Wake Up, Angelenos

Friday night, I’m at the Los Angeles Times Book Awards reception downtown. It is, quite appropriately, given the number of newspaper writers and staffers who have lost their jobs in recent times, a smaller, much less lavish affair than in years past. Instead of 1,200 guests, about 300 have been invited; instead of Royce Hall, the venue is an auditorium in the Times building on West First Street. Sometime during the affair I find myself standing next to a tallish woman before a display of cheese and crackers, miniscule lamb chops and something that looks like Japanese noodles piled delicately in a small, crispy shell. I overhear one of the organizers tell the woman, “The food worked out well,” which to me implies she had something to do with it. Thinking I’m making cocktail-party small talk (as opposed to negotiating TARP, for instance), I ask the woman if she planned the menu. Her eyes grow wide in horror.

“Planned the menu?” she repeats, as if each word had been fished out of the depths of a swine-filled gutter. There’s enough disdain in her eyes to warrant 12 years of therapy from this night on, just so I can recover my self-esteem.

“Yeah,” I shrug, “you know, planned the menu. Like, decided what to serve.”

She stares at me for what must be 15 minutes.

“I’m an EVENT organizer,” she finally says, as if the event in question were the parting of the Red Sea. “I organize events.” 

She sounds like she gave up planning Obama’s inauguration in favor of this party, or that planning the inauguration is a more important job than the presidency itself. It doesn’t surprise me, of course, this being a town where parties have a whole different meaning from everywhere else. Any polite person in my place would apologize for ignorance, express sincere hopes that she hadn’t insulted the event planner by assuming she was a mere caterer, and spent the rest of the evening kicking herself for having displayed how far off the range of “cool” she was.

“Oh,” I say, “so you did plan the menu.”

Is it just Los Angeles, or do people everywhere have a sense of self-importance that moves in reverse correlation to their level of intelligence?

Three feet away from the party planner, a small, slender woman with birdlike features stands with a couple, talking about books. She has a shrill voice and she doesn’t mind projecting it, so I have no trouble discerning that every other word out of her mouth is an “I.” She’s an Armenian writer who lives in Los Angeles, and something about all this must make her feel uniquely — what? Unique? — because she’s managed to publish a couple of novels that (unlike the other 300,000 new books published in this country last year) should have taken the world by storm, but — due to the innate stupidity of the reading public and the general illiteracy of critics — didn’t. Just then, a man approaches her enthusiastically to say he’s a fan. She likes this, but not enough to extend more than a curt “Thank you” before going back to her original audience of two. The man persists. He says that he, too, is a writer. He says he lives in Oregon. Then he says his name. She turns her lips up and shrugs.

“Never heard of you,” she says. 

Call me petty if you must, but for some time now I’ve been hoping that all the current trouble in the world — global warming, economy, war … you know — will inspire in the average Angeleno an awareness of just how relatively small and inconsequential many of our Most Important People, and issues, and accomplishments, really are.

Getting a book published; planning parties; Angelina Jolie’s adoption habits. Hiring the most expensive decorator in town; buying the most expensive clothes at Neiman Marcus; working for minimum wage at Neiman Marcus so you can deride customers who can’t afford $1,200 blouses and $3,000 bags. Designing those $3,000 bags. Being Angelina Jolie. Being Angelina Jolie’s agent, or personal trainer, or dog walker.

It’s not just our celebrity culture, or our materialism, or our appreciation for beauty at all costs that has become increasingly bizarre in the face of such greater, more imminent realities; it’s our belief in our own individual significance to the world, the idea that it should be watching us instead of us watching it, that we should inspire awe — with our talent, money, ingenuity, cheese display — instead of kindness, or humility, or unity. It’s our assumption (let’s be honest here, which one would you rather grill about her work?) that a celebrity event planner is of greater cosmic consequence than the social worker who helps crazy people off the streets of downtown.

In between the event planner and the writer who doesn’t know the guy from Oregon, a tall, middle-aged woman with gray hair and a gray scarf stands alone, clutching a book to her chest. When I introduce myself to her, she feels compelled to do the same. She says her name is Marilyn; she writes books. “I know,” I say, “the one in your hand just won the Fiction Prize.”

Her name is Marilyn Robinson. Her first novel, “Housekeeping,” is a modern classic. Her second novel, “Gilead,” won the Pulitzer Prize. She’s from Sioux City, Iowa.

Not that I could idealize Iowa even if I wanted to, or that I believe for a second that people there are, at their core, any different from people anywhere else, but I’ll bet in Iowa a writer is just that — someone who writes.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.