Despite its reputation for buffed anti-intellectualism, Los Angeles has always had a literary life.
Even as writers wrung their hands over selling out, they flocked here to make big bucks in the entertainment industry--money that could be used to underwrite the occasional serious novel that enriched the writer's soul, if not his or her bank account.
Theodore Dreiser, who lies in Glendale's Forest Lawn Cemetery and was a Serious Novelist if ever there was one, apparently died trying to sell "Sister Carrie" to the movies.
Although Los Angeles has had no lack of writers, it has tended to be underendowed with literary venues. Except for bookstores, campuses and Beyond Baroque in Venice, there have been few places where writers could read from their work, talk about their craft and interact with their readers.
But that is changing. On Sunday the Skirball Cultural Center will launch what it calls its "Fall Season of Literature." The program opens at 2 p.m. with "An Afternoon With Herbert Gold."
Future speakers include Walter Mosley (Oct. 20), author of the highly acclaimed mysteries featuring Easy Rawlins; and Jay McInerney (Nov. 8), whose "Bright Lights, Big City" was a bestseller.
The Getty Museum and the Skirball are going far to turn the Sepulveda Pass into something other than the world's most frustrating commute. "Culture Gulch," a clever museum publicist calls it, and indeed, living near the pass means never being too far from an interesting exhibit, concert or lecture.
"I'm amazed," novelist and memoirist Herbert Gold says of the city's new cultural respectability. "In the late '60s, I thought of L.A. as a great place to take drugs." Twenty years ago, he says, he wrote a piece in which he called Los Angeles "America's first space station on Earth."
In those days, the only places he felt at home here were in the bohemian joints on the Sunset Strip and in Venice.
Today, he says, "It is a cultural center." The Getty has been a factor in the city's new sophistication, he thinks, but so has the presence of people of the stature and cultural sensitivity of theater impresario Gordon Davidson.
The author of 28 books, Gold received good reviews while still in his 20s for his third novel, "The Man Who Was Not With It." Thirty years ago, his semiautobiographical book "Fathers" spent 16 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
At the Skirball, Gold says, he plans to read from his 1997 novel, "She Took My Arm as if She Loved Me," which is due out in paperback this fall. He'll also talk about the art of fiction and answer audience questions. Gold, who has lived in the San Francisco Bay area since 1960, has always written about his own life, but he regards what he does as different from the "smarmy tell-alls" that seem to appear with increasing frequency. His "Fathers," for instance, deals with his family but is called "a novel in the form of a memoir."
"I was recreating something I believe to be true but not claiming every detail is true," he says. "If you call a book a novel, it's not a lie."
Gold thinks it's harder and harder to find an audience for fiction because there are so many "other avenues of fantasy life," from TV to the Internet. And then there are newspapers, which routinely offer stories that would make James Joyce blush.
Tired to death of the top news stories of the day, Gold has begun telling acquaintances that he will only talk about Monica and the stock market if they pay him $1 a minute. "I'm trying to lose friends," he explains. "By doing this, I really shut people up."
That Angelenos love books is obvious from the fact that this is the biggest book market in the country. Amina Sanchez, the Skirball's assistant program director who scheduled the literary series, hopes the center's program will become as much a fixture of cultural life in Los Angeles as the writers' program sponsored by the 92nd Street Y has become in New York. In the past, the Skirball has booked many of the same writers as the Y, with which the Skirball has an ongoing relationship. This year, though, the choices were the Skirball's.
"The Y is such a great model," Sanchez says. "And, over the years, we aspire to be like them as we grow."
Showcasing first-rate writers is part of the Skirball's mission, she says. And in her view, the center is a great place to encounter them.
"It's a very intimate setting, and the audience can really interact with the writers."
"An Afternoon With Herbert Gold," Sunday, 2 p.m., Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 North Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. $10; $8 members; $5 students. (310) 440-4500.