A Well Lit Place (Steve Wasserman and the LA Times Sunday Book Review)

How does one create a literary community in Los Angeles? It is true that on any given night, there are readings, slams and events at bookstores, bars and auditoriums all over town. Yet rarely does this coalesce into a sense of community, a literary life in Los Angeles.

Steve Wasserman, who is leaving the L.A. Times Sunday Book Review, tried to foster a community of books, of writers and of ideas in maximalist and minimalist ways, in the pages of the book review, with the L.A. Times Festival of Books and by helping establish the Los Angeles Institute of the Humanities at USC.

Wasserman spent his formative years in Berkeley, attending high school and UC Berkeley there. He arrived in Los Angeles in 1977 and worked at the L.A. Times from 1978 to 1984, rising to deputy editor of Sunday opinion and the op-ed page.

He then did time in the New York book world before being offered, in 1996, “the only job for which I wouldn’t have left” Los Angeles in the first place: editor of the Sunday Book Review.

“You have to beware in life,” Wasserman said recently. “You sometimes get what you wish for.”

His notion for the book section was simple: “I would pay the readers of L.A. the respect [they were] long overdue. I would serve up book criticism in the language of adults….”

Los Angeles was “no longer the laid-back, insular province of yesteryear but rather a vast energetic megalopolis full of contradiction and complexity.” It had become “a deeply neurotic, complicated place full of ambitious people….”

Moreover, Los Angeles is the country’s second-largest bookselling market. The New Yorker magazine now has more subscribers in California than it does in New York; and The New York Review of Books has almost as many subscribers in California as it does in New York. These were facts worth leveraging.

The problem in Los Angeles, as Wasserman put it, was that “geography is fate.” Los Angeles’s vast, spread out freeway- and boulevard-linked archipelago has made, Wasserman observed, “whole communities invisible to each other.”

In Los Angeles, he concluded, “Community is an act of will, not serendipity.” Wasserman sought to will the disparate voices of Los Angeles into a literary community.

The Festival of Books began prior to Wasserman’s arrival, but he became its impresario, mixing serious writers and politics with a dash of Hollywood. Festival crowds reached 150,000 in 2003, according to the L.A. Times Media Center, demonstrating that Los Angeles’ love of books is tangible.

Wasserman also launched the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities with USC history department chair Steven Ross — a once-a-month luncheon speaker club of academics and artists: “Very selfishly, I wanted to be at a table with people much smarter than myself and share bad deli sandwiches.”

As for The Sunday Book review itself, Wasserman found being editor an “inherently fraught” and “elusive” task. Given that the “local had gone global in L.A. a long time ago,” Wasserman decided he would not review a writer just because he lived in 90210.

He would follow the advice Joan Didion gave him to “just review the good books.” Those that were, in his words, “worthy of our readers.”

Wasserman estimates that 150,000 books are published each year. The L.A. Times Sunday Book Review can feature around 1,200 (The New York Times Sunday Book Review reviews three times as many). “My intention was to be three times as good in one-third the space,” he said.

Wasserman’s book section was criticized for being East Coast-centric and for reviewing too many books from obscure or academic presses. However, even detractors agree that he brought attention to works that otherwise would have been neglected.

Wasserman’s proudest moment was a review by Octavio Paz of a new translation of the poetry of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a 17th-century Mexican Carmelite nun. Sor Juana was unknown to most English-speaking readers — including Wasserman’s employers. However as one of Mexico’s greatest poets, cited as one of the great exemplars of both proto-feminist and Hispanic literature, it would be hard to argue her work was not relevant to Los Angeles’ readers.

In the end, Wasserman said, “I had a pronounced set of convictions. I recognize that they were not shared by some.”

Wasserman showcased the breadth and depth of intellectual life in Los Angeles as well as its denizens’ passion for books. He got the attention of editors, writers and publicists outside of Los Angeles, even outside of the United States by sending copies of the book review to a list of 2,000 literary luminaries (a perk L.A. Times management ended prior to Wasserman’s resignation).

By the fall, there will be a new Sunday Book Review editor. That person will, in all probability, do what any person given the task usually does: feature larger type in certain places; assign book reviews to friends and writers they know and/or admire; and anoint new columnists to cover popular reading topics, be they mystery, science fiction, Hollywood or comics. In the end, the new manager will try to make the section his own or her own. Whether anyone will care or read it, or whether the reviews will sell books — for that, we will have to wait.

Wasserman has left the building, but his challenge remains: to nurture a literary community in Los Angeles, a metropolis that has yet to realize it has become the epicenter of 21st-century American creativity.

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.

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Copyright 2005 Tommywood