San Francisco, Declining Literary Region?

A few months back, I read Dana Gioia's essay, “Fallen Western Star: The Decline of San Francisco as a Literary Region.” Republished in his 2004 essay collection Disappearing Ink, it was first published in the Fall 1998 Denver Quarterly, and can currently be read on Gioia's website.

Gioia argues that the San Francisco literary region was of far more importance at the beginning of the twentieth century than it was by the end. Of San Francisco in 1899, Gioia writes, “The literature of this Gold Rush seaport was innovative, irreverent, populist, and yet oddly international.” He praises Oakland poet Edwin Markham for his “populist and progressive but unillusioned view of existence.”

Unlike Gioia, I can't help perceiving similar qualities in the work I see coming out of the Bay Area today.

When Gioia writes, “A California writer is more likely to see local colleagues in a Manhattan publisher's office than near home,” he seems to me very wide of the mark. Admittedly I'm intensely involved in organizing literary events these days, so my experience may not be typical – yet encounters between local writers take place within my own visual field many times a week. I can't imagine these are a high percentage of the total number of such encounters taking place. Could it simply be that many of the writers Gioia knew in the late 1990s were deliberate recluses? Not that there's anything wrong with that -- I was reclusive myself in those days.

But the Bay Area is fortunate enough to have multiple literary events every day -- it's no exaggeration to say that. every week, there are several I feel guilty about not having time to attend, for example tonight's first monthly Rumpus at the Makeout Room, starting at 7pm, featuring Peter Orner, Andrew Sean Greer, and others.

"In California,” Gioia writes, “literary magazines almost inevitably become events – sometimes important ones – rather than ongoing enterprises.” Yet Zoetrope was founded in 1997, McSweeney's in 1998, Narrative in 2003 – all seem to me to be pretty tenacious institutions. And up in Portland, Tin House began in 1999. I struggle to explain the discrepancy between what Gioia sees and what I see. Has the West Coast experienced a literary renaissance in the years since 1998? Presumably this is not Gioia's opinion, since his 1998 essay currently appears on his website without any emendations.

Are Gioia's remarks perhaps truer for poetry than for prose?

A third explanation may have to do with Gioia's fixation on New York. New York's international cultural importance increased vastly over the course of the twentieth century -- so even if San Francisco hasn't declined in absolute cultural importance, it probably has declined relative to New York. This relates to another point Gioia makes:

"San Francisco still produces literature, but it no longer exports much literary opinion."

As Gioia says, Californians are more disposed to be creative than to be critical. We generate a lot of culture, while outsourcing the problem of deciding what's any good. The gatekeepers are elsewhere – although I've referred, in the course of this post, to some new institutions that may be helping to remedy this – and on balance we're okay with this.

"But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.” -- Anton Ego in the movie “Ratatouille”

5 thoughts on “San Francisco, Declining Literary Region?”

  1. But was Gioia's disdain for San Francisco a factor in his appointment as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts under the Bush Administration?

  2. I wonder if his judgment is based on an absolute scale of literary significance that he defines within his own mind. Judged on a relative scale – comparing San Francisco with other important American cities: New York, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, Denver, … – San Francisco ranks in the top 3.

  3. The other Olga

    also interesting that he seems to equate "California writer" to "San Francisco writer"? :))

  4. There's quite a lot in that essay about rural Californian writers. When Gioia writes, "When urban culture and the natural world compete in the imagination of a Western writer, nature always wins," he clearly isn't thinking about San Franciscans.

    But it's true he ignores Southern California: clearly the rise of Hollywood/Los Angeles is a huge factor in San Francisco's apparent relative decline as a cultural arbiter between 1900 and 2000.

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