The Los Angeles literary landscape once emerged through the
eyes of Raymond Chandler's private investigator, Philip
Marlowe, who moved uneasily through a gritty South-Central,
or in the quiet menace of Joan Didion, who found equally
lethal noir tensions in the anxieties and alienation of a
Didion's Santa Ana winds still sweep through contemporary
novels, but today, South-Central is anything but a shadowy
backdrop. A growing community of new writers is redefining
the regional fictional landscape, writing their stories out
of Crenshaw, Little Saigon, Echo Park and places like "Irangeles,"
which can be found anywhere from Beverly Hills to Huntington
Their characters emerge more from the urban Darwinism of
Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" than from the pampered anomie
of Bret Easton Ellis' "Less Than Zero." Hollywood still
flows through the stories with the literary inevitability of
Mark Twain's Mississippi River, but it is less often a
setting than a symbol, of the perennial California dream of
reinvention. "You could say you were anyone. Who would
know?" one urban scavenger says to another in Marisa
Silver's 2002 "Babe in Paradise."
As Los Angeles writer Carolyn See sorts through the new
fiction for an upcoming anthology, she says: "I get very
excited about it. I think we really are experiencing, not a
renaissance -- because we're not being reborn -- but a
naissance. The literature is being born every day."
Like Walter Mosley, who reinvented the classic noir mystery
genre with his black investigator, Easy Rawlins, the new
novelists create their fictional worlds from insider
perspectives, See said.
"never graced South-Central with actual human beings," See
said -- and even John Steinbeck's most respectful portrayals
of Latinos were written as an outsider. But many of today's
writers are African American, Latino, Asian or foreign-born.
A number are women.
Their work is increasingly being read -- in new literary
journals and anthologies, at independent bookstores,
galleries, book clubs and literary salons that are
proliferating in private homes. Author readings, even poetry
readings, are muscling their way into the city's
cinema-centric popular culture, and helping to absorb
literary newcomers into the milieu.
"There are all these different threads weaving together,"
said Chris Abani, a Nigerian novelist who moved to
in 2000. "You're reading each other's work. You go to their
readings. You have conversations. That filters into how you
think about your own work, and how you position yourself."
Yet "it's a much looser network than you would have in New
York," Abani said, repeating a mantra of local writers. "You
don't have that cutthroat competitiveness. You don't have
the overbearing sense of the school or the kind of artistic
fascism. You're much more free."
The vast urban spread of Southern California offers entire worlds of unexplored terrain, new novelist Nina
Revoyr said. Revoyr is the author of "Southland," the story
of a young Japanese American law student who, like Mosley's
Easy Rawlins, is forced into the role of an investigator by
circumstance, in her case the sudden death of her father.
The story is set in the Crenshaw district. When Revoyr began
her research, she was fascinated by the area's history of
racial coexistence: of African American neighbors who
watched over the houses of Japanese Americans sent off to
"What you hear about in ethnic neighborhoods in Los Angeles
is always strife," Revoyr said. "You don't hear about
cooperation and community. It's a great place to be a writer
because it's all happening here. If you're interested in
race, the environment, social class, we're in the center of
all of those burning issues."
Novelist Samantha Dunn thinks
more open-ended society makes it a good place for writers to
take stylistic risks. Dunn, author of "Failing Paris," is
editing "Women on the Edge," an anthology of female writers
who she believes benefit from L.A.'s nonpuritanical culture.
"These are women who have a daring view," she said of the
writers she has selected. "Inside, something really wild is
going on. It manifests itself in language."
Dunn is including Mary Rakow, author of the award-winning
"Memory Room," Anita Santiago and Lisa Teasley. There is
Julianne Ortale's surrealist tale of a 60-year-old woman who
begins to lactate and the edgy sexuality of Rachel Resnick
in a story set in Marrakech.
To Glenn David Gold, one advantage of
Southern California for writers is the diffuse urban
geography, which means that people form communities by
choice, not serendipity, granting space to the growing
number of writers -- both new and established -- who have
made the region their home.
"If you're a writer, there is always an urge to not belong,
to be a fish out of water," said Gold, who is married to
Alice Sebold, author of the best-selling "The Lovely Bones."
"And L.A. gives you an opportunity to not belong and still
belong, which is the best possible opportunity."
In modern Los Angeles, many communities are strangers to one
another, or they have been transformed by waves of
migration, giving the metropolis an infinite quality, like
The Janet Fitch's mid-Wilshire childhood home, once a white
middle-class neighborhood, is now part of Koreatown -- a
manifestation of the perennially shifting geography that
made many of the city's literary archetypes increasingly
unrecognizable to Fitch. In her novel "White Oleander," the
city's transience itself becomes a force, as a rootless
society buffets a young girl through a brutally indifferent
foster care system.
"It made me really angry to be reading writing about Los
Angeles that wasn't the real place," she said. "It was about
the film industry and Malibu Colony, the Judith Krantz
school of literature."
Many Los Angeles writers are thankful for the 3,000 miles of
separation from the literary world of Manhattan -- and an
East Coast establishment viewed as more likely to show
mavericks the door.
"In the East, it's much harder. You're limited there, as in
England, by your accent, and your milieu," said Lisa See,
Carolyn's daughter and the author "On Gold Mountain," a
memoir of her Chinese American heritage.
"Let's put it this way: I think it's easier for anyone with
a different perspective to flourish in California," said
Sandra Dijkstra, the West Coast uber-agent known for finding
a publisher for Amy Tan's 1989 "Joy Luck Club," a book whose
success touched off a fresh wave of receptivity for nonwhite
authors. "It's more of a frontier place. That's why people
come here to realize their dreams. There's an acceptance."
But today's new pilgrims come more often from south of the
border than across the Great Divide, adding a new hybrid
quality to universal aspirations and dreams.
"It's colored. It's people of color. That's one of the
factors," said Yxta Maya Murray, author of "Locas," about
young Latinas in Echo Park.
"It's growing up a Valley girl and being a Mexican.
Literature is the great adventure. It's going to help smooth
out these rough edges."
A number of Los Angeles-based writers devote much of their
writing not to Southern California, but to their countries
of origin -- Cristina Garcia's Cuba, Gioconda Belli's
Nicaragua. Chris Abani's latest novel, "Graceland" -- a coming of age story about a Nigerian Elvis
impersonator -- is set in
Gina Nahai, whose novels "Cry of the Peacock" and "Moonlight
on the Avenue of Faith" are anchored in
says such literary cosmopolitanism defies such simple labels
as "ethnic" literature.
"What you're really talking about is international fiction,"
The new plethora of Southern California writers includes a
wave of mystery writers, some of them inspired by Mosley,
who set his bestselling "Devil in a Blue Dress" in the 1940s
belle epoque of black Los Angeles, when munitions factories
lent a new prosperity to black American emigres from the Jim
Crow South, and Central Avenue was a bustling boulevard
hosting crowded jazz clubs.
Mystery writer Paula Woods drew from her childhood readings
of Chester Himes, an African American writer who lived in
Los Angeles for a time, for her mysteries about Charlotte
Justice, a black detective who in "Stormy Weather" must
solve the murder of an early black Hollywood director whose
work was all but forgotten except for a bit part in
"I've had people say, 'You're a female Walter Mosley,' and
that's a nice compliment, but I'm offering a different take
on the territory," she said. "I suspect we have more black
mystery writers in L.A. than anywhere else in the country."
Perhaps that shouldn't be a surprise. Much of the city of
Los Angeles is itself a mystery, even to its residents -- a
disjointed landscape of multiple heartbeats, carved and
recarved by freeways and an endless stream of traffic.
Even the Los Angeles literary new wave is uncharted
territory. When Carolyn See wrote her dissertation on the
Hollywood novel in 1963, she could find only three
writers who were not writing about the movie business. When
she published her first novel in 1970, her editor told her
Joan Didion was her main competition.
Today, as she sorts through candidates for the anthology,
she's coming across scores of new writers: Michael Jaime
Becerra, whose new book, "Every Night Is Ladies' Night," is
set among Latino immigrants in El Monte, "a beautiful dream
world that's never been written about." Or Frank Mundo, a
security guard who works the graveyard shift and has
self-published his tales of overnight security.
See guesses there may be several hundred serious writers in
the region, and she's giving UCLA an endowment for the study
literature. "This is all happening under the radar of
academia," she said. "If there's money for dissertations,
they'll break down and notice what's right under their
"Australians have an expression: singing the world into
existence," See said. "If you do make a song about it, it's
there, and it takes on its own momentum, it's Paris in the