Literary Boroughs #13: Los Angeles, California

The Literary Boroughs series will explore little-known and well-known literary communities across the country and world and show that while literary culture can exist online without regard to geographic location, it also continues to thrive locally. Posts are by no means exhaustive and we encourage our readers to contribute in the comment section. The series will run on our blog from May 2012 until AWP13 in Boston. Please enjoy the eleventh post on Los Angeles, California by Chris Daley. -Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

grainy, aerial photograph of the skyline of Los Angeles - smog hovers over the city and the clouds are low in the skyWhen silent films gave way to talkies, the flood of writers who came to Los Angeles for easy Hollywood money jumpstarted the city’s literary life. Suddenly home to literary darlings like Faulkner and Fitzgerald, LA started to develop and disseminate its identity as a land of dreams at the end of the world. Since then, the writers who made their home in LA often found themselves hidden in New York’s very long shadow. Yet over the past few decades, as more and more diverse and sophisticated literature has been produced in and about Los Angeles, the city has come into its own.

The literary life of Los Angeles is like a newly discovered shortcut or a charming local bistro. You sort of don’t want anyone to know about it for fear it might get ruined, but you don’t want to be greedy. The most common response from people who heard I was writing a dissertation on Los Angeles literature was “There’s literature in Los Angeles?” Their ignorance is our bliss. The writers and readers of Los Angeles know we are blessed to have a thriving independent bookstore industry, some of the most active and accomplished writers and publications in the U.S., and dozens of literary events every night of the week. The literary community is the perfect size—big enough to afford the opportunity to constantly meet new writers and small enough to feel the kind of network support you’d find in a much smaller city.

City: Los Angeles

What the city is known for: 

On average, 325 days of sunshine a year; Hollywood; biggest book market in the country

Resident writers: 

It’s virtually impossible to list all of the resident writers in Los Angeles. (Believe me, I tried.) Here are a few nationally known authors who have written several books and reside in the City of Angels: Chris Abani, Wanda Coleman, Bernard Cooper, Mark Danielewski, Mike Davis, Bret Easton Ellis, James Ellroy, Steve Erickson, Janet Fitch, Michelle Huneven, Jonathan Lethem, Rubén Martínez, Nina Revoyr, Carolyn See, Mona Simpson, Susan Straight, Hector Tobar, and David Ulin.

Literary references:

Acosta’s protestors, Banham’s ecologies, Boyle’s illegal immigrants, Braverman’s Chicanas, Bukowski’s post office, Brinig’s flutter of an eyelid, Cain’s noir, Chandler’s meek little wives feeling the edge of the carving knife, Coleman’s heavy daughter blues, Danielewski’s found texts, Davis’s dialectic of ordinary disaster, Didion’s freeways, Dunne’s true confessions, Ellis’s cocaine, Ellroy’s dark places, Erickson’s ecstatic days, Fante’s residential hotels, Fitzgerald’s last tycoon, the Grahams’ queer people, Homes’s fires, Huneven’s Unitarians, Huxley’s mysticism, Isherwood’s guru, Jackson’s Ramona, Kaye’s screaming stars, Lambert’s slide area, Lindsay’s art of the moving picture, Luther’s boosters, Martin’s shopgirl, McCoy’s dance marathons, Mosley’s blue dress, O’Hara’s big laugh, Pynchon’s inherent vice, Schulberg’s rags to riches, See’s golden days, Simpson’s Hollywood, Sinclair’s oil, Smith’s twilight, Starr’s dreams, Tobar’s barbarian nurseries, Ulin’s earthquakes, Vidal’s transsexuals, Viramontes’s moth, Waugh’s pet cemetery, West’s dream dump, Wolff’s big nickelodeon.

Where to learn: 

Full disclosure: I teach creative nonfiction for Writing Workshops Los Angeles (@WritingLA), which in my fully biased opinion offers the best non-university-sponsored fiction, nonfiction, and poetry writing classes in the city. Instructors include founder Edan Lepucki, Mary Guterson, Elline Lipkin, Seth Fischer, and Adam Cushman. Yet there are plenty of other opportunities for aspiring writers to work on their craft, from one-day workshops to full MFA degrees.

In terms of other independent workshops, Writing Pad (@WritingPadLA) and LA Writers Group (@lawritersgroup) offer single-day and multiple-week seminars in a wide range of genres. Known for its 90-day workshops, Alan Watt’s LA Writers Lab (@The90DayNovel) offers in-person and tele-courses. The Greater Los Angeles Writers Society provides a forum for writers of all disciplines to meet and improve their craft. Students from ages 8-18 can take workshops at Writopia Lab (@WritopiaLab), and 826 LA (@826LA) has free after-school tutoring for ages 6-18 at both the Echo Park and Venice locations. More neighborhood-specific organizations include Atwater Village’s wordspace and the South Bay’s Your Plot Thickens (@larasterling). A search for writing workshops on also turns up dozens of less formal groups.

The Los Angeles area is home to a number of prominent universities with creative writing programs. You do not need to be matriculated to enroll in any of the highly regarded onsite and online courses at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program (@WritersProgram). Local writers often teach classes in fiction, nonfiction, and screenwriting, and instructors slated for the fall include Dan Fante, Samantha Dunn, and Caroline Leavitt. Students can obtain an MFA in Creative Writing at three excellent area universities: the University of California at Irvine, named one of the top ten MFA programs nationally by The Atlantic, has a traditional three-year program, and Antioch University and the University of California at Riverside Palm Desert have low-residency programs. The University of Southern California also has a Master’s of Professional Writing Program as well as a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing, featuring faculty members Marianne Wiggins, T.C. Boyle, Aimee Bender, Percival Everett, and Carol Muske-Dukes.

Los Angeles residents are also eligible for a unique fellowship offered by PEN Center USA. The Emerging Voices (@penusa) program, an eight-month mentorship with numerous other benefits, “aims to provide new writers, who lack access, with the tools they will need to launch a professional writing career.”

Where to find reading material: 

Rumors abound that Los Angeles has more than 300 bookstores, many of which are independent and thriving. Let’s take a look at some of the best bookstores in LA arranged by part of town, roughly clockwise starting from downtown.

While some portions of downtown LA are still sketchy, the closest we have to what people think of as a “city center” has changed radically in the past decade into a destination for hip galleries, bars, and restaurants. Some bookstores have fallen prey to the Amazon plague, but two relatively new bookstores stand out. Founded in a loft in 2005, The Last Bookstore (@lastbookstorela) has been in its current location since 2011. The store hosts events and features a store that sells coffee and vinyl LPs. East of downtown in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood known for its historic mix of Hispanic and Jewish residents, you’ll find Libros Schmibros (@librosschmibros), started by David Kipen after he moved west following his gig as NEA Director of Literature. Only around for a couple years, the lending library/used bookstore already has a shiny new location in Mariachi Plaza.

Heading out to the beach next, we find three very different stores: one a longstanding family business, one a multi-faceted literary hub, and one an expanding specialty merchant. Small World Books, a cozy storefront behind the outdoor seating of a popular eatery on the Venice boardwalk, sells “a wide selection of titles by both major and small presses.” Coming up on 40 years of business, the Sidewalk Café and Small World Books are both owned and operated by the Goodfader family. Beyond Baroque, a literary/arts center in Venice, offers free writing workshops, music performances, and public readings as well as selling and publishing books. Up the road in Santa Monica, Hennessey + Ingalls (@HennesseyIngals) is a bookstore dedicated to the visual arts, from fashion photography to landscape architecture—the largest of its kind in the country. A new location opened in Hollywood in 2008. Also, Dragon Books (@DragonBooksLA), a rare and antiquarian bookseller out of Bel Air, will soon be moving to a new location on Abbot Kinney in Venice.

The upscale, adjacent neighborhoods of Beverly Hills and Brentwood have a couple notable booksellers. With its original location in Malibu and another in Oakland, Diesel, A Bookstore (@dieselbookstore) in Brentwood features an “urban California aesthetic” and eclectic selection of titles. Renowned art book publisher Taschen (@TASCHENBooks), headquartered in Berlin, has a retail location in Beverly Hills, which has been described as feeling “as if you are entering the lavish private library of an art scholar.”

Heading toward West Hollywood and midtown, we’ll find one of LA’s most popular bookstores on the Sunset Strip: Book Soup (“Bookseller to the Great & Infamous!” – @BookSoup). You’re as likely to have a celebrity sighting here as find an obscure text in translation. Further down Sunset is another LA institution, Samuel French Bookshop (@MrSamuelFrench). With roots in nineteenth century New York and London, the theatrical publisher has been peddling plays in LA since 1929. A little further south is Family Los Angeles, a gallery and bookstore focused on small press releases with a fondness for comics and “curated” titles. On the other side of the Hollywood Hills is a perennial favorite for the residents of the south San Fernando Valley: Iliad Book Shop. Iliad is considered one of the best used bookstores in Southern California.

The sweet spot for LA book lovers is definitely the collection of neighborhoods north of downtown. Los Feliz’s Skylight Books (@skylightbooks) represents how innovative and beloved an independent bookstore can be. Expanding into the space next door with an arts book annex when many indies were closing, Skylight is a required stop for authors on national book tours. Down the street is another long-standing used book mecca, Counterpoint Records and Books (@counterpointla), serving their customers beneath the Hollywood sign for over 30 years. Also in Los Feliz, you can find Wacko/Soap Plant (@SoapPlantWacko), which houses La Luz de Jesus Gallery as well. In addition to selling some of the kookiest tchotchkes you’ll find, Wacko has a large selection of books on music, art, humor, and

pop culture. In nearby Silverlake, you’ll find comic book palace The Secret Headquarters (@theSHQ), a must visit for fans. Stories in Echo Park has quickly become a neighborhood institution with a bookstore, full service café, and many literary events. Alias Books East (@AliasEast, sister of Alias Books in West LA) in neighboring Atwater Village sells handpicked, new and used books with an emphasis on art, film, and literature. Highland Park has a new bookstore in the form of The Pop-Hop, a bookshop, print studio, and salon. Glendale’s Brand Bookshop (@BrandBookshop) is also an established and extensive used bookseller. Pasadena and neighboring South Pasadena have two popular stores that reflect the spirit of their neighborhoods: Vroman’s Bookstore (@vromans), founded in 1894, is the largest and oldest independent bookstore in Southern California, offering popular and varied author events, and The Battery Books and Music  (@BatteryBooks) has an eclectic selection of used books and live music events.

Finally, the Los Angeles Public Library system (@LAPL) is, in a word, awesome. With 72 branches, a collection of almost 6.5 million holdings, 120 databases, 3 million archival images, 18,000 public programs, and extensive services both in person and online, the LA public library system is one of the city’s great accomplishments. The Central Library was also recently named one of the most beautiful public libraries in the world. Other independent cities like West Hollywood and Beverly Hills also have their own first-rate libraries.

Where to get published:

The city has recently had an infusion of inspiration and community in the form of the Los Angeles Review of Books (@LAReviewofBooks). Founded by Tom Lutz, the online multimedia publication recently launched its full website after a year of publishing reviews from local, national, and international writers. LARB is a nice compliment to the quality books coverage from the Los Angeles Times and its lit blog Jacket Copy (@latimesbooks), written primarily by Carolyn Kellogg. Two relatively new print journals that are bringing the LA literati together through their publications and events are Slake: Los Angeles (@slakemedia), founded by former LA Weekly editors Joe Donnelly and Laurie Ochoa, and The Rattling Wall (@TheRattlingWall), edited by Michelle Meyering and funded by PEN Center USA. Other established literary journals include Santa Monica Review founded by Jim Krusoe, The Los Angeles Review (@LAReview), and Black Clock (@blackclockmag), edited by Steve Erickson and published out of CalArts.

Other journals coming out of Los Angeles area universities include Faultline (UC Irvine), The Coachella Review (UCR Palm Desert—@coachellareview), Southern California Review (USC MPW Program—@uscmpw), The Chaffey Review (Chaffey College—@ChaffeyReview), The Pacific Review (Cal State San Bernadino), and RipRap (Cal State Long Beach MFA). The publishers who make a home here include Red Hen Press (@RedHenPress), semiotext(e), Les Figues Press (@LesFigues), Siglio (@sigliopress), and TNB Books (@TNBtweets).

Several other print and online journals may be younger, smaller, or a little less well known, but still deserve a look: Rattle (@rattlepoetry), Bloom, The Los Angeles River Review, Red Sky, poeticdiversity, PALABRA, and Literature for Life (@Lit_for_Life).

Where to write: 

Literary writers and Hollywood writers don’t cross paths in LA as much as it would probably benefit them both. The place it most often happens is wherever you can find some coffee.

Some favorites mentioned by colleagues are Paper or Plastik in the Pico/Fairfax district, UnUrban in Santa Monica, Zona Rosa in Pasadena, Bourgeois Pig in Beachwood Canyon, Mustard Seed Café and Bru in Los Feliz, Portfolio Coffee House in Long Beach, Abott’s Habit and Intelligensia in Venice, Proof Bakery in Atwater Village, Kaldi Coffee & Tea in South Pasadena,  LAMILL, Silverlake Coffee, and Casbah Café in Silverlake, Stories, Chango, and Fix Coffee in Echo Park, Sabor y Cultura and Caffecito Organico in East Hollywood, Swork Coffee in Eagle Rock, Rumors Café in Mar Vista, Bulgarini Teaforest Café in Culver City, Groundwork Coffee downtown (among other locations), Larchmont Bungalow and Bricks and Scones in Larchmont, and Aroma in Studio City. If you want a stiffer drink, there’s no better place than Musso & Frank’s, former watering hole of Nathaniel West, John Fante, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, William Saroyan, and many other famous writers.

Libraries are also popular composing spots for LA writers. An informal survey revealed particular recommendations for the Silverlake Branch of the LAPL (“newly renovated and comfortable”), the Santa Monica Public Library (“the courtyard for writing and the library for looking at books”), and the fancy new West Hollywood Library (“the most glamorous writing spot in town if you can write without coffee”).

If you happen to like to work in the great outdoors, you can choose between an entire coast of beaches or Griffith Park, the largest municipal park in the U.S.


The annual highlight of the LA literary year is by far the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books (@latimesfob), previously at UCLA and now at USC. Imagine so many writers you love in one place that even if you ran around all day attending panels, readings, signings (and if you’re fortunate enough, the green room) for ten minutes at a time for both days of the festival, you still wouldn’t come close to seeing everyone you wanted to see. If I were a book lover traveling to LA, I would make sure that trip took place at the end of April.

Other popular annual festivals around town include the West Hollywood Book Fair (@WHBookFair), the Leimert Park Village Book Fair (@leimertparkbook), the Los Angeles Latino Book & Family Festival, and in its first year, LitFest Pasadena (@LitFestPasadena).

There’s a strong sense of cooperation between LA’s literary community and its municipal and art institutions. Consistently impressive and curated by Louise Steinman, the Los Angeles Public Library’s [ALOUD] series (@ALOUDla) “brings together today’s brightest cultural, scientific, and political luminaries with the curious minds of Los Angeles.” Former guests have included Toni Morrison and Slavoj Žižek. The LAPL also sponsors the LA Teen Author Reading Series, hosted by Cecil Castellucci, and events thrown by the Young Literati, up-and-coming donors to the Library Foundation. Live Talks Los Angeles (@LiveTalksLA) presents artists and authors like Oscar Hijuelos, Ann Patchett, and John Irving in conversation with other artists and authors. Zócalo Public Square (@ThePublicSquare) also sponsors engaging lectures and talks throughout Southern California. Several museums and cultural centers have their own reading series: Hammer Readings at the Hammer Museum (@hammer_museum), Readings and Talks at the Skirball (@Skirball_LA), and the GO WEST Reading Series at the Autry National Center (@TheAutry), sponsored by PEN Center USA and UC Press.

Many of the bookstores discussed above have regular literary events, especially Vroman’s, Book Soup, and Skylight Books, whose podcasts you can listen to here.

It is a rare week when there aren’t several reading series having an event, with Sundays being especially rich. Vermin on the Mount (@JimVermin) recently moved from its Chinatown location to 826LA behind the Echo Park Time Travel Mart. Hosted by Jim Ruland with events in LA and San Diego, the “irreverent reading series” just celebrated its eight anniversary. Rhapsodomancy has brought “four writers together at the Good Luck Bar for a lively Sunday night reading every even-numbered month since 2004.” Conrad Romo’s Tongue & Groove combines readings and musical performances once a month at The Hotel Café in Hollywood. A relatively new series, Dirty Laundry Lit (@DirtyLaundryLit) is sponsored by a non-profit that promotes reading and holds quarterly music and literature events at The Virgil. Sally Shore’s New Short Fiction Series (@newshortfiction), now held at The Federal Bar, has actors perform short fiction from promising and established writers.

While the readings above usually have some alcoholic beverages at the ready, other series take place in bookstores, theaters, or cafés around town.  Rare Bird Lit (@rarebirdlit), a book promotion marketing and events firm, holds readings at various locations around LA several times a month. Writers Bloc (@writersblocla) offers events that increase public awareness of contemporary writers and thinkers at a number of locations, like the Writers Guild Theater, Temple Emanuel, and the Goethe Institut. Coming up on fifteen years, Da Poetry Lounge (@DaPoetryLounge) is “the longest running weekly poetry venue in Hollywood’s history.” With possibly the most attractive locations, the Griffith Park Storytelling Series stages outdoor readings in various sites in the park, including the Hidden Amphitheater, the Old Zoo, and the Bronson Caves (a.k.a. the Batcave in the Batman television series).

Finally, three events combine writing and performance in a thoroughly entertaining fashion. Literary Death Match (@litdeathmatch) brings together four writers (local and visiting), three judges (all-star), two rounds (nail-biting), and one finale (epic) in cities worldwide. Since its co-creator Todd Zuniga lives here in LA, we can claim headquarters status. Taboo Tales, called LA’s “edgiest” storytelling series, showcases writers reading their most uncomfortable confessions. New York-based The Moth (“True Stories Told Live”—@TheMoth) also has several events a month in Los Angeles.

Next post: August 29 | Montpelier, Vermont…

BIO: Chris Daley currently teaches creative nonfiction for Writing Workshops Los Angeles and academic writing at Caltech. She has reviewed fiction and nonfiction, primarily focusing on music and Los Angeles history, for the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Review of Books. As a founding member of the writing consultant collective WordCraft LA, Chris provides coaching, editing, copywriting, and submission consultation services. She has a Ph.D. in English from the City University of New York Graduate Center. Her latest project is a linked story collection centered on a book she hallucinated while writing her dissertation in three frantic months. In this delirious artifact, a group of housewives in the Valley turn into colossal Amazons as the result of a radiation explosion and torment the citizens of 1930s Los Angeles. Follow Chris on Twitter: @escapegrace.

(All photos are by the author.)

Posts are by no means exhaustive and we encourage our readers to contribute in the comment section!