How Los Angeles Transformed American Literature

This story is part of Lit City, our comprehensive guide to the literary geography of Los Angeles.

Here’s a story I used to tell myself: I moved to Los Angeles to get away from it all. Winter, on the one hand, and the weight of history. To find a bit of freedom, or maybe some distance. For me, today as then, the two amount to more or less the same thing. Or better yet, space – space to stretch, space to fail, space to carve out a passage. In other words, the space to write.

I was wrong about that, as it turns out, but I was also right. That’s the thing with Los Angeles: everything they say about it is both right and wrong. City of sprawl and city of neighborhoods. City of the future and city of the past. This is especially the case when it comes to writing, which has long existed here on the edges – except, of course, when it doesn’t. Film and Poetry and Fiction. Literature of exile, literature of the place.

If I chose to do so, I could argue that over the past 50 years or so, Los Angeles writing has shifted from a literature of exile to a literature of place. Until the middle of the century, his most visible work was done by foreigners from the Orient or Europe, bewildered by what they perceived as the otherness of Southern California, its sun and its light, its Palm trees. Everything began to change in the 1960s with the emergence of the Watts Writers Workshop and the magnificent presence of Wanda Coleman, who remains among the most essential writers Los Angeles has produced. To tell this story, however, I would have to iron out too many edges, overlook too much narrative complexity.

The late and great Los Angeles poet Wanda Coleman captured her city in all its maddening and exhilarating contradictions.

(Sophie Bassouls/Corbis via Getty Images)

Coleman’s work, after all, not only reflects the complicated city she was born in, but also the forgotten one on which she is built. I think of Arna Bontemps recalling the Watts of her childhood in the 1931 novel “God Sends Sunday”. I think of Wallace Thurman, describing black life at USC in “The Blacker the Berry,” published in 1929. Thurman’s novel inspired Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 song of the same name, and the colorism he portrayed also emerges in Coleman’s work, most notably in his 2002 essay “The Riot Inside Me”, which also recalls Watts 50 years after Bontemps’s time.

What this suggests is that in Los Angeles as in any city, the weight of history is not something we can so easily escape.

Such Contradictions—particularly between exile and place—have always existed. As early as the 19th century, we see the tension embodied in a pair of novels, “Ramona” by Helen Hunt Jackson (1884) and “The Squatter and the Gift” by María Amparo Ruiz de Burton (1885). Each could represent a starting point for the literature of the region, but they could not be more different: the first a kind of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” for the native populations of California carried out by a so-called activist of the Massachusetts; the latter, written in English by a Mexican-American born in Baja California, a more nuanced portrayal of the state’s difficult legacies. Jackson’s book became a sentimental bestseller, influencing Mission Revival architecture and spawning the Ramona Pageant, an overworked stage adaptation performed every year at Hemet to this day. That of Ruiz de Burton, on the other hand, remains less read, in particular because of its complexity.

A copyright photo for DJ Waldie

DJ Waldie is one of the bards of what he calls the “sacred ordinary” of Los Angeles.

(Joe Cartwright)

In part, it has to do with prejudice. At the same time, it highlights another set of oppositions, between mythologists such as Jackson and those who, like Ruiz de Burton, saw Los Angeles through the filter of what DJ Waldie would later describe as “the sacred ordinary”. For Waldie, this means seeing the city on its own terms rather than as an expression of a false exoticism. “Sunkist advertisements, newsreels, movie magazines, railroad records, etc,” James M. Cain lamented in his 1933 essay “Paradise,” before turning to the potential of Los Angeles: “to be the leader in commerce, art, citrus farming, music, rabbit farming, oil production, furniture making, nut farming, literature”… the list goes on and on before Cain gets to his punchline without punchline:

“In short, it’s going to be heaven on earth.”

Heaven’s crack is ironic, as befits a badass writer. Cain was also a keen observer of the city as it was – and as it remains. “Mildred Pierce” (1941), the story of a restaurateur and her destructive daughter in the face of the Glendale-Pasadena class divide, is as resonant as a Los Angeles novel as it was written. Yet its brilliance has as much to do with how Cain puts the three-act structure of commercial melodrama to work for art. In this he resembles his contemporary Raymond Chandler, who once insisted, “There are no vital, meaningful art forms; there is only art, and very little of that. And like Chandler, Cain helped remake literature here as a more populist medium, an innovation so transformative it never went out of style.

This certainly remains true of Black Los Angeles, which has long functioned as a mirror onto the city, erasing – or ignoring – gender hierarchies. Walter Mosley’s series Easy Rawlins presents the detective novel as social fiction; Steph Cha’s “Your House Will Pay” is inspired by the 1991 murder of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins in a convenience store, a crime that, along with the police beating of Rodney King, sparked the 1992 uprising. In her Ellie Rush mysteries, Naomi Hirahara incorporates the contemporary city, with its light rail and recombining downtown—among the first Los Angeles fictions to do so.

Naomi Hirahara

Naomi Hirahara incorporates the contemporary city, with its light rail and recombining downtown, into her mysteries – among the first Los Angeles writers to do so.

(Mayumi Hirahara)

Equally important are all instances where black seeps into works that are not themselves black. An early example is Chester Himes’ first novel, “If He Hollers Let Him Go,” published in 1945, the story of a Black San Pedro shipyard worker “shattered” by harsh Southern California racism. ; Himes was a key inspiration for Mosley and Coleman. More recently, the works of Laila Lalami, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Percival Everett appropriate—and in Everett’s most recent novel, “The Trees,” actively satirize—the conventions of detective fiction.

A set of related moves marks Maggie Nelson’s “The Red Parts” and Myriam Gurba’s “Mean”, both of which weave true crime with bits of memory and elements of poetry (Gurba) or theory (Nelson) to push back our preconceptions about not only gender but also justice and redemption and loss.

What this tells us is that LA literature is porous; everything still bleeds into everything else. Science fiction has been a standard since the days of Edgar Rice Burroughs and L. Frank Baum; beginning in the 1930s, the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, with members such as Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein, met on Thursday evenings at the downtown Clifton Cafeteria. Bradbury wrote his 1953 story “The Pedestrian,” about a culture where walking was criminalized, after he was arrested by LAPD officers for loitering on Wilshire Boulevard.

Among his heirs are Octavia E. Butler, whose story “Speech Sounds” imagines a Los Angeles upset by the pandemic: “There was trouble on the Washington Boulevard bus,” he begins. Here — as in “The Pedestrian” or Cynthia Kadohata’s 1992 novel “In the Heart of the Valley of Love,” which imagines a mid-21st-century Los Angeles beset by division and climate change — we see the future through the prism of the present, which only makes it more resonant.

Not only that, but like black, the mashups resonate both ways. Kadohata’s book is positioned not as science fiction but as a realistic novel despite its futuristic setting. The same goes for Steve Erickson, whose work mixes the spooky — in “Our Ecstatic Days,” a lake appears at the corner of Laurel Canyon and Hollywood Boulevards — with the things of everyday life. Sesshu Foster’s “ELADATL,” the steampunk alternate history of an airline, and Charles Yu’s metafiction “How to Live Safely in a Sci-Fi Universe” play with (and against) gender tropes in favor of something that can’t quite be categorized. Carribean Fragoza’s first collection of stories, “Eat the Mouth That Feeds You,” oscillates between naturalism, magical realism and fantasy.

It’s impossible to ignore Hollywood’s influence on some of these things, although I resist that metaphor. Among the writers who came to write for the cinema, how many tried to understand the place? Perhaps Nathanael West, whose “The Day of the Locust” (1939) recasts the Hollywood romance as apocalyptic – “just as”, to borrow a phrase from Joan Didion, “we always knew it would be in the end” . Perhaps Evelyn Waugh, who understood the thanatotic impulse of fame well enough to frame her 1948 novel “The Loved One” through the prism of death. Perhaps Yu, whose novel “Interior Chinatown” grew out of his experience writing for “Westworld” (and won a 2020 National Book Award). Popular culture, literary culture. Literature of exile, literature of the place. Didion also worked as a screenwriter, but she mostly left the subject of cinema to her husband.

Basically, I want to argue, everything comes back to poetry. Los Angeles, the city’s former Poet Laureate, Luis J. Rodriguez, once told me, “is a great city of poetry.” He’s right, as even the shortest list of Southern California poets attests. Coleman, Lynne Thompson, Eloise Klein Healy, Amy Gerstler, Douglas Kearney. Robin Coste Lewis, Victoria Chang, David St. John, Harryette Mullen, Kamau Daood. Their work evokes Los Angeles as a psychic but also physical landscape.

The idea is not to do what is expected. The idea is to make work as fluid — unpredictable — as the city itself. “cruise Hollywood to Watts take Virgil to Beverly down Commonwealth to Wilshire to Hoover south to 23rd to Figueroa south to 54th East to Avalon south to 103rd – 30 minutes as the soul flieswrites Coleman in “Angel Baby Blues,” a poem that is both a memory game and a card. Here, as in so many of her writings, she shows us the way.

Ulin is the former editor and book reviewer of The Times.

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