Words Worthy

By Catherine Bigelow

Waxing poetic over the time of his life in the city that ignited his acclaim, playwright William Saroyan famously penned: “San Francisco itself is art, above all literary art. Every block is a short story, every hill a novel. Every home a poem, every dweller within immortal. That is the whole truth.”

The truth is, also, New York still reigns as the white-hot center of the publishing world. But San Francisco ain’t no slouch. Our fair City by the Bay remains a communal haven of succor and engagement for writers, indie bookstores, poets and publishers. Tales of San Francisco’s rough-and-tumble town were told by swashbuckling reporters Ambrose Bierce and Mark Twain. Ina Coolbrith, the first California poet laureate and librarian of the men-only Bohemian Club, mentored Jack London. Literary lion Lawrence Ferlinghetti unleashed a “Howl” of beatniks: Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Diane di Prima.

Yet this heritage is not fossilized in amber. From City Lights Bookstore, ZYZZYVA, Chronicle Books and Crown Point Press to literary events produced by Porchlight, Literary Death Match, Alta Magazine Book Club and Litquake, which concluded its annual festival last month, the literary beat by the Bay goes on.

Litquake’s origin story is the stuff of legend: Over drinks at the now-closed (sigh) Edinburgh Castle, journalists turned authors Jane Ganahl and Jack Boulware were inspired by bartender-poet Alan Black, who encouraged writers to read works at the bar.

So Ganahl and Boulware put on their own show 21 years ago in Golden Gate Park, with a four-hour fest of readings by 22 authors atop the Music Concourse Bandshell stage. And 400 bookworms shivered joyfully in the fog.

Litquake is now a West Coast literary extravaganza, spanning 10 days of 850 author reading sunspooling in quirky venues (bookstores, bars, barbershops, even laundromats) coupled with kids-and-adult writing seminars, musical hootenannies, slam poetry and Lit Crawl, a boozy walk-about of readings among Mission District dives.

Though this damn virus won’t let us enjoy nice things, Litquake salvaged its 2020 season last month with incorporeality (I’m weary of typing the V-word, OK?) on live Zooms and its YouTube and Facebook channels.

Opening night with authors Amy Tan and Kevin Kwan (Crazy Rich Asians) raised $900 for the literary nonprofit. But the balance sheet was unburdened by venue rentals or printing costs. And the festival was streamlined to just 150 authors.

“Previously, we’d plan 80 events on a Tuesday in Oakland, Marin and San Francisco,” says Boulware of the festival’s typical reach, which has also extended to the Peninsula and South Bay. “But that’s impossible on Zoom. This year was a focused curation.”

And their usual Litquake commute of racing around to events was simplified. Ganahl, Boulware and Litquake Deputy Director Graham Todd hunkered at home, hosting readings from their screens.

“I was intoxicated by growing from 22 authors to 50, to 75, then 800. But bigger doesn’t make you more successful,” admits Ganahl. “This year, our main concern was everyone’s safety. That provided an unintended opportunity to reset Litquake.”

The online shift also yielded a pleasant surprise: Only 50 percent of Litquakers were Bay Area–based. The rest beamed in from around the globe.

“City Lights’ presentation of Juan Felipe Herrera (the nation’s first Latino poet laureate) with Pulitzer Prize–winner Jericho Brown was mind-blowing,” enthused Ganahl. “Readings in a hot, sweaty audience while drinking cocktails is fun. But poetry is so personal, with a gut-level impact. So to be home, focused on Herrera’s meaningful words, felt good.”

Boulware developed an online author bookstore, with Litquake author works supplied by local indie bookstores, an industry hit hard by the COVID crisis.

“The first months of lockdown were difficult for our younger employees, many of whom live alone. They felt really isolated,” explains Paul Yamazaki, City Lights’ head book buyer. “My generation is sheltering more to protect our health. But social media is not my strong point. So I really miss sitting at Specs’ or Vesuvio’s and talking books with friends at the bar.”

City Lights reopened in June. And nationally (according to NPD Book Scan results reported by the American Booksellers Association), book sales are up 6 percent over last year. However, not all is rosy: Last month, ABA promoted #BoxedOut, a design installation mounted at independent bookstores illustrating the damage inflicted upon mom-and-pop retailers when readers buy their books from Amazon.

“People may not realize the cost and consequences of ‘convenience’ shopping until it’s too late,” reads a statement from ABA CEO Allison Hill. “Since the COVID-19 crisis began, more than one indie bookstore a week has closed.”

“The big publishing houses will survive, certainly,” says John McMurtrie, a former San Francisco Chronicle book editor now serving as editor of the new online California Book Club. “I’m more concerned about small independent presses and the distribution system, including bookstores.”

The book club is a project of The Journal of Alta California, a quarterly magazine launched three years ago by publisher Will Hearst. That’s complemented by the journal’s dynamic online presence (, which boasts a devotion to literature and author readings.

A free online hub held every third Thursday, California Book Club is hosted by author-editor John Freeman, a native Californian. It evolved from an Alta essay written by Freeman, calling for a new canon of literature focused on works by California writers or writers with a bead on our state.

His October conversation featured C Pam Zhang and her debut novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold. Zhang was recently nominated by the Center for Fiction as a finalist for its First Novel Prize, which is announced in December.

Oscar Villalon, managing director of ZYZZYVA, is also troubled by the precarious state of independent book-stores: “We’re all in a state of flux as indies struggle. If they continue to close, we have less venues to sell and reach our audience.”

Founded in 1985 by Howard Junker, ZYZZYVA (in some dictionaries, that is the last word) is a quarterly print publication with a circulation of 3,200, and an online readership of more than 10,000. Led by editor Laura Cogan, ZYZZYVA publishes contemporary works by West Coast scribes, new voices as well as writers of color — all for just a $42 annual subscription.

If one ever doubted San Francisco’s lit life is an interdependent web, Villalon is also a former Chronicle book editor. He and Yamazaki serve on McMurtrie’s selection panel for the California Book Club. And the offices of Litquake and ZYZZYVA are located in the Mechanics’ Institute Library building, where ZYZZYVA receives a minimum of 10 submissions per day. But authors, take note: To avoid an online tsunami, ZYZZYVA only accepts hard-copy material sent via the U.S. Postal Service.

A Tale of Three Cities

These storytellers each have a unique vantage point on the place they have called home. Thankfully, they have told them in these new releases.


Self-published; The Outsider Agency; $10 on Amazon

This slim 47-page paperback by authors Carolyn Terry and Alan Black, with graphic illustrations by James Wight, is a quick yet unabashed dive — via Terry’s reportage and Black’s poetic vignettes — of living and working in the nitty-gritty Tenderloin. Terry, a sort of modern-day Mae West and queen of the bohemian nightlife scene, became friends with Black when the Scotsman managed the Edinburgh Castle. The bar was located across the street from the historic Castle Apartments, where, for the last 26 years, Terry has had a front-row view below to Geary Street, which pulsates with a rotating cast of addicts, hustlers, trannies, dealers and down-and-outers who live their pain out loud. The idea to combine their shared T’loin experiences hatched early in our COVID lockdown. Alas, the health pandemic has only multiplied their material: the duo are working on a longer volume.

The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard

W.W. Norton; $35

Though author John Birdsall recently moved to Tucson, Arizona, he completed his much-buzzed-about book as a longtime resident of Oakland. For many, James Beard is remembered as a gurehead of the culinary awards given in his name. But he was a towering figure who transformed the American culinary scene with his writing, reviews, restaurant and cooking school. Birdsall, too, is a former chef, SF Weekly food blog editor and two-time James Beard Award winner, recognized for his cultural-culinary freelance writing (America, Your Food Is So Gay). But Birdsall’s latest is no Beard hagiography. His own experience as a gay man working amid the macho world of chefs informs Birdsall’s warts-and-all portrait of Beard, a closeted gay man who juggled fame, the use of fresh local ingredients and identity in midcentury America.

The Favorite

Golden Antelope Press; $15.95

Though she is a lifelong published poet, Sausalito resident Lucinda Watson has officially released her inaugural collection of 63 poems. Like most practitioners of this art form, she admits her work is somewhat autobiographical. But, she says, the lines are also imbued with the thoughts and feelings of a young woman “experiencing the world, dealing with disappointments and coming to terms with life” — and what it is to be a daughter, a woman, a lover, a grandmother. Watson, a granddaughter of IBM founder Thomas Watson, has devoted herself to exploring the world beyond the charmed life into which she was born: She is a philanthropist who’s served on the Asia Foundation and Hospitality House and taught communications skills to MBA graduates at the Haas School of Business.

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