Los Angeles doesn’t get enough credit as a literary city.
Sure, people mention Joan Didion and Raymond Chandler, both of whom are utterly lovable. Octavia Butler is a beacon for Pasadena, and I highly recommend visiting the collection honoring her work at The Huntington Library, Eve Babitz’s unexpected resurgence has been a delight, and for better or for worse, Bukowski is forever embedded in the fabric of the city — and the fact that I still happen to love his work is an apparent failure of my heart and brain. Most people know these ultra-famous names and the regions or zones of the city they made immortal.
But, I’m talking more about the people who are based in LA currently, who live and breathe literature, who have library cards and make the pilgrimage to one of LA’s seventy-two branch locations regularly, who carry on the tradition of reading via actual books (or, fine, on their kindles), and who keep beloved shops like Stories, Skylight Books and The Last Bookstore afloat.
These are the same people who came out in droves for LITLIT, the miniature literary event thrown by major players like art gallery and publisher Hauser & Wirth, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a host of independent publishers last weekend. The Little Literary Fair — aka the LITLIT, an acronym too good not to adopt — defines itself, in part, as a contrasting event to the Festival of Books hosted by The Los Angeles Times every spring, or Printed Matter’s annual LA Art Book Fair; it’s called little, perhaps, with the shadow of those two titans in mind. Both of those occasions are, well, massive, including countless panels, workshops, booths and some huge players in the literary and art worlds.
LITLIT is focused, more specifically, on small press publishers and the local, independent businesses who might get swallowed up in these more high-profile, larger affairs. Which, of course, doesn’t mean it didn’t attract celebrities, one panel featured a conversation between Melissa Broder (So Sad Today, The Pisces, Milk Fed (forthcoming in 2021)) and Alissa Nutting (Tampa, Made For Love) that examined the absurd in literature, and was a refreshing instance of two women operating outside the bounds of society, reveling in their madness instead of being punished for it.
Another included quickly-rising poet Yesika Salgado and writer, educator, advocate and PEN America literary prize Vickie Vértiz discussing the intersection of Latinx culture and LA poetics. This kind of feminist, diverse programming was a welcome breath of fresh air in a corner of the arts world that, like the rest of them, has a tendency to be dominated by self-serious white, male voices. The organizers of this affair were careful not to make that mistake, just one area where careful planning and conscientiousness made the fair quietly stand out.
Elsewhere, Red Hed Press, a nonprofit literary organization and one of the oldest publishing houses in all of Los Angeles, set up shop next to the Counter Culture coffee stand out in the Hauser & Wirth courtyard. They were steps away from another local organization, Words Uncaged, a platform created by Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy and the men of A-Yard California state prison to offer “incarcerated artists, writers, students and poets a dialogue to critically engage with the public.”
For the former, a chance to connect with something that had been here before me was an appealing avenue, and as far as the latter, anything I can do to do help spotlight their efforts in the future has become a new calling. Of course, like happens at any social event, these two instances are just the booths I happened to walk up to, where friends were present, where a bridge had been built, where it felt safe to talk, ask questions, and connect.
But the existence of the LITLIT itself offered this same chance to hundreds of other Angelenos. It asked us to come together, and affirm the way books and magazines, and printed material, itself, have shaped the our interior lives. It gave people the chance to encounter the characters of our intimate reading spaces out in the exterior world, and asked us to stand up and acknowledge that by leaving our comfy nap havens and boozy brunch stools on any given weekend, we can assert that we care about what goes on in pages and between the covers of printed matter — that we care about the literary future of Los Angeles.
And as much as stoic organizations like The LA Review of Books and independent small presses are necessary to make an event like this happen, the support of an art world pillar like Hauser & Wirth is even more imperative. As an LA branch of the Zurich-based gallery, this vibrant downtown location — opened in a former flour mill in 2016 — adds an air of gravity to any event held in the space. Between the seasonally-driven restaurant Manuela, and secluded, gorgeous loft spaces upstairs, the location provides a sense of both refinement and a bohemian blush that is important for the longevity of a cultural event of this magnitude.
No matter how small it proclaims itself to be, the impact of the LITLIT fair will probably be felt all year, and it wouldn’t be surprising if other, similar gatherings cropped up in its wake. Which just goes to show that, no matter how often the rest of America attempts to overlook LA’s literary impulses, if the chicest powers of the city simply help support these intellectual endeavors on a more regular basis, even our east coast neighbors won’t be able to deny this city’s impact.
“LA has played second fiddle to New York in so many areas of culture for so long,” Tom Lutz, editor-in-chief and publisher of The LA Review of Books, told The Los Angeles Times of the fair, when it was announced in June. “But now the city is recognized as on a par in many of the arts. At the same time, culture is decentralizing and diversifying — this is part of a nationwide and worldwide phenomenon — LA is prepared for this shift and is building the new infrastructure for it.”
Truly, I can’t think of anything more LA than living the schadenfreude of surpassing New York in terms of literary impact. If someone wrote a novel about that reality, I’d read it immediately — and if they haven’t done so yet, well, perhaps I can pick up a copy at next year’s LITLIT fair.