A local boom in lit mags

Times Staff Writer

For decades, the challenge for Southern California writers hasn’t been trying to fix the region on the page; the real test has been to circulate more representative ideas and images -- beyond L.A.’s borders and its easy cliches.

But in the last few months, three handsome, homegrown literary journals, Black Clock, Swink and the Los Angeles Review, have made their debuts with high hopes of raising and sharpening the profile. To longtime participants and observers of L.A.’s literary life, they are all welcome additions, fleshing out the area’s already vivid scene.

The coincidence of timing suggests to veterans nothing more than the fact that the table has been amply set. “I sort of see this as not the advent but the continuation of something,” memoirist and native Bernard Cooper says. “To register surprise is to risk sounding provincial.”


“What I like is what all of this says inherently,” says David L. Ulin, an L.A.-based writer and editor of “Writing Los Angeles” (Library of America, 2002) and a contributor to The Times. “It’s time to stop talking about the culture and start making the culture. In the past, journals have been just an expression of a smaller community.... Philosophically, these three journals speak from and for their community -- but reach out to artists beyond them as well.”

Unique, unpredictable and stripped of the usual-suspect cliches, these journals reflect the region not through its topography or its icons but through its pace and sensibilities. Just as strong a filter is the editorial point of view.

Black Clock, edited by local novelist and critic Steve Erickson, is published under the auspices of the California Institute of Arts in Valencia in conjunction with its master of fine arts writing program. The premiere issue convenes well-known writers from both coasts and in between -- Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Jonathan Lethem, Rick Moody and David Foster Wallace. Erickson raises the question-and-answer bar with a deliciously twisty conversation with speculative fiction guru Samuel R. Delany -- mulling over all manner of topics, including male emotional detachment, theater and urban landscapes.

For anyone familiar with the murky dreamscapes of his novels, Black Clock is decidedly Erickson -- an expansive, elliptical, speculative journey in which “place” is illustrated not through surface symbols but by attempting to convey a location’s mood or essence. It’s a sensibility that reflects the creative spirit of the institute, CalArts President Steven D. Lavine says. “I don’t entirely share his dystopian views, but I like the fact that he is someone who spans the distance between high literary culture and popular culture.”

For Erickson, 54, who just completed his latest novel, “Our Ecstatic Days,” the process of creating a literary magazine was a departure from the isolation of writing, a kind of laboratory for the process of collaboration. “There was a certain sense of serendipity to it,” Erickson says, one person leading to a germ of an idea, leading to a larger theme. Erickson, who has been teaching fiction and popular criticism workshops in the school’s master’s writing program since 2000, liked the idea of what a journal on this coast might mean.

“Great literary writers aren’t being published as much anymore, but in fairness people aren’t buying a lot of literary fiction now. Some kind of independent movement has to come around to invigorate it.” Published semiannually with submissions on an invitation-only basis (a subscription is $20 a year; the newsstand price is $12 per issue), Erickson’s plan is to organize each issue around a theme. “Not a theme that will announce itself on the cover, but one that will emerge” -- in nonfiction, poetry, “lost music of the imagination,” and subtly, of course, L.A.

“We’re straddling this line. We want to be a magazine with a national presence, but I don’t want to obscure the West Coast identity and sensibility that I think is there,” he says. “As the publishing business gets more like Hollywood, I want more good writers to have a place to go.”

Playful, yet serious

Of the three new literary havens, Swink most patently bills itself as bicoastal. In many ways, Swink is like joining a boisterous conversation already in progress between two worlds no longer as distant as they once were -- or think they are.

Swink’s editor, Leelila Strogov, who has lived on both coasts and now makes her home in Silver Lake, is trying to inject the energy and play of both regions on her pages: “I like L.A. although I will say I love New York. New York is the unhealthy, obsessive love. L.A. is the healthy relationship.”

Swink is playful but it doesn’t mean that it is not serious. “Swink” after all means toil, Strogov says, “and what is writing if not hard work?” The premiere issue, which arrived in April, has a busy, collage-like feel; the pages are noisy with dashed-off notes between writers, provocative floating pull-quotes, snarky e-mails and sexy marginalia. (A subscription is $16 a year for the semiannual publication). Indeed it all plays out like a sophisticated mixer, with writers -- known and unknown, poets and essayists -- convened from various far corners. There’s fiction by Steve Almond and Lisa Glatt; poetry by Terrence Hayes and Rynn Williams; travel meditations by Rachel Resnick and Geoff Dyer; and a clever feature called “Damaged Darlings” that allows one writer to pickup a piece where another left off (or gave up).

Strogov, 33, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology whose former life was as senior vice president of Juno Online Services, an Internet service provider, had long been looking for a way to balance her artistic leanings with her business savvy. “I just thought: One day I’m going to start a literary magazine.” And unlike most, within a year, she was well on the road. Raiding her savings, begging and borrowing, she cast a wide net for writers, funding and advice.

“I cornered Ian Jack (editor of Granta) at the L.A. Times Festival of Books [and I] told him what I wanted to do. His first piece of advice was ‘don’t.’ When it was clear I wasn’t going to listen, he said, ‘Don’t publish your friends.’ ”

That might get harder. Strogov realized early on that no magazine was an island and decided that it was important to build a physical community around the publication -- even if they were distanced by thousands of miles. To that end, Swink maintains a lively online life -- poetry, essays and fiction organized around a theme. To keep the conversation going between issues, Strogov holds monthly parties that alternate between New York and L.A.

“Since being here, one of the things I kept hearing was that there were a lot of writers here doing their own thing but they didn’t feel connected to the New York scene. So Swink is a conscious effort to merge those worlds to creative a cohesive community.”

Building community

Early on, when she was just getting her sea legs in L.A., Kate Gale paid heed to the question of space and community. “It’s just hard to get people together here. Distance. Driving. Busy lives,” says Gale, who co-founded (with Mark E. Cull) her own nonprofit literary organization, Red Hen Press, 10 years ago.

Of all three journals, the Los Angeles Review (a subscription for the annual publication is $14), feels the most sprung out of L.A.’s city/desert terrain. Anyone who has been on the L.A. literary scene for any length of time will recognize some of the stalwarts -- Molly Bendall, Greg Goldin, Suzanne Lummis, Deena Metzger, David St. John. Gale, who had been publishing political nonfiction, fiction, poetry and memoir under the Red Hen imprint, wanted to do something special to mark the organization’s 10th year. Publishing 20 titles in 2003, including the anthology “The Misread City,” Red Hen had built a multipronged infrastructure -- a “Poetry in Schools” program for underprivileged L.A. school children, the Ruskin Art Club Poetry Series, which christened a new venue for local and touring writers to present new work and an award series.

“I kept asking myself what else does a literary community need?” she recalls. The Review became the vehicle to press that conversation forward.

Her idea was to provide a home or a range of work -- memoir, fiction, poetry, general nonfiction, with rotating editors overseeing each discipline. They agree on a theme: the first issue, “Language, Science and Oppression.” The next, “The Slippery Truth.” She wants to take retrospective looks at writers who made the region their home.

Gale, 41, was looking for stories from various corners of the imagination, “I wasn’t interested in collecting a bunch of big names,” says Gale, who is assembling work that tells L.A. stories from the prism of different economic tiers, racial or ethnic perspectives or gender. “I like the idea of people being awake and thinking about their life.... I see editing the journal as a way to get to the geographical margins of L.A.”

She figures the journal is a way to see what kind of place L.A. is emerging to be in the 21st century, to get at those hidden corners and give voice to lives long marginalized. And she will make sure those L.A. stories stand side-by-side with all the glamorized others. “Even if I have to sell books, like oranges, on the freeway offramp.”