A popular misconception about Los Angeles is that it's a town full of illiterate, fame-obsessed aspiring screenwriters whose most intense relationship with literature is Starbucks' employee relations manual. Well, perhaps that's not the most popular misconception — there's the one about how pictures of your shaved genitalia appearing in US Magazine is actually a wise career move — but time and again Southern California is noted for being the Capitol of Vapid; a place where Norbit's opening weekend is considered the high watermark of cultural talk. And while this may be true for the ten percenters who clog Wilshire Blvd. and the mail room denizens who spend their off hours speaking in Variety's Esperanto while in line at Baja Fresh, the hidden truth is that Los Angeles is a book town.
The empirical evidence is provided every April when the Los Angeles Times hosts their annual Festival of Books and Book Prizes ceremonies, a three-day celebration of the written word on the campus of UCLA. An average year features 150,000 readers, 500 authors, a hundred moderated panels, countless book signings, those weird people who believe Ayn Rand is a religious icon, those weird people who believe Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes' caterwauling alien/human hybrid child is the messiah, my gut filled with churros and at least three of the following spectacles:
1. Mitch Albom In Conversation With Dr. Phil or Deepak Chopra or The Five People You Meet In Heaven Who, Upon Seeing Mr. Albom, Run Screaming Into The Depths Of Hell Lest Albom Starts Talking About All Those Great Afternoons Spent With Morrie Again, For The Love Of Christ.
2. Julie Andrews signing children's books while adult women pull each other's hair out (literally) whilst jockeying for their space in line, their toddlers screaming bloody Mary Poppins in the background, while Ms. Andrews just sort of sits with a vague look of resigned horror on her face, counting her royalties one snarled clump of bloody follicle at a time.
3. Christopher Hitchens calls an unruly, possibly insane, audience member a fascist crack pot.
If this sounds horrific, it's not. It's the best weekend of the year if you're an author (apart from the 500 or so who take part in officially sanctioned events, at least another 200 come in simply to sign in booths or to hang out, the cumulative effect being like the walls of Barnes & Noble have suddenly come alive), both from a sales and ego perspective, where both are edified by complete strangers, which is unusual at a typical signing at the Borders in Wilmington, DE. For a reader, it's a unique opportunity to come face to face with writers of every genre in an open setting (as in: you opting to take a crap doesn't stop them from continuing their conversation about how, you know, they'd like it better if you wrote more books like your first one and not these new "literary" ones, and how it would be great if you could write a novel like James Patterson, who they consider second only to Dean Koontz as the ultimate chronicler of the human condition).
What I find most interesting, however, is how the Festival begins to form into a character with striking opinions and definitive trends.This year, the demise of traditional book reviews (and Book Reviews), the emergence (for better or worse) of literary blogs and the contested territory between traditional print media and the online world were the hot topics both in the panels and in the author green room. From the first bell of the Book Prizes, where the editor of the Times lamented how it's mere seconds between the posting of confidential internal memos before they're up on watchdog blogs, to the final conversation I had walking to my car when a woman wearing a purple muumuu asked me if I'd review her novel based on her blog about the corruption of the Iraq war, the assault (real or perceived) on literary and simple culture was on full display.
That the LA Times' own Sunday Book Review (where, in full disclosure, I occasionally review) was recently shrunk in size and combined with the Opinion section into a single tabloid was the clearest conversation piece of them all: The Times and times a-are changing and while 150,000 people may love books, they don't take out ads, seem to prefer the Internet for their culture (if not news) and the time to grapple with it is over. Now, it's time to deal. The Times, at least, is trying, adding specialized online content. It's not clear what other recently downsized papers, like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, will do, but what became clear listening to prominent critics like Mark Rozzo and Slate's Meghan O'Rourke discussing the topic is that there are still people out there who want to write intelligently about books, but it's not always clear if that's what the people want.
The three panels I took part in — one on the mystery fiction of Southern California's Mean Streets, one on the fiction of the Inland Empire (if you've ever purchased crystal meth, been a long haul trucker, or wondered what it might be like to play an active role in your own involuntary actions, like, you know, respiration, then you've at least metaphorically visited the fetid middle ground just east of metropolitan Los Angeles), and one on the rise of lit blogs (where Andrew Keen acted as the voice of defiance — a role soon to be repeated here on Jewcy, I understand) — were also hallmarked by the kind of passionate dialog that gives hope to a simple fiction writer like myself, which is to say I was only asked fifteen times how to get an agent ("Have a morbid curiosity about the Kennedys, write a book about the mysticism of anal sex or convince Judith Regan that you slept with a guy who killed his wife.") and was only presented with two velobound manuscripts.
That I was sharing the stage with the likes of T. Jefferson Parker, Susan Straight and Mr. Keen might have been the reason behind this semi-draught, but I'd like to think that it's endemic of a cultural shift away from asking stupid fucking questions and the realization that no one wants to read your self-published novel of thinly veiled Lord of the Rings fan fiction. Or maybe it's that people are starting to value that authors aren't receptacles for their wish fulfillment and have begun to view the Festival as the viable opportunity it is to hear the nation's very best voices espousing their expertise — be it in fiction (in addition to Mitch Albom, this year featured the likes of Sherman Alexie, Daniel Woodrell, T.C. Boyle, Vikram Chandra and even S.E. Hinton, who I was surprised to learn was alive and surprised to learn was a woman) or nonfiction (including Neil Gabler, Douglas Brinkley, Lawrence Wright and Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel).
Apart from the esoteric delights I've discussed, the personal joys for me come in the odd interactions, like the conversation I had with Sean Penn:
Me: Hey, how you doing?
Sean: Good, good.
Of equal interest to many of you might be this fascinating conversation I had with Ralph Nader, who was just sort of standing by a limo looking uncomfortable with the fact that he willfully gave the keys to America to the harbingers of the Illuminati:
Me: Hello Mr. Nader.
Ralph: (blank stare, followed by a slight nod of the head, which I took to mean, Yeah, I fucked that one up.)
I've attended the Festival of Books each of the last twelve years, first as a fan, then as an aspiring writer and finally as an author and what I can tell you definitely is that it's unlike any book festival in America — most notably in that it's completely free — in both its scope and its depth. And while Los Angeles might be viewed as a company town whose primary currency is keeping Sylvester Stallone in designer growth hormones, each year the Festival gives me hope that there is a collective cultural conversation taking place that goes beyond box office receipts and Paula Abdul's opinion and finds value in the logic, the invention and the anthropology of words printed on acid-free paper.