October 20, 2018

Another Successful Chapter in Book Festival Legacy

We Jews like to be called “People of the Book.” Although I didn’t take a census or a poll, I imagine there were many of us in the big crowds on the USC campus for the 20th annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books last weekend.

I ran into many I knew as I wandered through the rows of exhibit booths, stopping at several, including that of the Consulate General of Israel. The campus was packed. Sometimes it was difficult to maneuver from one booth to another as I contemplated books to buy or authors and reviewers to hear.

In a time when momentum is shifting to the Internet and big and small bookstores are closing, the very future of print is in doubt among some of the deep thinkers of the media world. So it was absolutely great to see another year of huge and enthusiastic festival crowds.

The Times’ decision to move the festival from UCLA to USC a few years ago has energized the event. Just as the paper had hoped, the change of venue brought in people much more diverse than the predominantly white, Westside people who had made up most of the UCLA crowd. Latinos, African-Americans, Asian-Americans and whites at USC have given the event a real L.A. look. And the Westsiders actually crossed La Cienega to get there.

True, there were many signs of the changing book environment. The most important trend was the large number of exhibition booths for small publishing houses, most of which didn’t exist a few years ago.

The book business has changed rapidly. The growth of small publishers has been just as significant as the closing of bookstores. A half-century ago, publishing companies were, for the most part, independent enterprises run by strong-minded publishers with definite tastes and staffed by influential editors who understood how to shape a book. These old companies have merged into multinationals and downsized. The old editors have been replaced by overloaded freelancers who work on contract. They and the literary agents, who serve as industry gatekeepers, go for sure-fire best-sellers, home runs. They’re not interested in the author with modest sales potential — a singles or doubles hitter — or in helping to develop young writers in the way that publishers used to do.

But writers must write. In the old days, some would self-publish, paying large amounts to a company to print their books. Without a distribution system, the books would often molder in a basement or garage, except for those given away to relatives. The Internet, Amazon and the rise of the e-book have made publishing and distribution inexpensive. It democratized the business and opened the door for many writers, long ignored by the publishing establishment, to find publishers, either through Amazon or through the small houses — known as “indies” — I saw exhibiting at the festival.

My most memorable experience — one I won’t forget — was my hourlong conversation with former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan on the stage of USC’s Norris Auditorium, during which we talked about his new book, “The Mayor.”

I’ve known Riordan for years. He was one of my favorite subjects when I was a Times columnist. He’s a quirky, intelligent man with a certain folksy charisma and an ability to focus in on a few important matters.  

His eight years in office were successful. But our relationship wasn’t. I was too liberal for him, and too critical. When I criticized him in my column, he’d call my home early in the morning to complain. “It’s the mayor, again,” my wife, Nancy, would say, calling me to the phone. Riordan and I would argue about the column, neither of us giving an inch. One day, I really raked him over. I answered the phone. “I read your column,” he said. I prepared for another argument. “You were right,” he said.

With this history, I knew my conversation with him would be one tough hour. He’d try to push me around. I’d push back. He’d try to run things. But I was going to be in charge, or the session wouldn’t work. I was nervous all morning in anticipation.

Riordan’s book is remarkably frank about his personal life, which helps make it a good read. He includes the tragic deaths of a son and a daughter, broken marriages, extramarital affairs and drinking. Drink led to two driving-under-the-influence arrests and another for interfering with police who were trying to arrest a friend of his in a bar.

“That sounds like a bar fight,” I said.

“It was,” Riordan replied.

I wondered why he was so frank. Why, I asked, did you include stuff most politicians would duck? He said it was because he was secure with himself and thought the readers deserved a complete and honest look at him. In that spirit, he told an amusing story about visiting the Jewish Home for seniors in Reseda when he was mayor. As he walked down a hallway, he encountered a woman who seemed to be in her 90s. They talked. He asked her if she knew who he was.

Sympathetically viewing him as lost, she said she would take him to the desk and the people there would help him remember his name.

During our hour together, Riordan and I covered a lot of ground. He talked about how he handled the earthquake, fires and other disasters during his reign.  The audience, which filled most of the auditorium, seemed to enjoy the way we needled one another. We put on a good show. He was rewarded afterward when people lined up to buy autographed copies of his book.

That was happening throughout USC over the weekend — women, men, boys and girls of different ethnicities and classes, all of them “People of the Book.”

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for the Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).