The cars swished down Santa Monica Boulevard on a chilly Saturday night outside the Virgil nightclub, as people dressed for a night on the town patiently lined up to get into the warmth. The draw this recent night wasn’t a band or a comedian. Instead, these revelers had come to hear short stories, poems and essays read from the stage.
Los Angeles shapes global pop culture with its powerful film, television and music industries, but on the literary front, this sprawling metropolis has long punched below its weight. Other than noir detective novels, Depression-era hard-luck tales and Charles Bukowski, Los Angeles hasn’t claimed a literary tradition on par with New York, London or other cultural capitals.
That has been changing over the past few years, though, as Southern California writers draw from their region’s remarkably multiethnic population to write about race, politics and history. This year, that emerging richness received worldwide recognition with two big awards won by Los Angeles-affiliated writers: a Pulitzer Prize in fiction for “The Sympathizer” by University of Southern California professor Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Los Angeles native Paul Beatty’s Man Booker Prize for his satire “The Sellout,” which imagines slavery and racial segregation returning to a fictional L.A. neighborhood.
If you count Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in literature, that makes three top literary recognitions for longtime Southern Californians.
So how does a visitor take in all this literary bounty? Start with the many reading series that fill nightspots, libraries and community centers across L.A. The reading at the Virgil was part of the Dirty Laundry Lit series produced by author Natashia Deón, whose slave-era novel “Grace” has won lots of attention since its June release. The recent bill there presented a decidedly diverse showcase, with women making up six of the eight featured writers on stage, and not a straight white male among the bunch.
Other reading series include Shades & Shadows, specializing in science fiction, fantasy and other speculative writing, the Aloud series that brings top national and local writers to the Los Angeles Central Library (630 W. Fifth St., 213-228-7000) and Noir at the Bar, which draws crime-fiction enthusiasts to the Mandrake Bar (2692 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles).
A lot of this action happens at local bookstores, and some of the busiest are The Last Bookstore (453 S. Spring St., Los Angeles, 213-488-0599), Skylight Books (1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles, 323-660-1175) and Vroman’s Bookstore (695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, 626-449-5320).
Finally, once a year, the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books draws authors, industry professionals and book lovers from around the country to what’s arguably the top literary event on the West Coast. Next year’s festival will be held April 22-23 on the USC campus.
As Dirty Laundry host Jeff Eyres said at the Virgil, L.A. can honestly claim the hottest literary scene in the country right now. Those eager to experience all that creativity off the page or screen can find it on these streets.
What: Enter the world of Victorian London at the Great Dickens Christmas Fair and Victorian Holiday Party. More than 3 acres will be transformed into pubs, theaters, tea rooms and shops in celebration of writer Charles Dickens.
When: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. every weekend beginning Saturday, Nov. 19, and ending Sunday, Dec. 18 (also open Friday, Nov. 25).
Where: Cow Palace Exhibition Halls, 2600 Geneva Ave.
Cost: $30 general admission for adults; $14 children 5 to 12; children under 5 get in for free.
What: The Napa Valley Wine Train is celebrating the return of its interactive and musical Santa Train. Guests can enjoy hot chocolate and treats while children help Santa and his friends travel through the vineyards to his workshop.
When: 5 p.m and 8 p.m. daily show times Saturday, running Saturday, Nov. 19, through Thursday, Dec. 29
Where: Napa Valley Wine Train, 1275 McKinstry St.
Cost: $55 to $75 per ticket.
Information: www.winetrain.com or 800-427-4124
Winter Film Series
What: The Alpenglow Sports Winter Film Series showcases professional athletes and their adventures across the world. One event will be held each month though February, beginning with a multimedia presentation from local climber David Nettle and ending with one from mountaineer Adrian Ballinger. In 2011, Ballinger became the first person to summit three 8,000-meter peaks, including Mount Everest, in only three weeks.
When: The events will be held at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 17; Thursday, Dec. 1; Thursday, Jan. 5; Thursday, Feb. 23.
Where: Alpenglow Sports, 415 N. Lake Blvd.
Cost: Free entrance for all visitors.
- Jessica Hice