Matthew Specktor: Why Don’t They Drop the Bomb on L.A.?
(from Issue Seven)
SOME YEARS AGO, I was interviewed by the BBC in New York. The topic was “Books Abroad,” focusing on the fractious relationship between literary publishing and Hollywood. At the time, I was a senior studio executive stationed in Manhattan. I was supposed to know something about how and why certain books became movies, what motivated a producer to pay three million dollars for an unwritten novel, why other adaptations got stuck inside development hell—in short, why Angelenos were so stupid, or at least why the movie business was so venal and corrupt as to treat publishing (or, more specifically, writers) like chattel. The questions were inane, even funneled through an interviewer as brilliant as Tibor Fischer; my answers, alas, even more so. I’ve done my best to repress memories of the queries themselves (“How did it feel to spend that much money on such an unmitigated piece of junk? Is it true that no one in Hollywood actually reads the novels they adapt?”) and of my responses (“It felt wonderful. You’ve never lived until you’ve spent a few million of Rupert Murdoch’s easily won dollars.”) What lingers is the feeling of shame: both my own, as a representative of Hollywood’s most crass commercial impulses, and that of the industry itself. This same impulse causes the well-paid television writers I meet to lower their eyes when I tell them I write novels. Oh, they say, pawing the floor and wavering visibly between envy and a kind of cringing, desperate dismissal. You’re a real writer.
I grew up with the notion that L.A. was not a proper environment for a writer, or anyone with an intellectual bent. (I didn’t need the cautionary examples of Faulkner, Fitzgerald, et al; my mother was a self-destructive screenwriter.) It’s a common stereotype that seemed credible in the go-go ’80s, when everything looked slicked with an extra coat of materialist primer. And so I fled. To New York, London, San Francisco—cities that felt more hospitable to human beings of any stripe, even writers. These were places with pedigree, after all. I was happy to leave Los Angeles to the experts, the carapaced (Bret Easton Ellis), the neurasthenic (Joan Didion), the satirists and rare amphibians (Richard Price!) who could handle the advances of all those sweaty-browed moguls without, well, sucking. Members of that last group lived elsewhere, which only bolstered the apparently universal opinion that if you were a serious writer, if you aspired to be “real”—and here I use the term in its full, quivering, problematic dimension—if you aspired to invite ambiguity into your work, rather than stamp it out, you’d best get the fuck out of Dodge.
I CHANGED MY mind. Like artists, writers, and performers the world over, I cheerfully betrayed my younger self and moved back to Los Angeles. In fact, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no place I’d rather live, none that seems more hospitable to life as a writer. What’s different?
Partially, of course, I am. I’m less attached to the petty grievances and pretensions that afflicted my earlier adulthood. I lived in New York long enough to love it with every fiber of my being, but also to find its high self-regard and blinkered parochialism patently ridiculous. I’d argue that the culture of L.A., assuming there has ever been such a thing, has changed as well. I don’t see the movie business seducing novelists—or really much of anybody—anymore. If legs are being spread, then the nebulous corporatocracy that appears to rule the world (Comcast, Bertelsmann, Time Warner) is doing the spreading, pressing its palms against our weakening knees. The profit motive that once seemed crass is now endemic, not just in our nation but across the globe. Why not live in Los Angeles, then? Insofar as Des Moines is colder, Gainesville is wetter, and Newark already belongs to Philip Roth. People in all those places might be as au fait with pop culture, more addicted to Glee than my neighbors, and probably just as aware of the weekend box office as I am. So why not?
Of course, all this serves only to frame the question in the negative. Yep, L.A. is no more Gomorrah than anyplace else in the country, and maybe a bit less so than New York. But the fact is, I’m ecstatic about this place, enraptured by its landscapes and its light, its literary—yeah, literary—aliveness; its weather and its hikes, all the stupid lifestyle stuff that invites an insulting smugness; as well as its restaurants, its coffee, and all the other accessories too particular to mention. I’m in love with the Los Angeles Review of Books and with my friends, many of whom are also writers. I’m being general here for a reason. To start waxing specifically about this place—Olvera Street! Dodger Stadium!—is to slip instantly into a kind of defensiveness.
I’m enthralled by Los Angeles because it’s ugly and problematic and lovely; because the bomb has already fallen on it, to some extent, and all I can do is pick my way through the ruins. It forces me into a confrontation with mortality, which is good business—actually the only business—for a writer, “real” or otherwise. And it forces me to figure out a way into, around, and through L.A.’s formidable mythology, which is as deep and lavish as any other world city’s. It necessitates some resistance to cliché (as did Mississippi for Faulkner), and it challenges me constantly. I hate it when I’m in my car, unless that car is doing 70 miles per hour, in which case I love it. That particular helix—stop/start, fast/slow, love/hate—is the most fruitful one for a writer. Ask Catullus.
But I know, I know. You want me to come down from the hills and give you some dirt, something Hollywood, as well as something that tells us what it’s like to be a writer here. OK.
SEVERAL MONTHS BACK, I was at a book party. The celebrant was a whip-smart journalist who’d once published a Didionlike collection of her essays about New York and was now writing about the housing market, the nesting impulse that kicks in right before middle age. Her new book was set in Los Angeles, so it seemed to encode all over again the very set of notions I’ve just described: L.A. as materialist seducer or blandly glittering suburb, the place to go when you’ve exhausted—or been exhausted by—cosmopolitan life. The party, held in an antiques store on Melrose, was nice; the food and wine were better, frankly, than you’d find at comparable events in New York; the writers, whom I won’t name in the interest of avoiding a flame war, were certainly no worse. The room was full of mirrors, lemony twilight, couches, and dogs.
Over by the bar, I spotted a man distinctly different from the rubicund Times honchos, the paunchy media sorts who seem identical to the ones in New York. An event sponsored by Vanity Fair would’ve carved out the same demographic—except for this fellow, who was small, in his 70s, and exceedingly dapper in an ascetic way. He wore a suit that looked old, and the way he moved suggested a thrifty craftsmanship: There was something old-world, not-quite-European about him. And he looked familiar as hell. Not the way actors do—Will Ferrell having dinner at Dan Tana’s, or any of the other bits of window dressing you spy irrelevantly when you live in Los Angeles. He looked iconic, like a wise uncle or a character in a movie where the actors tend to look disheveled, deflated; I always recognize them five minutes too late.
I slid in at the bar next to him, close enough to appreciate the weave of his pinstripes, the burnished gold of his signet ring, his hat worn in a manner neither jaunty nor formal; the style of someone who didn’t have to work at it for once. I drank wine and introduced myself. His name came out (Len? Ben?) quickly enough I didn’t quite catch it. Or maybe I didn’t want to catch it. I knew I knew him. Yet in that alienated state, that moment of recognition in which I refused some portion of reality—I knew exactly who he was but denied it in order to have the conversation, and so live the story—I found myself exactly where I want to be when writing: inside the moment and outside it, detached, expansive. I’ve had the same feeling in other cities, of course, but Los Angeles seems particularly hospitable to the mild self-estrangement that startles narrative into being.
“What do you do?” I asked him, and when he said he was a musician—yeah, I definitely knew who he was—and I answered that I wrote novels, he smiled and looked down at the floor.
“I wrote a novel once,” he said. “It was too hard for me. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
I nodded with the same embarrassment I usually feel when some aging TV writer bludgeons me with his own moneyed shame. This, though, was Leonard Cohen, whose writing is real enough for me.
“Huh,” I said, then switched topics. We talked about our daughters (his owned the store we were standing in) and about writing in general—songwriting and habits, the rigors and boredom of touring. Not once did I let on that I knew who he was, and he seemed happy enough to be left alone.
What do I love best about writing in Los Angeles? Privacy. The pleasures of being ignored by the money people, the media kingpins, the ones who think they’re important but aren’t. It’s the middle of the afternoon and I’m writing fiction—not film—in a public space, surrounded by glowering men and harrowed-looking women in headphones, all of them glaring down at their laptops, where cursors blink in the middle of a page. Good for them. I feel invisible and fed and genuinely protected in a way I would not if I were writing somewhere else. At home within my memories, vaguely menaced by the future.
Matthew Specktor is the author of three books, including the recently released American Dream Machine, and the senior fiction editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.