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Suspension of Disbelief: Los Angeles Is (really) Literary

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By Katherine Manderfield/Special to LAist

Los Angeles is home to many things "unliterary." Hollywood celebrities, the porn industry, and paparazzi perpetuate this fact. So, when held against definitive bookish cities Seattle, New York, and San Francisco, LA’s literary credibility falls understandably short. But Central Connecticut State University’s recent list of 75 national literary cities banished Los Angeles to number 61. LA’s literary rating fell behind those of Miami, Phoenix, and Las Vegas. No offense intended toward Sin City, but this can’t be right.

Literature is, and has been, an essential part of Los Angeles culture. The city’s literary legacy includes Joan Didion, Charles Bukowski, Nathanael West, Ray Bradbury, and Raymond Chandler. Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Huxley all flocked to LA to write scripts. And classics Less Than Zero, The Big Sleep, and LA Confidential cast the city of Los Angeles as protagonist. But literary achievement isn’t exclusive to LA’s past. Jonathan Lethem, Walter Mosley, Janet Fitch, and Steve Erickson are among our acclaimed local authors. And the Los Angeles Times Review of Books continues to garner praise as one of the foremost book reviews in the nation. While our city might play host to Celebrity Rehab, several Pulitzers have been awarded to Los Angeles literati. Yet still, LA dons a literary scarlet letter.

Undermining the importance of literature in Los Angeles is an easy dig. After all, it’s home to the Playboy Mansion and the movie Clueless. ‘Literary’ isn’t the first adjective LA evokes. But in Los Angeles, image and reality often conflict. Paradox is the city’s metaphorical mascot: The city’s smog is disturbingly toxic, but it renders the gorgeous green hue of our iconic sunsets. Hollywood lore juxtaposes an epidemically impoverished downtown LA. And while vapid celebrity gossip abounds, there are over 100,000 graduate students and PhD candidates who call LA County home (pretty good, compared to 51,000 in NYC and 24,000 in SF). Los Angeles may don a less-than-literary rep, but like most conceptions of the city, reality contests.

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Despite its Baywatch affiliation, Los Angeles has a seriously substantial literary scene. We have independent booksellers Skylight and Book Soup, who can hold their own against NYC’s Strand and SF’s Green Apple. Non-profit Red Hen Press, avant-garde Les Figues Press, and quirky Siglio Press are a few of our local publishers. Popular reading series like Vermin on the Mount, Writers Bloc, and Rhapsodomancy rebel boldly against the stodgy and boring of lit-event likeness. And lit venues Machine Project, Beyond Baroque, and Word Space serve as prime aesthetic playgrounds for sounds, installations and words.

Rest assured: literature is alive and well in Los Angeles. Literary death matches, the LA Times Festival of Books, ‘zine collectives—LA’s literary scene is thriving, albeit obscurely. A victim of LA’s ‘unliterary’ myth, the book culture of our city remains somewhat elusive. But that’s what makes it peerless; it’s what makes it uniquely LA. While finding the ‘literary Los Angeles’ requires a bit more research than its metropolitan counterparts, it is undeniably there. And 60 new reasons prove it’s well worth knowing.