American Times Los Angeles: Literary lions praise Chandler's grim city

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THINK LITERATURE, and chances are you won't think Los Angeles. The Chicago of Saul Bellow, yes; the New England of Updike and Irving, certainly. But isn't LA the city of superficial, semi-literate airheads too dumb and too mercenary to take their eyes off the movies long enough to actually read anything?

That, give or take an idle prejudice, has certainly been the prevailing view of the New York literary mafia for as long as anyone can remember. In Los Angeles, novels are what unemployed screenwriters write to pass the time, not serious artistic endeavours, according to the East Coast literati. LA might be good for genre fiction, such as crime or noir or exposes of the Hollywood system, but it doesn't produce Literature with a capital L.

That perception might explain why a certain defensiveness surrounded Los Angeles's literary finest as they gathered for a two-day Festival of Books at the University of California last weekend. The LA Times, one of the sponsors of the event, even held a forum entitled "LA Lit - Does it Exist"? One of the more waggish featured authors, the film writer Eric Lax, named the Thomas Bros Road Atlas and Travel Guide (the LA equivalent of the London A-Z) as one of his favourite books about the city - the sort of choice Salman Rushdie might interpret as a compliment, but anyone else would surely call game, set and match to the East Coast scoffers.

But that was where all self-doubt ended. The assembled company was an extraordinarily rich, if under-appreciated group of writers, representing stylish noir (Walter Mosley), compelling non-fiction reportage (Norman Klein, DJ Waldie, Mike Davis), rugged street poetry (John Rechy) and a new wave of immigrant literature (Hector Tobar and Marisela Norte). They championed Los Angeles's literary voice with vigour and passion, pointing out that if editors from the big New York publishing houses found their city superficial it was just a reflection of their inability to use their own eyes.

"Like most visitors to a strange place, New York editors (with a few noteworthy exceptions) tend to gravitate toward that which is familiar and comforting to them - ie the Westside, where all the Eastern expatriates live," said Hector Tobar, whose debut novel The Tattooed Soldier, published last year, is a gripping tale of the horrors of the Guatemalan civil war spilling over into the melting pot of southern California during the 1992 riots. "These days, we Los Angeles readers get a steady diet of their Catskills, their Brooklyn and their Bronx. But how much do they really know about our Pacoima, our Crenshaw District, our vast and varied Eastside?"

Since the big Los Angeles population boom early in the century, the city has been a fascinating inspiration for dark, near-apocalyptic literature that focuses on the corruptions and swirling incongruities of the sprawling metropolis itself. Noir was virtually invented here, a genre that started out as pulp but has come to be recognised - at least when it comes to Chandler, James M Cain, Ross McDonald and James Ellroy - as a crucial pillar of American letters. Then there are the great Hollywood novels (Nathanael West's Day of the Locust, Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run?, Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon), the expatriate novels (think of Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood) and the novels that don't seem to be about LA, but are - Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, say, or The Wizard of Oz, both of which are allegories of Midwesterners uprooting and heading for the coast.

These days, with the glittery stylishness of a Chandler or a Joan Didion being superseded by darker, more marginal perspectives on the city, the LA canon is being reconsidered. Resurrected authors include John Fante, a true poete maudit who was Charles Bukowski's literary mentor, the black noir writer Chester Himes (especially If He Hollers Let Him Go), and John Rechy, author of the extraordinary homosexual drifter novel City of Night.

The LA of these books could not be further from the beautiful people and ditsy superficiality of the Westside. Novels like Tobar's Tattooed Soldier combine Chandleresque back-street poetry with the gritty experience that comes of immigration from desperate corners of the earth.

Los Angeles is remarkably good at throwing up little nuggets of poetic insight into itself. The Eastside poet Marisela Norte described seeing posters of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Cesar Chavez, the Californian farmworkers' leader, on a wall in a poor neighbourhood. A Mexican tacqueria opposite responded with the slogan: "One cause. One people. One taco." Now that's poetry.