SINCE THE town of San Francisco has significantly fewer than 1 million inhabitants, we locals are in the habit of bulking out the urban center by adding in the populations of surrounding cities: Berkeley, Oakland, Palo Alto, and so on. The resulting land mass, known as the San Francisco Bay Area, is presumed to generate enough cultural entities to make us competitive with our neighbors to the south and east. It is this geographical area, then -- familiarly known as simply "the Bay Area" -- from which I send this letter.
One of the distinct features of the local literary scene is the role played by provinciality. There are two schools of thought on this topic: those who feel that the Bay Area is a part of the national or even international literary community and those who view it as a separate, superior entity. As with all superiority complexes, this one has more than a tinge of suspected inferiority; there is a lot of protesting too much among those who say that no literature of any real worth is produced east of Modesto or south of Carmel. Still, the view that San Francisco is a literary world unto itself retains its strong proponents.
The idea began, I suppose, with the Beats of the 1950s, a fast-dwindling group who now reside mainly in New York (at least, I think that's where Allen Ginsberg is now). Locally, their only visible remnants are the coffeehouses of San Francisco's North Beach (where a lot of the patrons appear to be imitating Beat poets, just as the new generation of high-school students imitates '50s clothing and hairstyles) and the famous City Lights bookstore and publishing company, still manfully manned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. However, even City Lights acknowledges the existence of the outside world, publishing (among other things) works by the Tangier expatriate Paul Bowles and the French writer Marguerite Duras.
No, the true inheritors of the Beat provinciality are a different set -- the book reviewers, magazine editors, and small-press publishers who adamantly insist on restricting their purview to writers and books located in the Bay Area. Chief among these is the Bay Area Book Reviewers Association, which each year gives a number of prizes to local books and writers. (As a longtime and constantly squabbling member of this group, I feel I have a right to expose its innate silliness.) Every year BABRA engages in numerous petty discussions as to what constitutes a Bay Area writer: Did Harriet Doehrr complete Stones of Ibarra before moving to Pasadena? Did Denis Johnson write Stars at Noon before arriving in Gualala (and in any case does Gualala, up toward Mendocino, count as part of the Bay Area)? If Vikram Seth was living here when his first book, From Heaven Lake, was published in England, should it be eligible? The ludicrous assumption behind such arguments is that it's desirable to be exclusive -- when in fact, for the purpose of giving literary awards, one does best to accumulate the largest possible group of competitors. BABRA does give one important award each year: the Fred Cody Lifetime Achievement Award, named after a beloved and innovative local bookseller who died of cancer a few years back and awarded thus far to Josephine Miles, Robert Duncan, Wright Morris, and comparable deserving luminaries. But the ceremony at which these awards are presented is so overwhelmingly self-congratulatory, so excessively regional, that one Berkeley poet whispered to me during last year's event: "Next year I think we should all wear 'I Love New York' buttons."
OTHER organizations which concentrate their efforts locally are Poetry Flash (a newsletter of poetry events in the Bay Area), Zyzzyva (a literary magazine which publishes exclusively West Coast writers), and the book section of the San Francisco Chronicle, which, though required to cover major writers like Cynthia Ozick and Saul Bellow, prefers to devote much of its attention to local and even small-press publications. In comparison to the big-bucks exclusivity of certain East Coast publications, this attitude is of course commendable; but it does result in rather a skewed view of what's being written out there.
On the other hand, plenty of Bay Area literary groups persist in believing that there is a world beyond our own immediate region. The San Francisco State Poetry Center, for instance, this year imported Salman Rushdie, Doris Lessing and Adam Zagajewski to speak and read to local audiences. A more extensive series of literary lectures, run by Sydney Goldstein (a native San Franciscan) and her City Arts & Lectures organization, brings in such speakers as Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, V.S. Naipaul, Stephen Jay Gould, Ned Rorem and Mary McCarthy. Meanwhile, Black Oak Books, a relatively new Berkeley bookstore, offers a series of free readings that in the last few months has included Louise Erdrich, Virgil Thomson, Vikram Seth, Frederick Crews, Harold Brodkey, Grace Paley, Oliver Sacks, and other notables, both local and imported.
Nor are local publishers exclusively interested in local writers. North Point Press, it is true, devotes a good portion of its list to established California writers like Evan Connell and Gary Snyder; but it also publishes Stanley Cavell, Wendell Berry, Rainer Maria Rilke, Hermann Broch, assorted Japanese poets, and others dead or distant. The University of California and Stanford University presses, while focusing strongly on their own faculty members, also bring out first-rate books by academics across the country. The Arion Press, run by Andrew Hoyem in San Francisco, produces a series of beautiful, imaginatively conceived fine press editions that features artists like Jim Dine and Michael Graves, writers like John Ashbery and Herman Melville -- hardly a crowd that one would normally find lunching at Enrico's (the old San Francisco hangout where the likes of Francis Coppola and George Lucas can still occasionally be seen). And there are numerous small magazines in the Bay Area -- including The Threepenny Review (which I edit and therefore the less said, the better) and Occident (produced on the UC Berkeley campus) that pride themselves on publishing writers from all over the world. This internationalism is supported and reflected by the tone of the West branch office of PEN (Poets, Editors and Novelists, the world organization of literary writers), which focuses mainly on issues of translation.
In one respect, at least -- its possession of internationally respected poets -- the Bay Area can't help but be a part of the larger literary community. If you stand on any high location around here -- Coit Tower, say, or the Berkeley Campanile -- and throw a pebble, you will almost certainly bean one of the major poets of the 20th century. In San Francisco, you might hit Robert Duncan, Thom Gunn, Carl Rakosi, Michael McClure, Edith Jenkins, or August Kleinzahler; in Palo Alto, you could get Janet Lewis, W.W. Di Piero, Al Young, and so on. In Berkeley, your victims could include Czeslaw Milosz, Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky (why are so many modern poets called Robert?), Gary Soto, Stephen Mitchell, Anne Winters, Brenda Hillman, and Jim Powell. Some of these (like the last three) are on only their first or second book; others (like Gunn and Duncan) are routinely taught in poetry courses. But all of them contribute to a sense that the San Francisco Bay Area is -- if not the only literary scene in the world -- certainly a thriving part of that larger world.
Wendy Lesser is the author of "The Life Below the Ground: A Study of the Subterranean in Literature and History," forthcoming this fall.