Literary L.A., with no apology

Dana Gioia, a poet and literary critic, has been chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts since 2003. This is adapted from his remarks at the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes ceremony at UCLA's Royce Hall last weekend.

THE FIRST TIME I was in Royce Hall was 43 years ago. I was 12 years old, a working-class Latin kid from L.A. -- or, more precisely, from Hawthorne, a city most of this audience probably knows only as the setting of Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” and “Jackie Brown,” two films that capture the ineffable charm of my hometown.

I had persuaded my poor, tired father to drive me to UCLA, after he had spent a long day working as a salesman in a department store, so that I could hear director Fritz Lang present a newly discovered print of his silent film “Frau im Mond.” (I was a very weird 12-year-old.)

When the lights went down and the film began, my father fell into a gentle slumber, but I basked in the black-and-white glory of Expressionist Berlin. I could not believe that I was in the same room as Fritz Lang, who seemed to me a figure out of myth or legend -- like Shakespeare, Tarzan or Achilles.

That was L.A. in the early 1960s. I saw Groucho Marx, Jascha Heifetz and Moe Howard on the streets of Westwood. And I listened to LPs of great L.A. composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg and Brian Wilson. To quote William Wordsworth, one of the few British writers who never made it to L.A.:


Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive

But to be young was very heaven.

As a 12-year old Italian-Mexican kid, how did I even know who Fritz Lang was -- not to mention that he was speaking at Royce Hall? From the printed word. I read about Lang’s lecture in the Los Angeles Times, and I had learned about his films from my other favorite L.A.-based periodical -- Forrest J. Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland.

When I was growing up, Hawthorne was a rough town. But it was a wonderful place for a kid because I had to walk only three blocks to a huge public library. I escaped there nearly every day after school to read Ray Bradbury, H.P. Lovecraft and H.G. Wells, authors who soon led me to George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and Kurt Vonnegut. Who in turn led me to T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden and Elizabeth Spencer.

It was, of course, a ruinous path that ultimately led me to break the hearts of both my sainted parents -- by becoming a poet.

I have been involved, one way or another, in literary life for nearly 40 years -- ever since my first amateurish book reviews and god-awful teenage poems appeared in the cold light of mimeograph. But I learned early on that, wherever I went in literary life, I was expected to apologize for being from L.A. Maybe I’m shallow or shameless, but I was always stubbornly proud to be a native Angeleno.

I first experienced this pernicious protocol when I moved to the Bay Area. San Franciscans looked on L.A. culture the way -- according to my family, at least -- Florentines looked at Sicilians.

It was pure de haut en bas. As Herb Caen so slyly expressed this prejudice: “Isn’t it nice that people who prefer Los Angeles to San Francisco live there?” Actually, it was nice that these voluntary Angelenos, such as Christopher Isherwood, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Lotte Lehmann, Anita Loos, Chester Himes, David Hockney and James Wong Howe, chose to live here.


I grew up among immigrants from Italy and Mexico, so I always felt at home with people like Lang and Stravinsky, Hitchcock and Isherwood. They were just like my family -- where all the adults had foreign accents.

Maybe San Francisco had been around too long. In all its magnificent beauty and elegant respectability, San Francisco had forgotten the Gold Rush. It had forgotten the rude, unbuttoned, animating spirit of California. To quote a fourth-generation San Franciscan, historian Kevin Starr: Whatever else California was, good or bad, it was charged with human hope. It was linked imaginatively with the most compelling of American myths, the pursuit of happiness.

Moving to New York a few years later -- where I would live for two decades -- I was also expected to be embarrassed about being an Angeleno. I can’t tell you how many people quoted Woody Allen’s now canonic remark that the only cultural advantage to living in L.A. was being able to turn right on red. I must say that I remembered that quote most vividly every time I was caught in Manhattan gridlock.

I know I sound like an unabashed literary polygamist, but let me confess that not only do I love literary New York, San Francisco and L.A. with equal passion, but every time I walk down Michigan Avenue, I get the hots for Chicago. Loving one great literary city doesn’t prohibit you from loving another.


In fact, the only place I’ve ever lived where I wasn’t expected to apologize for being an Angeleno is the city I live in now, Washington, D.C. -- probably because most of the writers I meet in Washington are themselves already slightly embarrassed by living there. Washington is not, in case you’ve wondered, a bohemian city. It’s the only place in the world where even the poets are expected to wear a dark suit and tie.

Los Angeles, the city of Raymond Chandler, Ray Bradbury and Octavia Butler, is now the biggest book market in North America. And, as a recent survey by the National Endowment for the Arts demonstrates (with a statistical certainty of 99.5%), Californians read more than New Yorkers. Los Angeles is one of the great literary centers of the English-speaking world -- not to mention a growing center of the Spanish-speaking mundo.

Literature is the irreplaceable human art. “A book,” wrote Franz Kafka, “must be the ax for the frozen sea inside us.” Reading not only illuminates our souls, it makes the lives of others more real to us -- in all their diversity and complexity. Books enlarge, enhance and refine our humanity, and slowly transform our society to match our dreams.

As the 12th century Persian poet Omar Khayyam once wrote:


Ah Love! could you and I with Him conspire

To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,

Would not we shatter it to bits -- and then

Remold it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!