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L.A.'s hot, new indie-lit scene

By Janet Lewis SaidiContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / October 31, 2003



LOS ANGELES

No one notices actress Geena Davis, disguised under an oversized beret, skulking in the magazine section at Skylight Books in Los Angeles. But cult writer Dennis Cooper gets an enthusiastic greeting from the chin-pierced proprietor of this hub for readers of indie-lit persuasions.

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Mr. Cooper has just vacated his sitting room two blocks away - a room that's straight out of "High Fidelity," complete with stacks of vinyl records. To get to Skylight Books, Cooper passes by trendy haunts such as Fred's 62 and Café Psychobabble, where tattooed Angelenos eat paninis and salads while listening to Radiohead on digital radio.

His unself-consciously bohemian existence has become more evident in neighborhoods like Echo Park and Los Feliz, which he describes as "the center of grooviness," and which are home to a daily parade of L.A. chic mixed with boho edge: tattoos, black tanks, chunky Mary-Janes, and ugly bags.

The Skylight vicinity is also a sort of spiritual home to a group of underground writers and artists finding commonality - if not actual community - inside this culture of endless freeways, gated communities, cellphones, and liposuction. Many of this underground literary set are friendly with some of Los Angeles' most celebrated new writers - Alice Sebold and Glen David Gold, Michael Chabon, and Mona Simpson - all of whom come out of the MFA program at University of California, Irvine.

A handful of current developments point to the city's rising importance on the national literary scene.

Public-radio station KCRW's "Bookworm," based in Los Angeles, provides a serious forum for introducing literary authors to the nation. The books coverage in The Los Angeles Times has attracted attention from media watchers nationally. And the Atlantic Monthly's literary editor, Benjamin Schwarz, recently decided to relocate from Boston to L.A., while keeping his job at the Atlantic.

"There is an important literary scene in Los Angeles," said Mr. Schwarz in a recent phone interview, adding that he doesn't tend to view any city - even New York - as a "literary center" as such. But he points out that Atlantic Monthly writers Caitlin Flannegan, Mona Simpson, Sandra Tsing Loh, and Christopher Hitchens all currently reside in the Los Angeles area. And, he says, "for the kinds of stuff that we do, it's a better place to find fresh talent."

Writers like Mr. Cooper, his friends Benjamin Weissman and Amy Gerstler, and others such as Gary Indiana, Wanda Coleman, Aimee Bender, and Nina Revoyr are different.

They don't discuss six-figure advances and movie deals. Their artistic touchstones include pop music, art, drugs, sex, and what seems to be a prevalently southern California curiosity about murder. Most important, many of L.A.'s contingent of talented underground writers are influenced by, if not graduated from, the art programs at this city's increasingly prestigious art schools - Cal Arts, Otis College of Art and Design, and the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. The writing coming from these programs is something like the art - there's a tendency to use frank, bold, anti-intellectual forms to filter raw, sometimes lurid, content.

"I have no interest in writing conventionally," says Cooper, whose work tends to the dark and transgressive. "It's really hard to get published when you do work like me."

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