It used to be that when the publishing world came to California for its annual book convention, folks would talk of sun, surf and screenplays. They’d marvel at waiters on roller skates and swap stories about freeways. But this year, they’re talking about Rodney King.
In a convention more serious than any in recent memory, more than 30,000 members of the American Booksellers Assn. have come to ponder as well as to play in Los Angeles. And the riots of 1992 are foremost in their minds: Not only as a reflection of the troubled Southern California landscape, but as a spur to greater social responsibility in publishing.
“I know for a lot of you the question is, what does this (the riots) have to do with the price of books in Idaho?” author Luis J. Rodriguez asked conventioneers at a well-attended weekend book panel on Los Angeles called “Literature of the Rebellion.”
“But the question is relevant, because it can help sellers define important books and keep literature vital. Good writing doesn’t just reflect the world. It impacts the world.”
Rodriguez, who has won praise for “Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.,” was sanguine at the prospect that this year’s convention would politicize out-of-towners. Still, he suggested, there should be more to the event than PR stunts and movie tie-ins.
For many, the ABA meeting remains what it has always been: a chance for authors, publishers, literary agents, booksellers and other vendors to schmooze, talk deals and take a look at hot new books for summer and fall. Although not as lavish as in the past, this year’s version has had its share of VIP parties, Hollywood celebrities and hoopla.
The sprawling Los Angeles Convention Center has been jammed with ABA business, which ends today, and the four-day bash has been festive. Yet the real world has also made an appearance.
Book mavens were rocked, for example, when ABA board members announced on the convention’s first day that the association is suing five publishers, charging them with giving large chain operators special discounts that financially discriminate against the owners of smaller independent stores.
The action--targeting Houghton Mifflin, Penguin USA, St. Martin’s Press, Rutledge Hill Press and Hugh Lauter Levin Associates--has provoked angry denials from several publishers, as well as threats by some companies to reduce their participation in future ABA conventions.
More controversy erupted in panels that drew overflow audiences. At the meeting where Rodriguez spoke, writers made scathing comments about U.S. race relations and the isolation of New York publishers. The session was sponsored by Booksellers for Social Responsibility.
“Rodney King was beaten physically, but I’ve been beaten metaphorically,” snapped Los Angeles poet Wanda Coleman. She blasted East Coast publishers for patronizing her and chided out-of-town African American writers who flew in after the riots, becoming instant experts.
“If you (as a writer) can’t make that New York connection, you’ll have problems,” Coleman said. “But whether you like it or not, we are voices and we aren’t going away.”
Other panelists echoed those concerns, particularly Mike Davis, author of “City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in L.A.” He excoriated President Clinton and other leaders for ignoring South-Central Los Angeles, charging that cities have become a code word for people of color.
He also urged ABA members to use their economic clout on a controversial local issue.
“There is an ongoing rebellion in this city that offers hope to a new generation of trade unionists,” Davis said. “There are some incredible struggles of some immigrant workers, including a campaign in Los Angeles to organize non-union hotels here.
“And that’s where conventioneers have a lot of influence with . . . the hotel and tourist industry,” he said. “Let’s talk about tourism and the ABA. You people have real power.”
Political power--or lack of it--dominated the volatile discussion, which also included writers Nelson Peery, Leslie Marmon Silko, Michael Warr and Ruben Martinez.
Peery, for example, described his political evolution as a writer since the 1965 Watts riots: “I finally realized that white folks aren’t my enemy. It’s the relationship between them and me that’s the enemy . . . and then I became a revolutionary.”
On Sunday, a panel called “Murder, Mayhem and the Media: Have We Gone Too Far?” revisited the Rodney King beating and TV coverage of the Los Angeles riots, among other issues.
The speakers, assembled by the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, included authors Walter Mosley and John Irving, former NBC Chairman Grant Tinker, playwright Tony Kushner, law professor Susan Estrich, producer Robert Evans and ACLU chief Nadine Strossen.
“My response is, there’s not enough violence on television and in movies,” said Mosley, whose Los Angeles-based mysteries featuring Easy Rawlins are popular with many readers, including Clinton. The problem, he explained, is that media violence is often sanitized, trivialized or presented out of context, so viewers rarely experience the real world.
“The problem with showing that (Rodney King) tape so many times was that there was a slant in the coverage that kept the truth from being expressed,” Mosely added. “When a white person saw it, they would say, ‘That’s terrible.’ But they didn’t see it as the consequence of our collective history in America. And nobody in the news media was saying it.”
Tinker disagreed, saying that the King videotape was overexposed and that endless rebroadcasts reflected pandering by TV stations. Instead of violence, he suggested, television and films “could pull back . . . in the belief that there might be a little good news once in a while.”
Do TV and other media influence criminal behavior? There was strong disagreement.
Irving, who wrote “The World According to Garp,” lashed out at pundits who blame books or movies for causing violence. Society was plagued by crime long before television, he noted.
“Some people think that if you read ‘The World of Garp,’ you’ll be dying to bite off someone’s penis in the back seat of a car,” Irving said, referring to a notorious scene in his best-selling novel. “It’s not the responsibility of a person who writes a book to worry about what some idiot who reads it will go out and do.”
Yet Mosley was not so sure: “Should I write something that I think will make people in the inner city angry, and go out and hurt people? I have to ask myself this question.”
Estrich sought a middle ground, saying censorship is abhorrent--but that parents and others have to take action on the media violence issue before it’s hijacked by extremists.
“You don’t have to buy into the harshest rhetoric of the extreme religious right to see this problem for what it is,” she said. “If we don’t understand this problem, we’re living in an ivory tower.”