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10 Contemporary Californian Writers To Know

Picture of Will Howard
Updated: 13 June 2016
‘California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things better work here, because here, beneath the immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent,’ writes Joan Didion of her home state. Take a look at this list of other great, living California writers – these other troubled minds.

Leslie Jamison

Jamison was raised in Los Angeles, a city whose poverty and violence stricken neighborhoods make an appearance in her first book of essays, The Empathy Exams. True to its name, the book asks crucial questions about a nebulous topic that gets talked about a lot, though rarely interrogated with the kind of rigor and precision Jamison achieves. In pieces that pivot back and forth adroitly between reportage, literary analysis, and memoir, she never pretends to know everything. Though she draws from a wide scope of references, she often pleas ignorance and suggests we do the same. ‘Empathy,’ she writes, ‘requires knowing that you know nothing.’ Her tone of uncertainty isn’t just a rhetorical move; it’s a profoundly human gesture.

Leslie Jamison's The Empathy Exams (2014) | Courtesy of Graywolf Press

Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams (2014) | Courtesy of Graywolf Press

William Vollmann

Vollmann is a novelist, short story writer, journalist, and essayist. Many of his works concern violence, particularly war. He described his novel Europe Central, for which he won the National Book Award for Fiction, as ‘a series of parables about famous, infamous and anonymous European moral actors at moments of decision.’ The Times Literary Supplement called the novel ‘cinematic in scope, epic in ambition and continuously engaging, show[ing] that he is one of the most important and fascinating writers of our time.’

Europe Central By William Vollmann (2005) | Courtesy of Viking Press

Europe Central By William Vollmann (2005) | Courtesy of Viking Press

Maggie Nelson

Nelson’s most recent book, The Argonauts, is a memoir concerning her love of trans* artist Harry Dodge and their shared parenthood. In the book, Nelson probes ideas of queerness and normalcy. She uses literary and art criticism to get at the personal. ‘Because in my experience,’ she explained in an interview with the LA Review of Books, ‘if you resolve the aesthetic issues in any given piece, you’ve also worked out the psychological ones, albeit through the back door.’ Her impressive erudition is softened by her emotional generosity and brief, well-timed moments of sentimentality. She has written several other works of nonfiction as well as poetry.

Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts (2015) | Courtesy of Graywolf Press

Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015) | Courtesy of Graywolf Press

Fred Moten

Moten’s poems are dazzling nuggets of singsong. His latest book of poems, The Feel Trio, was nominated for the National Book Award for Poetry. The book often combines the autobiographical and the political. It ends: ‘when the water come I come to the unprotected surge / and division in my old-new sound booth. I am fmoten.’ Moten also writes about black art and culture. His latest project, for which he received a Guggenheim Fellowship, is Hesitant Sociology: Blackness and Poetry, an ‘examination of the social poetics of Afro-diasporic literature and cinema whose form seeks to refuse the distinction between verse and prose.’

Fred Moten's The Feel Trio (2014) | Courtesy of Letter Machine Editions

Fred Moten’s The Feel Trio (2014) | Courtesy of Letter Machine Editions

Joan Didion

Didion is the quintessential California writer. Raised in the San Joaquin Valley, Didion has written extensively about the state’s strangeness, beauty, and self-spun mythology. In Where I Was From, a book about California that mixes journalism and memoir, Didion writes about the disparateness pervading California culture: ‘Not much about California, on its own preferred terms, has encouraged its children to see themselves as connected to one another.’ She won the National Book Award for Nonfiction for The Year of Magical Thinking, which recounts the year following the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne. In 2012, President Obama awarded her the National Medal of Arts and the National Humanities Medal.

The Year of Magical Thinking | © Courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf publishing

The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) | © Courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf publishing

Dave Eggers

There seems to be nothing this San Francisco transplant can’t do. His books consistently top best-seller lists. His memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-fiction, recounts the death of his parents at an early age and his struggle to be both a brother and a parent to his little brother. He also founded the publishing house McSweeney’s, which publishes books as well as two literary magazines, and the literacy project 826 Valencia.

Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000) | Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000) | Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Rebecca Solnit

A San Francisco native, Rebecca Solnit writes about the environment, politics, place, art, and loss. She’s a regular contributor to Harper’s, where she is the first woman to regularly write the Easy Chair column founded in 1851. Her book River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological American West, which is part biography of the inventor of high-speed motion photography and part history of technology in the West, was honored with a National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. Her essay ‘Men Explains Things to Me’ is credited with having inspired the coining of the portmanteau ‘mansplaining.’

Rebecca Solnit's River of Shadows (2004) | Courtesy of Viking Press

Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows (2004) | Courtesy of Viking Press

Rigoberto Gonzalez

Gonzalez may be the best queer Chicano author alive. His memoir Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa, which was honored with the American Book Award, recounts his life as a gay, poor, Chicano immigrant growing up in the 1980s. The poems in his collection So Often the Pitcher Goes to Water Until it Breaks are narrative based and bloom with sensory detail. Pretty things are his obsession, he revealed in an interview with PEN America: ‘Perhaps because I grew up in extreme poverty, I reach for the shiny things in real life – ties, shoes, cufflinks. Each becomes a kind of symbol for desire, my hard-won journey out of loneliness, dearth.’

Rigoberto Gonzalez' Butterfly Boy (2006) | Courtesy of University of Wisconsin Press

Rigoberto Gonzalez’ Butterfly Boy (2006) | Courtesy of University of Wisconsin Press

Tracy K Smith

Smith’s 2011 poetry collection, Life on Mars, imagines ‘a sci-fi future sucked clean of any real dangers, contemplates the dark matter that keeps people both close and distant, and revisits the kitschy concepts like ‘love’ and ‘illness’ now relegated to the Museum of Obsolescence,’ in her publisher’s words. Her memoir, Ordinary Life, about faith, the death of her mother, and race was nominated for a National Book Award for Nonfiction. In the book, she uses the language of religion to describe her poetry writing experience: ‘‘Write this,’ the poem would sometimes consent to say, and I’d revel in a joy to rival the saints’ that Poetry – this mysterious presence I talked about and professed belief in – might truly be real.’

Tracy K. Smith's Life on Mars (2011) | Courtesy of Graywolf Press

Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars (2011) | Courtesy of Graywolf Press

Frank Bidart

Bidart’s most recent collection of poems, Metaphysical Dog, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. ‘The forceful starkness in Bidart’s usual style – almost no description, few overt euphonies, plenty of repetition – fits characters who try to test, or reject, or escape, the limits of the merely physical, describable world. Most of all they are trying to get out of their bodies,’ wrote the New York Times of the book. Part of this escapist determination involves not just art but sex: Someone wanted more from that bed / than was found there. / Name the bed that’s not true of.’

Frank Bidarts Metaphysical Dog 2013) | Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Frank Bidarts Metaphysical Dog 2013) | Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

By Will Howard