On Dec. 4, 1988, I stopped feeling ashamed about being a Southern Californian with literary aspirations who lived in Manhattan. California was a joke to literary New Yorkers; it was, as Joan Didion once put it, a place where it was “easy to Dial-a-Devotion but hard to buy a book.” On that fateful day, however, Carolyn See — a critic, novelist, nonfiction writer and Californian, who died Wednesday — cut through all the New York-centric pretense. She made it cool to be an outsider.
In The Washington Post, where she was a regular reviewer, she took aim at a coffee table book glamorizing a collection of 500 plastic purses amassed by Robert Gottlieb, the former editor in chief at Knopf and then editor of the New Yorker, and the most revered tastemaker in Manhattan. See wrote what every literary person thought but lacked the nerve to express: “Mr. Gottlieb, somebody should have discouraged you from this project.” It’s okay to have a hobby, but the “solemn scholarship” in the introduction (which she quotes at length) reads like “a bad term paper.” And what does it mean when a famous editor signs off on a bad term paper? “When we subscribe to The New Yorker,” she asks, “to what, exactly, are we subscribing?”
Who dares to say such things?
“Doesn’t it seem strange,” See continues, “doesn’t it take even the word weird back a whole giant step to its original meaning of ‘fateful destiny,’ that it falls to an obscure lady in West-Coast Topanga Canyon (home of hippies, beehives, right-wing maniacs, aura-readers and even Charles Manson for a while) to get to tell the most august arbiter of American East-Coast style that he’s nuts?”
In her 27 years at The Post, See herself became an arbiter — but always one a reader could trust. She wasn’t cowed by fame or seduced by hype. If a famous person wrote a good book, she said so. She didn’t feel compelled to tear down established authors. Likewise, if she felt strongly about a small book (as she did with one of mine before we became more than epistolary friends), she championed it. During her 82 years, she wrote seven novels, which often dealt with California and touched many lives. Yet her nonfiction was what spoke to me most.
Her two major nonfiction books — “Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America” and “Making a Literary Life” have a common thread: dignifying the outsider and providing a road map to a better life. “Dreaming” is a black-comic memoir about escaping a booze-soaked childhood. Her dad, a hard-drinking journalist, got sober through Alcoholics Anonymous and married “AA royalty” — one of the people featured in the “They Nearly Lost All” biographies in AA’s “Big Book.” But her own “recovery” had not 12 steps but one: get an education, even if you have to scrape by to do so.
“Making a Literary Life” shows outsiders a path to publication and warns them to lower their expectations. Writers need to surround themselves with people who give them unconditional support — the sort she received from her cherished companion, John Espey. But the book’s ending is bittersweet. Espey died in 2000, and See describes learning again to function alone.
As a UCLA professor, See mentored many writers, only some of whom were officially her students. She didn’t sneer when I announced — in my 50s — that I was getting an MFA and that I wanted to write my thesis about her. She offered to help — as soon as she was discharged from the hospital where she had spent the previous two months fighting an infection. She had no time for journalism. But if I needed to interview her for a degree, she would drag herself out of bed.
We spoke for hours, beneath two huge, vertical black-and-white portraits of her daughters: Lisa See, a best-selling novelist, and Clara Sturak, whose vocation from a young age, her mother said, has been to “help disabled people.” They were painted in the 1970s by Don Bachardy, novelist Christopher Isherwood’s longtime companion and a resident of Santa Monica, where See moved after Espey died.
Some things she said surprised me. The woman who stood up to the Manhattan literary establishment had once known fear. A publisher pressed her to write about Linda Kasabian, the Manson family member who turned state’s evidence in the 1970-1971 Tate and LaBianca murder trials. So she and her daughters visited Kasabian in her dusty New Hampshire cabin. “I got scared to death because she was obviously so bats,” See said. When Kasabian asked them to spend the night, they ran: “We stopped at the first motel we could find and put chairs under the doors.”
Yet Topanga Canyon, with its rattlesnakes and wildfires, does not radiate safety. “It’s scary to live up there,” she said. “But it’s capable of being very beautiful. I’ve been wondering about that just in general, the beauty in savagery. I know now that my family when I was growing up was savage. Because we came from savage beginnings. Even though we came from two of the oldest families in America. We date from 1620. We may be the oldest failed family in America.”
“Dreaming” charts these savage beginnings and takes a dim view of the religious language in AA that allowed her father to rise above them. Yet “Making a Literary Life” ends on an almost theological note: “We live in a beautiful, sentient universe that yearns for you to tell the truth about it.”
A sentient universe. What changed?
“That does sound pretty theological,” she said. “But it’s not a stretch. You just go outside and look at the palm trees. They’re breathing and they’re alive. It’s not a question of faith. It’s a question of noticing.”