end of Greenberg, for instance, the camera pauses on one of those wind sock men often seen at auto body shops.  It’s supposed to feel meaningful, but it just made me laugh.  Pass the doobie, bro.

5.
I don’t want to suggest that an artist should never venture into the unknown.  My motto isn’t “Write what you know,” but, rather, “Write what you want to know.”  I fear my territorial attitude has not only made me a harsh reader, but that it’s also placed a too-tight harness around me as writer.  My imagination should feel free to venture to foreign lands, shouldn’t it?

I asked my friend Emma Straub, a native New Yorker who lives in Brooklyn, about this very issue, since she has written a novel called Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, forthcoming from Riverhead Books.  Her book is a historical novel about an actress in Los Angeles.  I’m so excited to read it, and also a bit nervous.  What if the geography’s wrong?  Will it feel like Los Angeles?  But Emma’s response put me right back into giddy-mode:

As a native New Yorker, I find it hard to write about my own city. The streets are crowded with novelists, and it seems nearly impossible to stake out a piece of sidewalk for myself. The novel I’m writing takes place in Los Angeles, and whenever anyone mentions “Hollywood,” the main character can’t figure out whether they’re talking about the neighborhood or the place as an idea, like heaven. That’s how I think of Los Angeles: as existing on two planes at all times, the real and the fantastic. Would I feel differently if I lived there? I don’t know. I’m sure some people write about New York as a way to sort it out in their heads. I suppose that’s what I’m doing, too.

This is wise.  We write to sort things out in our heads, and to escape from the world right in front of us.  We write because we want to discover.  That’s why we read, too, isn’t it?   If an artist can help me discover something new about my hometown, that’s wonderful.  I’d welcome it.  Emma, I cannot wait to read your novel.

6.
There’s also this:  Before I began writing this essay, I asked poet and prose writer Sarah Manguso, a recent New York transplant, how it feels to be a writer in L.A., far from the center of the publishing world.  She wrote back to say, “In New York, writers don’t use the phrase ‘the center of the publishing world’ and they don’t visit the Statue of Liberty.”

Got it.

She also said, “In Los Angeles a writer is expected to learn to drive. Believe me, that’s a big difference.”

Now that is profound.

(Image: Los Angeles Palm Trees from tiarescott’s photostream)





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32 Responses to “Going Native: Writing Place in Los Angeles”

  1. Morning Bites: Styron’s Dark Genius, AOL vs. Huff Po, Geoff Dyer, and More | Vol. 1 Brooklyn
    at 10:44 am on April 20, 2011

    […] Where to write in LA. […]

  2. Chris
    at 12:14 pm on April 20, 2011

    Born and raised in Los Angeles. I write fiction. I am the only person I know in Los Angeles who writes fiction. Every single one of my friends who writes writes screenplays. I feel what you’re feeling. Feel the same way about Lethem’s book, Baumbach’s movie. But Steve Erickson gets it. James Ellroy gets it. Joan Didion, Nat West, too. Michael Ventura and Richard Meltzer. Don’t forget Bruce Wagner. We need more natives to write about the city. Los Angeles is sad and beautiful.

  3. Brandy Winchester
    at 12:30 pm on April 20, 2011

    I agree that Los Angeles needs more natives to write about the city but this can be said about almost every city? From an outside perspective being an Arizona native I find Los Angeles to be a great place for writers to evolve. Programs like GLAWS encourage the writers of Los Angeles to write and these writings may not always be about the city but they are about the natives in the city which is more than enough to represent Los Angeles’s beauty.

  4. EC
    at 12:40 pm on April 20, 2011

    Here here. A couple more:

    Leaf-blowers. Thought interrupters. Noise that disturbs every single time, never seems to incorporate itself into the manageable din of life here. Distant leaf blowing is alright, but nearby? Violent assault on writing.

    Intellectual loneliness, to accompany the physical isolation. The idea that every other person you meet is frantically searching for the fastest way to succeed, not the best path toward excellence. It’s a city of people who always need to pee.

    Vanity. Not of the brain. Vanity of the face, the body, the clothes. It exists everywhere, but LA somehow magnifies the shallowness into an all-consuming activity that takes up the day. You can’t walk into a coffee shop without people checking you out. You might be famous. And when you’re not, you’re instantaneously deemed boring. (“I’d rather stare into my latte than look in your direction again. It’s your turn to look at me.”)

    The car. The bubble. The place no one can touch you unless they crash into you. It’s an extension of the isolation at home. We travel alone here, too.

    Life as fiction. A city built on fabricating reality means people here often muddle the two. Interacting with people who blur those lines for a living, who play god without self-reflection or awareness, makes for a confusing set of relationships. In NY, you meet someone new and think “Hmm, they’re kind of a character.” In LA, you think: “Is this an act?”

  5. Casper
    at 12:42 pm on April 20, 2011

    Or think how isolated Susan Straight must have felt in the 909 area code… but maybe she didn’t, as she represents that world so well in her fiction.

  6. Edan Lepucki
    at 12:44 pm on April 20, 2011

    Thanks for the feedback, everyone. EC–I think you should move…at least to a different neighborhood! You’re meeting the wrong people! :)
    Caspar: best comment ever.

  7. EC
    at 12:54 pm on April 20, 2011

    In progress!!

  8. Neil Griffin
    at 1:02 pm on April 20, 2011

    I agree with some of the points in this article–which was very well written by the way– but I think some of the cliches, especially in one of the readers comments about LA being so image conscious and New York being so substantive as unrealistic and lazy.

    “You can’t walk into a coffee shop without people checking you out. You might be famous. And when you’re not, you’re instantaneously deemed boring.”

    I have never experienced that ever. I think it says more the person walking into the cafe and perceiving everybody judging them than it does about LA’s culture. It’s easy to deem the city as fake and shallow because popular culture does, but I feel it’s a tired and used up cliche.

    “The car. The bubble. The place no one can touch you unless they crash into you.” Paul Haggis should get residuals for that line.

  9. Edan Lepucki
    at 1:12 pm on April 20, 2011

    “Paul Haggis should get residuals for that line.” Wow, that is a low blow!

    I don’t think my essay ever says LA is image-conscious. It isn’t any more than New York is, in my experience at least.

  10. Neil Griffin
    at 1:14 pm on April 20, 2011

    I should have been more clear. It was directed at the comments after the article that were just spouting cliches about the city, which I took offense, too. I really enjoyed your essay.

  11. Edan Lepucki
    at 1:16 pm on April 20, 2011

    Ah, got it. Thanks, Neil. Something I do like about every setting–LA, NY, Omaha (why do I keep using Omaha as an example)–is that every person’s experience of a place is a little bit different. Probably too obvious a thing to say, but there it is.

  12. Neil Griffin
    at 1:26 pm on April 20, 2011

    That’s true. I’m sure Omaha can be hell to some people and merely purgatory to others.

  13. Rachael W
    at 1:51 pm on April 20, 2011

    Edan, I totally agree with you about feeling the lack of a writer’s community in L.A. (And I’m a young novelist, so finding other 25-year-olds in L.A. who are writing novels is somewhat…daunting.) I love the L.A. Times Festival of Books, though, and I plan on checking out the ALOUD series — thanks for the suggestion!

    I’ve also got a literary fiction m.s. I’m shopping to agents that takes place in South Los Angeles… hoping that someone will pick it up so that there’s one more “authentic L.A.” novel in the mix!

  14. EC
    at 1:59 pm on April 20, 2011

    It’s not even lunchtime and I’ve been called lazy, unrealistic, self-centred, cliche, tired and a plagiarist, by someone I’ve never met, in defense of a city I’ve chosen to live in and write in for over a decade. Wednesday’s are awesome.

    Comments are tricky. I enjoy reading them, rarely write them, but Lepucki’s article resonated deeply. For me, her piece underscores the ambivalent nature of choosing where to live, and the grieving, no matter how small, of things we’ve given up in the choice. I’m a transplant via London-Tokyo-DC, and my choice has been to live in LA, where I can write. For a writer, there’s really no better reason to live anywhere, and her piece captured that for me.

    Mr. Griffin, I apologize that my observations offended you. I’m really happy you’ve not had any similar experiences to mine, as it means they’re isolated incidents (more isolation!) I’m a fan of LA, I live here, and I embrace it, warts and roses. It affords me the ability to write, which is exactly what I’m going to get back to now.

  15. Neil Griffin
    at 2:10 pm on April 20, 2011

    EC: My initial comments were snarky and unfair. I owe you an apology. It’s interesting that two different experiences in a place can inspire such a reaction, but that doesn’t excuse me. I must have woken up grumpy or something.

  16. Edan Lepucki
    at 2:24 pm on April 20, 2011

    This exchange warms my heart. We CAN all get along! I’m sending you all love from PicFair Village, Angelenos.

  17. DAS
    at 3:01 pm on April 20, 2011

    Edan,

    My favorite “Los Angeles” author is Joan Didion, but I think that says more about me than about how accurately she portrayed LA. I think that LA is so huge and varied that trying to capture its essence in a single work of art is impossible. Its the old six blind men and the elephant story. Writers that get their coffee at Denny’s or McDonald’s will have an entirely different experience than those that go to Starbucks or the local eclectic mom-and-mom bookstore/cafe.

  18. Amy Collins
    at 3:17 pm on April 20, 2011

    Edan – I love this! As a writer outside New York (and formerly of New York) I often wonder what I’m missing by writing outside the ‘center of the publishing world’. Of course, I’ve removed myself from any metropolitan experience and write instead from small-town Alabama – we don’t even have a Starbucks (Thank you very much).

    Some days I figure my shot-in-hell at publishing isn’t even THAT good. Maybe it’s just a shot-in-purgatory.

    Ah, but what I AM missing is that cynical chip on the shoulder, that, ‘everyone in NYC is a writer’ – like, ‘so what,’ and, ‘sure you are, but what do you do for money?’ And the tense competition between writers – whether or not they are actually writing counts less than how well they carry the writing persona (at least often enough to annoy and distract).

    What I have outside New York is the solitude and rarity of room to create, to write and write and write, without looking up.

    Cheers, Edan!

  19. Laer Carroll
    at 4:21 pm on April 20, 2011

    Your sentiments are as strange to me as if they were written by a Martian. Not that I deny them. You convinced me that you feel them, that you’re not just writing some random essay to impress others.

    Perhaps its because I’ve visited so many large cities (Houston, San Francisco, Miami, London, Dublin, New York, and Paris). Each is enormous, a universe, with hundreds – no, thousands – of neighborhoods as well as the (often several) urban centers. Each has its myths about why it is singular, and central, to the universe.

    One myth is that New York is the center of the publishing world and that every café has its struggling literati hunched over a laptop. Get real. Almost everyone who does that is pretending, or reading email or browsing the Web.

    Not that cafés don’t have their uses. But they are more for collecting images and emotions and experiences, as when with a group of friends we gleefully dismember the latest pompous film or romantic entanglement of someone we know. Or when we watch the strollers, single or with someone, on the boardwalk over the ocean or in the suburban mall and wonder about the tragedies and triumphs and ordinary universals of their lives.

    The real work of writing is done in seclusion, in the depths of night or a bland summer afternoon or warm den in the morning while outside winter freezes the unlucky venturers into the snow. That’s when we float 30,000 light years above a galaxy center in a hyperluminal starship, or struggle to chop and bring in peat on the west coast of 1854 Ireland, or strut with our teen girl-friends down the Santa Monica pier. That’s when we writers travel the trillion alternate universes of imagination and bring back treasures for others to (eventually) trickle through their fingers.

    Writing companions? Maybe once we needed to find them within a dozen or two minutes away. But nowadays I have a colleague in New Zealand, and another in the east midlands of England, and a third in Iceland. And I think the fourth fellow (or female?) is Russian from hi/r unique sentence construction.

    Speaking of east midlands, I have to sign off now to pen my colleague in Pemberland (home of Fitzwilliam Darcy) about modern downtown Derby, where I’ve just set a restaurant conversation between two crucial female characters. Ciao!

  20. Charles Baxter
    at 7:04 pm on April 20, 2011

    To defend my novel for a moment: the POV in _The Soul Thief_ is that of a visitor to L.A., not that of a native, and the perceptions are necessarily those of someone who has just arrived in the city and doesn’t know it well. The novel doesn’t claim to have a take on the city based on familiarity but on estrangement, which is not necessarily the worst place to start from. Nathanael West’s _The Day of the Locust_ is a famous Los Angeles novel, but West wasn’t a native, either. My favorite recent Los Angeles novel novel is _Lightning Field_ by Dana Spiotta and _Jamesland_ by Michelle Huneven, by the way.

  21. Edan
    at 7:52 pm on April 20, 2011

    Charles Baxter, is that really you? Wow!

    I see what you’re saying about The Soul Thief regarding POV–but I think that’s the problem: an outsider’s perspective of any city has the danger of falling into the predictable. That’s why when I go to New York, or to, say, San Francisco, I’m aware that my observations are perhaps not that compelling. Then again, it’s hard to judge.

    I like Jamesland (and I love Huneven’s Blame). I haven’t read Lightning Field, but I will check it out.

    That said, thank you for your comment and for reading my essay. I am a big fan of your work–fiction and nonfiction–and I look forward to digging into your new story collection.

  22. Emily St. John Mandel
    at 8:07 pm on April 20, 2011

    I like this a lot. Something that jumped out at me —

    “There’s an option to retreat from the noise–or, okay, the music–that I don’t think a writer in, say, Brooklyn has.”

    I live in Brooklyn. The literary world is always here if one wants to be a part of it, and there’s definitely value in that, but I find it easy to opt out. Months go by when I don’t go to a single literary event, when I do pretty much exactly the same thing I imagine a writer in Los Angeles or Vancouver or Minneapolis would do when they’re deep in a project and/or just kind of feel like cooking dinner and staying home with the husband and the cats instead of going out to readings — get up, go to the day job, buy groceries, come home, write. I feel like writing is a somewhat isolating profession no matter where you live.

  23. Tom Lutz
    at 8:24 pm on April 20, 2011

    First of all, thank you Edan Lepucki, and let’s have coffee! Thanks for mentioning us at Los Angeles Review of Books and for getting hot and bothered on our behalf.

    The ‘new center’ line–yes, now that I see it repeated a few times it’s a bit embarrassing, frankly, but we’ve been running around raising money, trying to argue to people (people with money to give) and to foundations that we are worth supporting. We tell them we want to pay writers for writing criticism on the internet, and that idea takes some selling. One problem: we aren’t salespeople, and I guess we’re just lucky it didn’t end up as ‘new and improved’ center.

    The ‘new center’ line is from Hamlin Garland’s Crumbling Idols, his anti-East Coast publishing octopus screed from the 1890s–he claims that the center used to be Boston, had moved to New York in the 1880s, and that in the 1890s it was somewhere around Buffalo and headed toward Chicago. He didn’t use the phrase ‘center of the publishing world’ (and neither did we); what he was imagining had nothing to do with having lunch at the Union Street Cafe with your editor or planting a flag anywhere, but something to do with rethinking his evolving literary community, and its place in the larger world, which is what we all do every day, isn’t it?

    Loved the piece.

    PS Love you, too, Charles Baxter, and since we couldn’t use your AWP piece, will you write something else for us? Maybe a piece on Michelle Huneven and and Dana Spiotta? And Edan, I’m serious about the coffee–we can go somewhere in Silverlake and count the laptops. T

  24. Edward Champion
    at 4:27 am on April 21, 2011

    I have lived and written in San Francisco and New York, and find Brooklyn to be the best place for me, because it is very comfortable to “opt out,” as Emily suggests above. Here on the edge of Clinton Hill, there is a vast archipelago of unique writers and interesting thinkers, barely surviving and clamoring against the eastward wave of gentrification. Few notice them. Perhaps they will one day. Or perhaps they will be absorbed. Perhaps some of our haunts, many still off the books, will become as crowded and as cliched and as unconducive to the creative life as the Hungarian Pastry Shop’s vulgar fixation on aesthetics and exclusivity.

    In all cities, I have been an outsider, because I seem to notice and/or gravitate to people that the alleged chroniclers of these pulsing places don’t seem to care about. Or i wish to understand the established or half-documented in ways that are deemed idiosyncratic or deranged by gatekeepers both overt and covert. It’s telling that, while there has been some mention in this thread of the excellent chronicler Susan Straight, there has been no nod to William T. Vollmann, Stewart O’Nan, or Madison Smartt Bell — who have all spent many years of their lives documenting people who don’t always fit into the neat little urban rubrics that you call “community.” Comments are indeed tricky, but don’t some of you wonder if your backslapping (necessary though this support may be) cuts out a vast swath of humanity? At what point do you fall victim to the competitive racket, sneering down at certain people or certain neighborhoods in your professed camaraderie (as hinted in the “war stories” Edan brings up) with the same atavistic instinct that a coastal snob uses “flyover state” or some other pejorative? True discovery involves stretching out your hand to someone who you feel genuinely humble and curious about and who you wish to learn from. It doesn’t come from haughtily declaring yourself “the first major book review to launch in the 21st century,” especially when there have been plenty of others who have been working certain corners of the world in the last eleven years long before you.

  25. Casper
    at 11:59 am on April 21, 2011

    Hi, Ed. I commented on Susan Straight, and like you say, there are excellent chroniclers of people in non-bicoastal regions. Stu Dybek’s Chicago. And I always felt that Maile Meloy’s stories lifted higher when she wrote about Montana and its inhabitants. Too many examples, I agree.

    But I dunno… I don’t see how some of the commenters are “backslapping” each other in a “sneer” in this thread. They’re commenting about NY & LA almost exclusively b/c Edan’s post mentions those 2 places specifically, no? Yes, there is this NY – LA bias everywhere, not just in the literary world, which is almost sickeningly smug, but I think that merits attention in another post. For this thread, I think people are generally commenting on living/writing in NY & LA, merely prompted by the post itself.

    Also: I lived in Morningside Heights for 4 years, and I never felt that the Hungarian Pastry Shop was exclusive? It was usually filled with some grads or undergrads typing away their papers on their laptops, with Nathan Englander at some table with earphones jammed in. =) Didn’t go there much b/c the coffee was terrible, but it never felt exclusive to me… people in there usually didn’t recognize Englander or some other writer when they were there, working. If it felt exclusive in any way, it was b/c it seemed like such a hang-out for Columbia grads who talked & dressed like they were offsprings of some continental philosopher. But not because it was some sacred haven for the literary elite. (I can’t stand that place, either – that, we share!)

  26. Edan
    at 12:15 pm on April 21, 2011

    Ed, when I used the phrase “war stories” I meant stories like: “I stayed up all night writing, and then my computer went bezerk and I lost everything.” Or, “My agent told me the title of my new novel is worse than bad.” Or, “I had to dump my thesis and start again–two weeks before it was due.” Not sure where the sneering or the like is implied.

  27. EC
    at 5:57 pm on April 21, 2011

    Neil: Accepted! Forgiven!

    Ed, you make excellent points. The “competitive racket” is ever-present and easy to fall into, with cynicism following close behind. Both must be rigorously defended against. That said, to avoid falling prey to atavistic tendencies, we should separate writer and work in this discussion. Literary community can impinge on a writer’s ability to see the world clearly, but lack of community can drive a writer to the brink of insanity. Oscillating on that spectrum is central to a writer’s internal life, and there’s no point of rest. We’re in constant motion.

    With your comments, the work side of the discussion turns to community vs. individual and the blurry line between observation and judgment. Your curiosity about the individual is what all writer’s hopefully aspire to have (yours seems to have a journalistic bent?), while your suspicion of institution is exclusionary. I would argue that writers should try for dual citizenship of community and the fringe, and cultivate the inclination to visit both as often as possible. Community offers rich insight into our lives, and there’s a unique power in numbers that’s transforming, for better or worse. (Give the LARB a break on the celebratory rhetoric. Bravado is appealing and attention-grabbing at launch, and hey, it’s their birthday.)

    The word judgement gets a bad rap in our psych-centric society, which is too bad because judgment is at the core of every decision we make. Reasons for loving someone are benevolent judgements, while mean-spirited, or snobby, judgement is hurtful but potentially productive if it starts dialogue, deepens understanding. To that end, I think my earliest comments on this thread touched a nerve because I extrapolated my current experience to the entire city. Without context, I came off as shortsighted. I know LA better than that. Still, I stand behind my comments, as they refer to aspects of my current community that I find frustrating and ridiculous, although I wish I’d tempered them with positives. No sneering here, and I didn’t read any in Lepucki’s piece. It isn’t snobbery to chronicle the pond you’re in, it’s snobbery (and disillusionment) to believe you aren’t in the pond.

  28. Kit Steinkellner
    at 6:22 pm on April 21, 2011

    Re: Beleaguered Male Screenwriters in Coffee Shops.

    Whenever I see Final Draft open on a Macbook a few tables away, I try to imagine the (yes, usually male and beleaguered) screenwriter I’m spying on might be writing the next “All About Eve” or “The Apartment,” though I’m well award the likelihood is that he is working on a shitty retread version of the already shitty genre of psychological thrillers studios dump into theaters January through March.

    (Through teeth) Must. Keep. Dreaming. Of Better. World. Slash. Entertainment. Industry.

    I love my Los Angeles, but have definitely had most, if not all, of the lonely and irritable feelings you articulated in your essay.

  29. Ryan
    at 11:21 am on April 22, 2011

    This was great. I have the same chip on my shoulder about people who write about Florida.

  30. Tom Lutz
    at 11:39 am on April 22, 2011

    How do you like our center now? http://lareviewofbooks.org/info

  31. Mark Olague
    at 10:27 pm on April 24, 2011

    As a true native of Los Angeles in every sense of the world, I find when writers write about Los Angeles, especially east coast transplants, they are often channeling Hollywood, even if their novels are not strictly set there. in other words, Los Angeles is treated as some cipher, the problem some writers take on of trying to “solve” the city, making it mean something for them or their readers. Because of this, Los Angeles has never really been captured in fiction–at least the Los Angeles I know. I caught a glimpse of it once in some background locations in bad movies a few times but never in literature. No use invoking all the typical names, i.e. Chandler, Bukowski, Didion, Fante, Mosley, Straight (that’s Riverside, not LA), etc.–I mean it: never. Los Angeles isn’t like New York: the landscape and architecture here don’t conspire to intervene in lives or define character as they seem to do in New York. It’s sort of about space and loneliness or insularity, I don’t know. It’s not lack of community you feel here, really, but a sort of nostalgia for community–piled rocks in the desert or an image on a wall that once meant something. Even with people like me who’ve been here forever, never any place else, there’s this nagging sense of lamenting some other place, even if that place is just a few blocks east or west of where you are now.

  32. 4/27/2011 – Link Roundup – HAM Literature
    at 12:58 pm on October 18, 2011

    […] Edan Lepucki talks about what it’s like to write in Los Angeles. I’ve been feeling isolated lately.  In the mornings (if I’m being good), I work on my new book, and, once I’ve been sufficiently humbled by the limits of my own skill and talent, I take my dog for a walk.   On these jaunts, I wave hello to the neighbors and the gardeners, the local barbers and the auto mechanics.  Maybe I’ll stop by the nearby coffee shop, and get something to go.  On every walk, I’m likely to see a raised sprinkler–that little metal head–protruding from the edge of a lawn.  When I see one of these heads, I do like I’ve always done: I tap it down with my foot and I make a wish. […]

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