It would be presumptuous--if not impossible--for one...

<i> Josh Getlin is a Times Staff Writer who covers the publishing industry</i>

It would be presumptuous--if not impossible--for one observer to find the unifying theme of an event as vast and varied as the 1997 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. At a gathering where more than 200 authors held forth in 64 panel presentations, simply getting around the jammed UCLA campus and attending three or four events a day would have been achievement enough.

“You had tremendous space, a superb setting and a great many books were sold,” said Alberto Vitale, CEO of Random House, Inc., the nation’s largest trade book publisher, who toured the festival last Sunday. “Clearly, Southern California is a huge market for books, and I would hope that every large American city could have an event as well-planned as this.”

Some random impressions: A sampling of this year’s book panels revealed a sophistication that bodes well for the Southland’s literary culture. In one event after another, audience members from diverse backgrounds asked questions that focused as much on writing as on reading. During a session devoted to Sportswriting as Literature, for example, Roger Kahn, author of “The Boys of Summer” and other baseball books, responded forcefully to a query about how much of the writer’s personality--and foibles--should be put into narrative nonfiction: “In real life, you’re the clown in so many scenes,” he said. “You make mistakes, say foolish things and life doesn’t go smoothly. As a writer, you’ve got to tell the truth and be a bit of a jerk. You can’t just keep writing, ‘I observed wittily,’ because it’s false.”


It’s also crucial to maintain high standards, added Joan Ryan, author of “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes,” an expose of women’s gymnastics. She recalled a moment, early in her career, when she interviewed tennis great Billie Jean King and asked about her sexuality. “She (King) leaned forward, turned off my tape recorder and said: ‘I’ve dealt with some of the best writers in this business, and they don’t have to stoop to that level,’ ” Ryan recalled. “As a writer, I never forgot that incident. She was absolutely right.”

The issue of an author’s persona and literary voice dominated a panel on “How to Write Your First Novel.” At one point, a budding novelist complained that her fictional characters seemed flat, like a child’s crayon drawings, and she wondered how to breathe life into them. “Take a hard look at yourself,” answered Mark Behr, who won the 1996 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for first fiction for his novel “The Smell of Apples.” “You’re not an easy person, none of us is . . . . You’re very kind, and you’re also very brutal. All of that exists in one person, so as a writer you can start hanging character traits on those little pegs.”

Good writing often reveals painful truths, said the authors in a panel on self-help books. But what happens, asked an audience member, when your story exposes other family members?

“You must take these factors into consideration,” said Elizabeth Mehren, a Times Staff writer and author of “After the Darkest Hours: A Parent’s Guide to Coping with the Loss of a Child.” In some cases, she noted, family members can be consulted during the writing process. “But in other cases, you simply hand them a finished manuscript . . . . it’s never easy.”

As the session ended, Irene Winston, a San Fernando Valley resident and would-be author of a self-help book on alcoholism, was impressed. The panel “wasn’t just about some people who wrote books,” she explained. “I really learned something about writing. And it was free.”