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Writers’ groups struggling under COVID-19 appeal to L.A. City Council for help

L.A.'s Book Soup is among the businesses whose owners signed a letter calling on the L.A. City Council to support writers and literary professionals.
(Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)

The literary community in Los Angeles is calling on L.A. officials to provide much-needed support to writers struggling to survive during the coronavirus crisis.

On behalf of almost 1,000 local members and a coalition of literary arts organizations and allies, PEN America sent an open letter to the L.A. City Council Monday requesting that they include the literary community in allocating emergency relief and federal stimulus funds, offer rent-alleviation for closed organizations and support a Writers Project-style narrative program commissioning writers to chronicle the pandemic’s effect on the city.

"[T]here are many, many writers in Los Angeles who are facing an unprecedented interruption in their livelihoods following the cancellation of book tours and promotional events, ongoing holds on film, television, and new media productions, and the shuttering of local newspapers, magazines, and other media outlets,” the letter reads. “At the same time, with dark restaurants, closed bookstores, and more, many of the other jobs that make a writing life possible are no longer available.”

Author James Patterson is donating $500,000 to help indie bookstores across the country. For many L.A. booksellers, that could be a life saver.

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Michelle Franke, executive director of PEN America in L.A., said authors are especially worried. “There’s a tremendous amount of concern, particularly with people who are getting ready to release books in the spring and summer,” she said. Authors often rely heavily on tours, readings, local media and bookstores to promote their work, but travel and live events have been canceled and stores forced to shut to curb the virus’ spread.

Emerging writers are also wondering whether it might be a good time to approach publishers, added Franke.

The letter’s signatories hope literary organizations, which “are always fighting for specific designation in art funding,” are earmarked in any relief packages passed by the council.

After commending the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs for including authors in its Arts Emergency Relief Fund, the letter added: "[W]e must note that writers as a specific creative community have frequently been left out of most relief efforts. It is clear that this is a group of artists central to LA’s previously booming creative economy—journalists, novelists, nonfiction authors, screen and television writers, poets, essayists, playwrights, translators, editors, and copywriters.

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“These artists and the literary organizations that support them are central to the publishing, entertainment, and new media sectors that are a core component of our economy. Our city cannot afford to leave writers behind.”

The letter was signed by dozens of L.A.-based businesses and literary arts groups, including 826LA, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Angel City Press, Skylight Books, Vroman’s Bookstore and Book Soup, Avenue 50 Studio, Libros Schmibros, Counterpoint Press, the Writers Guild of America West and Lambda Literary.

On the anniversary of the birth of the Works Progress Administration, it’s worth asking what a post-COVID Federal Writers Project might look like.

To assist writers in need, PEN America — a national organization dedicated to defending free expression — also relaunched its Writers’ Emergency Fund, which distributes grants of $500 to $1,000 to applicants in financial crises. The organization has received more than 800 applications nationwide and granted $361,000 to 390 writers since the fund was revamped March 25.

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But these grants and other programs are not enough, Franke said.

“The need is just unprecedented right now, so to the extent that organizations, backed by the city, can be thinking about creating meaningful pathways for people to not just survive but to ultimately thrive in some kind of future, I think that’s the work we should be doing right now,” she said.

In response to the global health crisis and canceled events, PEN America has also gone virtual. On Wednesday, it transformed its World Voices Festival — which traditionally convenes writers each spring in New York and L.A. — into a digital event. In the coming weeks, it will unveil podcasts, videos, interviews, reading lists and musical playlists, and feature live events and more through the summer.

“We’ve taken what was a wonderful week-long international literary festival and in-person gathering,” said PEN America communications director Stephen Fee, “and we’re doing our best to draw out as much of that magic and power that we can over these uncertain months.”


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