When it came time to write my essay, I struggled a lot with the question of how Los Angeles is remade by its literature. While I thought it was a really interesting question to explore, I had an impossible time applying it to the texts from class. As a result, my paper ended up being a fairly standard literary analysis. However, I did not want to overlook the initial question. So, I wrote up a short piece addressing that question. Ultimately, my response to the question only really circles around it. I have no idea how Los Angeles gets remade by its literature, but I attempted to come to an understanding of how one might do that kind of theoretical work. Anyway, I thought that perhaps others might have had the same problem, and I am posting this on the blog as an opportunity for people to pose their questions too (or answer mine!) should anyone else have found themselves in same situation.
December 3, 2007
More Questions Than Answers About LA Being Made and Remade in Its Literature
In a 2004 article titled “Exiles, Natives and (Mis)Representations),” J. Scott Bryson describes Los Angeles as “so buried under layers of representation and simulation that it is hard even to discuss such a phenomenon as a real Los Angeles.” In a similar statement, David L. Ulin, in the introduction to the literary anthology Writing Los Angeles says “if LA has often seemed like a city without history it is perhaps because so much of its history has been recycled into myth”(Ulin xiii). Clearly representations of a place are not necessarily accurate reflections of it, however, it would seem a stretch to say that representations of Los Angeles in literature have no reflection whatsoever on the “true” nature of the city (what ever that may be). As far as Los Angeles, or indeed any city, being remade by its literature is concerned, what it appears needs to be considered is less the ways in which the city has the potential to be reinvented through its literature, but rather the space between representation and reality. This space consists of representations of the city, and reactions to those representations, from both native and non-native Los Angelinos. By understanding the gap between representation and reality, and how closely or distantly they are related, it allows then for an understanding of how likely and possible it is for literature to affect a change in a city, regardless of whether or not a change actually occurs.
Urban theorist Kevin McNamara discusses the idea of “signifiers [the representations of the city] threaten[ing] to run away from any sense of the signified [the objective state of the city]” (Greenstein). The question, then, is how far representations of the city have strayed from the reality of the city. Furthermore, if Los Angeles is being reinvented from literature, is it the literature that adheres closely to the “original” or is it literature that is based on the “myth” and if it is the myth, is it a rewritten and reengaged version of the myth? This is addressed at length by Bryson.
Bryson talks about the two voices in Los Angeles literature: exiles and natives. He says that much of L.A. literature, particularly earlier work, was written by “transplants.” He describes it as “a city of immigrants and émigrés…the Los Angeles literary scene [is] historically peopled by transient writers living in Los Angeles” (Bryson). About these writers he explains that most of them arrived in the city with certain preconceived notions about it (myths based on propaganda from boosters and the like). Thus, when the city failed to deliver what was promised in advertising, and as these writers failed in the entertainment industry (as many of them were in L.A. to write for the motion pictures), they became “disillusioned with Los Angeles and nostalgic for their former homelands, which they identify as deeper and more meaningful and write as exiles highly critical of their new home” (Bryson). What is developing is a view of the city that is at first idealized by boosters, and then consumed by outsiders and then rejected by the outsiders when they arrive and are disappointed. These disillusioned writers then start a new mythology, which is consumed by new outsiders. One way of looking at this is to see how far removed from the original source (the city itself) the literature has become, but that seems to somehow say that the experiences of, and consequent literary interpretations by, the exiles is somehow false, when that is certainly not the case.
As for the native writers, some address, problematize, complicate and expand on these myths, while others start fresh, ignoring its literary predecessors, and writing about their personal experiences and “reality” of the city. Of these authors, Bryson says “for them, Los Angeles is not an exotic, aspatial other-land, but rather a homeland” and “in presenting these alternative, homegrown visions of the city, native writers present a firsthand perspective of Los Angeles that is contextualized by the myriad social problems and issues that often haunt the city to which they belong” which, it is implied, is unmediated by literary representations of the city (however, if literature really is influencing city life, than the two are inextricable—but whether or not that is true is not currently being debated). Bryson continues, saying that “native perspectives on the city allow readers to witness the multiplicity of the real Los Angeles” but the phrase “real Los Angeles” seems problematic. Who dictates whose experiences are “real” and whose are not? Certainly natives offer different perspectives from the “transplants,” and perhaps one that is more in direct communication with the original “text.” What can be said about the difference between the transplant and native authors is that they tend to have different concerns and focus on different thematic issues. For instance, natives’ writings will often focus on things such as “racial and class-based discrimination, ecocatastrophe…[and] geographic, cultural, moral and ethnic boundaries,”—topics not typically addressed by the transplant authors. But to place a higher value on their accuracy as reflections of Los Angeles, or their engagement with the city at all, is troublesome in the way it privileges the natives’ narratives. Furthermore, to say, as Bryson does, that “exiles, whose knowledge of Los Angeles is to a significant extent necessarily mediated by different representations of the city” is to imply that natives are somehow impervious to representations of their city and take no notice of them. While some native Los Angeles writers seem to bypass the “mythological” texts, others confront them directly, and in so doing, reappropriate and rewrite those myths.
Not all native authors address these “native issues,” and clearly there is a strong presence of Los Angeles born and bred authors dealing directly with the “myth” texts. Bryson describes these texts, such as the novels of Mosley and Ellroy, as “revisionist and often postmodern mythos” that confront and “correct” the works of their predecessors. Here, yet another layer is added, as the city becomes represented by boosters who attract authors who write critically of the city and years later (after those representations have been, to a certain extent, normalized) get taken up again by contemporary authors engaging with the new myths and either demystifying them, or in fact creating new myths of their own. Rather than becoming more apparent, it becomes increasingly difficult to figure out how place is shaped by literature, when the literature fluctuates so drastically in its distance from the source. Theorist Julian Murphet confronts this problem directly when he explains that “representation ‘has had a seminal place in the production of Los Angeles literature from the outset’ and that now ‘the ideal of a clear distinction between “real” social life on the one hand and cultural figuration on the other is more or less untenable” (Bryson). Thus, when the representations become “reality” it is too elusive to pin down what the “reality” “really” is. Additionally, critic Roger Keil believes that when these representations dominate the literaryscape, “the ‘real L.A.’ of everyday struggles vanishes from sight” (Bryson). While it may be true that many of the hardships of the people of the city get overlooked in this genre, the use of the term “real L.A.” speaks to the mindset that those representations are more valuable and more accurate reflections of the city than the ones that are generated by the original myth creators and those responding to the myths (“myths” at this point has gone beyond the typical meaning of the word to include realities of the city that are addressed and created in a particular fashion and by a particular group of authors).
Bryson concludes his essay asserting “more and more contemporary critics are pointing out it is intellectually and even morally irresponsible to allow these representations to overshadow the actual Los Angeles made up of real people.” While it is still unclear how L.A. is remade from its literature, a statement such as this closes the door to even the question of whether or not L.A. is remade from its literature. It states quite clearly that Los Angeles is not accurately portrayed in its representations, and that the citizens of Los Angeles are somehow separate from the representations, rather than intertwined. Clearly there is a gap between the signifier and the signified, but to say for certain that none of the L.A. natives understand the city in which they live as a version portrayed in literature seems entirely unlikely. While their day to day experiences may not be affected per se, there is a mindset about the city that, for many (though granted not all), must be inescapable. It is this separation (of signifier and signified) that needs to be understood, before an investigation into how Los Angeles literature shapes the city can get underway.
Bryson, J. Scott. “Los Angeles Literature: Exiles, Natives and (Mis)Representation.”
American Literary History 16 (2004)
Greenstein, Michael. “Book Review.” Rev. of Urban Verbs: Arts and Discourses of
American Cities by Kevin R. McNamara. MFS Modern Fiction Studies. Summer
Ulin, David L.. “Introduction.” Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology. Ed. David L.
Ulin. New York: The Library of America, 2002
Ganim, John M.. “Cities of Words: Recent Studies on Urbanism and Literature.” Rev. of
The City in Literature: An Intellectual and Cultural History by Richard Lehan,
October Skies: The Redevelopment of Urban Literature by Carlo Rotella, Apartment Stories: City and Home in Nineteenth-Century Paris and London by Sharon Marcus, White Diaspora: The Suburb and the Twentieth-Century American Novel by Catherine Jurca. MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly. 3 Sept. 2002: 365-382
McNamara, Kevin R.. “Book Review” Rev. of Literature and Race in Los Angeles by
Julian Murphet. MFS Modern Fiction Studies. Summer 2003: 370-372