Great ideas and great literature are being championed, promoted and supported in Los Angeles, in public and private forums, in private homes and public spaces, through the age-old medium of conversation.
Several years ago, the Jewish Museum in New York mounted an exhibition called "The Power of Conversation: Jewish Women and Their Salons." Focusing on women such as Henriette Herz in 1780s Berlin, Genevieve Straus in 1890s Paris and Salka Viertel in 1930s Santa Monica, the exhibition demonstrated the critical role these women played in the culture of their times and in promoting the work of such writers as Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann.
Today in Los Angeles, the three Jewish women profiled below - Andrea Grossman, Louise Steinman, and Julie Robinson - have created their own 21st century versions of the salon. Whereas once the salon was a private, exclusive gathering, today it has become far more democratic.
Grossman runs Writer's Bloc, a nonprofit organization that, as its Web site declares, "is dedicated to producing provocative, fun and entertaining programs that feature the most interesting writers and thinkers in our cultural landscape." Louise Steinman is the director of the ALOUD Series at the Los Angeles Public Library's Central Library, which declares itself, on its Web site, as "the place to exchange ideas with fellow citizens and to learn from outstanding thinkers and artists across a wide variety of disciplines." And, finally, Julie Robinson is a book group leader whose company, Literary Affairs, promises to take readers "beyond the book" and who in addition to hosting book groups in private homes, now also leads book groups at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club, Wilshire Boulevard Temple and Sinai Temple, and organizes author events and even literary travel experiences.
Today, almost every cultural institution hosts a reading series. What the salonistas described below have discovered is no longer a secret: Los Angeles, in spite of - or perhaps because of - its reputation as the world capital of scripted entertainment and the purveyor of "reality" entertainment, is filled with passionate readers who hunger for literary fiction, ideas and conversation.
Writer's Bloc: Great Writers in Public Forums
Since 1996, Writer's Bloc has offered up a heady mix of writers and interviewers in conversation. I can't remember when I attended my first Writer's Bloc event, but soon those familiar black-and-white postcards started piling up in my mailbox, announcing one more amazing event after another.
Over the years, the writers who've appeared include a Who's Who of contemporary culture, including Alice Walker, John Irving, Scott Turow, Isabel Allende, Gore Vidal, Nora Ephron, Richard Ford, Mona Simpson, Steve Martin, Michael Ondatje, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion and pretty much anyone you can imagine being interested in hearing.
Some unforgettable evenings I've attended include seeing Elmore Leonard and Martin Amis (together!) or, more recently, Bob Woodward being interviewed by John Dean.
Although the venues for the events change (they've been held at such different locales as the WGA theater, The Fine Arts Theatre, the auditorium at the Wiesenthal Center and Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills), they are consistent in providing a sense of drama and excitement - they are always events.
I've been to some that were sold-out/standing-room only, and others where a few dozen fans spread themselves throughout the rows. But without doubt, the most enthusiastic fan at each is always Andrea Grossman, who is the founder and one-woman band behind Writer's Bloc.
Grossman grew up in Beverly Hills, and is a graduate of Beverly Hills High, of UCLA as an English major and of USC's Annenberg School, where she received a graduate degree in communications management. She worked in corporate marketing, in pay-TV programming for the legendary Z Channel, as well as for Select TV, and worked in Democratic Party Fundraising.
Grossman discovered her calling when she suggested to the Friends of English UCLA support group that they bring in authors of cultural interest. After Isabel Allende's appearance, Grossman realized two things: First, "that certain authors should be speaking not just in bookstores, but in a public forum," and second, what Grossman calls "'The Sesame Street' effect" - where if you get one great person to appear, then it becomes OK, or even mandatory, for others to do so.
Grossman saw "a real need for mainstream great writers to talk about their ideas in a friendly forum" that was "not stuffy, not academic, just fun." Out of that conviction, Writer's Bloc was born.
From the start, Grossman's intention was to set the standard extremely high, to get great writers involved. For her first real Writer's Bloc event, Joan Didion was interviewed by Robin Abcarian of the Los Angeles Times. That certainly set the bar.
Over the years, Elmore Leonard has appeared four times; Norman Mailer, three times; Gore Vidal three times; and Steve Martin, Calvin Trillin, and Harry Shearer have also made several appearances.
Writer's Bloc is a nonprofit. Grossman explained that while on occasion authors have received fees for appearing, most of the time they do not. Tickets are $20, and authors usually stay after to sign books, which are sold on the premises.
Although Grossman told me that her "real love is fiction," her programs frequently feature nonfiction writers. She admits to "being real interested in political figures."
Grossman confessed that although "sometimes [running] Writer's Bloc can be frustrating, with problems and issues to handle," she loves the programming part of it. What she loves most is an event where "there's great drama and great theater."
She acknowledges that in Los Angeles the challenge is to get people out of their homes. That, too, is Grossman's standard: "I only do a program if I would get in my car and fight traffic [to go see it].
As for high points from the last nine seasons, Grossman cites an evening with John Le Carre reading from "Smiley" and telling stories as unforgettable; a Garrison Keillor program, right after Sept. 11, where she recalls that "people were desperate for community" and Keillor got everyone singing.
"It was fantastic," she says.
Then there was the night when George Carlin "became emotional and quite distraught remembering certain aspects of his childhood and his comic heroes."
Grossman concludes: "To have such figures who have had such a significant impact on our culture - to see them so intimately is invaluable."
For more information on Writer's Bloc, visit http://www.writersblocpresents.com. Upcoming programs for June include: David Steinberg on June 22 and Tina Brown on June 26; July & August Grossman is taking off. She returns in September to work on some major events, including a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road."
Louise Steinman and the Hearth of Los Angeles
Louise Steinman's route to leading the Los Angeles Public Library's Central Library's cultural programs has been one of much "serendipity." She grew up in Los Angeles, attended Reed College in Portland, where she received her bachelor's in literature, and received a master's in interdisciplinary arts from San Francisco State University.
"Interdiscplinary" would be a good description for her artistic and writing career.
Steinman has created performances and dance theater works for her SO & SO & SO & SO company (co-founded with Susan Banyas); she has written works of criticism such as "The Knowing Body: The Artist as Contemporary Performance"; and she wrote an autobiographical memoir "The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War." On her Web site, Steinman states that her work "frequently addresses issues of memory, history and reconciliation."
In 1986, the Los Angeles Public Library's downtown central branch was victim to two incidents of arson, which closed the library. Shortly after its reopening in 1993, Steinman, who had been cultural director of Barnsdall Park, was asked to direct public programs for the library.
She was hired by Gary Ross, the Hollywood director of such films as "Dave" and "Seabiscuit," who was president of the Library Board of Commissioners. He had grand ideas for the library's programs (Steinman recalls Ross saying "Let's get Gorbachev!").
In the beginning, Steinman admits "the learning curve was very steep." They had few resources, limited support for ads, marketing, and outreach, and the audiences at times were limited to handful of people.
Yet things began to change. "Downtown started to happen," Steinman said. The library foundation hired an outreach manager, publicist Regina Mangum. Steinman brought her curiosity, her interdisciplinary interests, and her sense of performance not only to programming what is now "Aloud" but also to the library itself, and the space where the events are held, the Mark Taper Auditorium.
Steinman was particularly captivated by observing how people interacted with the space. "The library is a welcome space," Steinman said recently. "People think of this space as the hearth of the city."
Aloud hosts between 70 and 85 events a year, by Steinman's estimation. All are free (on occasion Aloud has charged a $5 fee for a performing arts program, but they have not done so in a while). Reservations are not required but are suggested, as events sometimes sell out.
Steinman was quick to point out that in fact she does not work for the city, or for the library, but for the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, which is a nonprofit organization founded to help secure private support for the library.
Accordingly, the events are provided at no cost to the library or the city (and accordingly at no tax cost to us). (I will disclose here that I recently interviewed novelist Nathan Englander for the Aloud series and received an honorarium for doing so.) The Library Foundation, for its part, does raise funds, and the public is encouraged to become library foundation members and/or make donations to the foundation.
When asked to list some highlights, Steinman responded, "there have been so many deeply moving [programs]." While first recalling those memorable speakers who were no longer among us, such as W.G. Sebald, Susan Sontag, and August Wilson, Steinman also recalled stirring debates and discussions, such as Sam Harris and Reza Aslan on "Can Faith and Reason Co-exist?" (moderated by Jonathan Kirsch); an evening devoted to the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski; David Milch (of "Deadwood" fame) and William Deveareaux, a scholar of the West, in a free-wheeling conversation that Steinman describes as "brilliant"; Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman with director David O. Russell, who had been his student at Amherst.
An eclectic list to be sure, but Steinman's credo is that "all subjects are contained in the library and all subjects are fair game [for ALOUD]."
For more information, visit http://www.lfla.org/aloud/. Some of the upcoming highlights are: Michale Ondatje (June 12), Armisted Maupin (June 20) and Chip Kidd (July 25). The fall program is still being set, but Steinman is looking forward to appearances in September by Nobel Prize Winning scientist James Watson, Oliver Sachs, and literary critic Robert Alter.
Literary Affairs: The Salon in Your Living Room
"My whole concept is to take readers beyond the book," Julie Robinson, book group leader par excellence, told me recently. "To create an experience based on great literature."
Robinson is a great example of how doing what you love and following your passion can not only become a life, but a living as well.
Robinson grew up in New York and Massachusetts and came to Los Angeles after graduating college. As a stay-at-home mom, she was always reading. She would often arrive at her children's pre-school book-in-hand; the other moms would ask her for book recommendations.
She went back to UCLA to take English literature courses and formed a book group that met in her living room. With the help of Doug Dutton of Dutton's Bookstore in Brentwood and writer Diane Leslie, who often hosted writer events at Dutton's, Robinson began to host book clubs. What began as a hobby, according to Robinson, soon evolved into her business, "Literary Affairs."
When she began, people said to her: "Just having coffee klatches - that's not a business."
Today Robinson personally runs 23 book groups a month. She has two people who work for her, and she is training facilitators to lead other groups, such as a kids' group for children, beginning in fourth grade, and a mother/daughter reading group.
Her groups usually have eight to 16 members, however, since Robinson charges by the group, not the person, there are clients who pay for her to have lunch with them and a friend and talk about a novel (that goes for around $250).
In the decade since Robinson launched Literary Affairs, book groups have not only proliferated, but are recognized now as an important way for publishers and authors to market their work. Robinson is now regularly courted by publishers.
The reason is simple: book groups are overwhelmingly female. "Women are the highest percentage of book buyers," Robinson told me. "Even many of the books that men and children read are purchased for them by women."
This is all the more true for literary fiction.
Robinson continues to believe that "the market is out there for fiction." Her attitude is that "Every book is of value for a different reason." Some for the quality of their prose; others for being a window into a different world, and others still for the lessons they impart; Robinson cited, Elif Shafak's "The Bastard of Istanbul" as a book where her readers "learning about the Armenian Genocide" is more than "enough to get from a book."
My friend Teri Hertz, who first told me about Robinson, has been part of a book group for several years that recently turned to Robinson as facilitator. Hertz has been impressed by how creative Robinson is at creating an informed discussion and bringing a book and its subject to life.
Robinson has expanded into doing series at country clubs, where she invites professors to provide context to their readings - she recently hosted a luncheon series on the books of Jane Austen, and this summer several of her groups are going to tackle Tolstoy's epic "War and Peace" over the course of three months.
She leads book groups at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and Sinai Temple. She recently hosted an event where she interviewed Swedish-born author Linda Olsson, author of "Astrid and Veronika" at Lief, a Swedish antique store where Swedish cocktails and appetizers were served. Similarly, she hosted an event at the Italian Cultural Institute for Elizabeth Gilbert's "Eat, Pray, Love." Robinson is constantly evolving the way she can extend the literary experience for her clients and has begun offering literary travel tours as well.
Nevertheless, what Robinson is proudest of is that she created her business as a single mom and has never had to sacrifice her role as a mother. For example, she never set her book group gatherings before 7:30 p.m., so she could be at home for dinner. As her family needs have evolved, she has grown her business.
Robinson believes that, if after attending a book club session she has facilitated "you walk away thinking more ... and if you are more conscious, then I did my job."
To learn more about Robinson, her book clubs and events, or to see her recommended summer reading list, visit http://www.literaryaffairs.net.
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.