Saturday, January 12, 2008

The NBCC Comes to San Francisco

There were drinks and conversation aplenty Friday night in San Francisco when the National Book Critics Circle Board of Directors hosted two panels that looked at the state of West Coast and emerging writers.

About a hundred people crowded into a performance space in downtown San Francisco to hear comments from people like David Ulin, the editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Oscar Villalon, the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, Jennifer Reese, a book critic for Entertainment Weekly, David Kipen, the NEA Director of Literature/BIG READ, Sandy Dijkstra, the literary agent, and authors Michelle Richmond, Greg Sarris, and Andrew Sean Greer, among others.

It was an attempt by the NBCC to broaden its reach and become less New York-centric. On Saturday, for the first time in its history, the NBCC will announce the finalists for its awards from City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco.

The group tried to engage themselves and the audience in the question of whether the West Coast is driving American literature. Presumably, since the West was once the frontier and people still gravitate here to remake themselves, the literature they produce is more forward-looking and innovative than that produced in New York.

As provocative as that notion is, the panelists couldn’t agree on its truth.

Jennifer Reese characterized the West Coast as a “goofy, artsy” place that is not “caught up in the intense noise of the literary community of New York.” David Ulin said West Coast writers had an advantage being “out of the fishbowl.” Living 3,000 miles away from New York gives Los Angeles writers the opportunity to fail or to try things that might not work, far away from the glare and scrutiny of the publishing world. Having this ability to experiment ultimately leads to more exciting writing, he said.

Ellen Heltzel of Bookbabes lives in Portland Oregon. She said the area attracts people interested in working in their own métier, not conforming to the tastes and dictates of the New York publishing scene. An example is the poet Gary Snyder, who pursued his own interests in Buddhism and the landscape of the west, His vision and drive had ultimately brought him international recognition. (and a Pulitzer Prize.)

Andrew Sean Greer, the author of Max Tivoli said writers living in New York can find themselves drawn into the literary scene at the expense of their own writing. While it’s a lot of fun to hang out at bars, go to readings, and mingle at publishing events, all that socializing makes it difficult for a writer to do the most important thing – finish his or her book. (Greer moved from New York to Montana to write and found that state TOO quiet, so he eventually moved to San Francisco.)

Mary Ann Gwinn, the book editor of the Seattle Times, said readers on the West Coast are more adventurous, which means writers are more adventurous.

The panelists tried hard not to reduce the discussion to an “Us versus New York” dialogue, and succeeded for the most part. They also seemed cognizant of not trying to elevate West Coast writing over that of other regions, while acknowledging its strengths.

The evening brought out lots of published and aspiring writers and the networking was intense. Mark Sarvas, the blogger behind The Elegant Variation and the author of the forthcoming novel, Harry, Revised, flew up from Los Angeles for evening. Kevin Smokler, the co creator of and author of Bookmark Now, came, as did Jason Roberts, an NBCC finalist last year for his biography, A Sense of the World.

Kemble Scott, author of Soma and the editor of the SoMa Literary Review came, as did New York Times reporter Neil MacFarquhar, author of the novel The Sand Café. Daniel Schifrin, the former director of literary programs for the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, showed up. He has just been appointed “writer in residence” for the new Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Jane Ganhal, co-founder of LitQuake and the author liaison for the new author website, also made an appearance.

One last note: The participants from the first panel on emerging writers were asked to name some writers to look out for. Here are some of their suggestions:

Suzanne Kleid of City Lights Books recommended Cane Hayward’s memoir of growing up in the 1970s, The Hypocrisy of Disco.

David Kipen pointed out that Berkeley mystery author Cornelia Read had just won an NEA fellowship. (I have read her book, A Field of Darkness, and can highly recommend it.)

Michelle Richmond recommended Meg Waite Clayton’s forthcoming novel, The Wednesday Sisters.

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