Conference will examine state's literary identity

Conference will examine state’s literary identity

Insularity might be the one thing San Francisco and writing communities generally have most in common. Once we belong, we have everything we need: a beautiful place with a rich culture, an audience to both support and inspire.

But a shared insularity is just one of the things that might bring us together. Historian William Deverell and book critic David Ulin have teamed up with the San Francisco and Los Angeles public library systems and select members of each city’s respective literati to organize a two-part conference with the aim of examining California identity and how it relates to an overarching California literary tradition.

As Deverell said by phone, “We’re all part of a kind of literary community that may have some very particular California features to it, and it makes sense to try to figure those out.”

“Part of this was: What’s the pulse?” he explained. “And also, ‘Can’t we just get past the Us vs. Them stuff?’ “

That last question might refer to the seemingly endless efforts on the part of both parties to distinguish themselves – from the rest of the literary landscape, but also from each other, as if to say, “San Francisco is California writing,” or “Los Angeles is California writing.” Citizens of both cities are so full of pride for our location, and that pride might make us shortsighted.

Deverell’s intention – and that of his partners – is to bring us all together to discuss the larger picture.

“We could have organized the conference around a real historical take and then tried to come up to the present, but we thought we would, in the end, do that in a sort of thin way, so that didn’t make sense,” he says. “What we wanted to do was really work with contemporary literary figures and get them in dialogue with one another. We thought that was a deeper way to go about this.”

The first part of the conference, which will take place Friday and Saturday in San Francisco, features panels and discussions with figures including Will Hearst, chairman of the board of the Hearst Corporation; Phil Bronstein, executive chair of the board of the Center for Investigative Reporting; and a list of luminaries that includes Armistead Maupin, Dana Gioia, Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Tobias Wolff, Ellen Ullman and Karen Tei Yamashita.

Topics will include the changing state of publishing in California and beyond; discussions on Northern Californian literary traditions; writing about, in, and on San Francisco, and how it relates to other Northern California output; and the impact of California writing on the rest of the country.

There’s no telling what might come out of this conference, but Deverell and Ulin are thinking big.

“Could you do this for the American West?” Deverell asked. “Could you say, ‘Where does California fit in to the western American literary conversation these days?’ Could you do a conference about the western literary landscape and have people from a variety of sites across the west? That would be really fun.”

This second part of the conference will take place in February in Los Angeles. Go to for more information and for a schedule of this weekend’s events.


Tales From Two Cities: Writing for Change: 1-5:30 p.m. Friday, 9:15 a.m-5 p.m. Saturday. Free. San

This article originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.

Photo by Christopher Turner