San Francisco Stories: The literary life - Page 2

On our 46th anniversary, we tell tales of the city

This week's cover poem by Alejandro Murguia

The Guardian was always more of a reporter's paper than a writer's paper — we wanted news, facts, information more than we wanted flair. And that's as it should be in a newspaper. But we've also always appreciated the local literary scene, and have always been a place where young (and old) writers could find their voices and tell stories.

Now the paper's under new ownership, and for our birthday, we contacted some of the best writers we could find in town and asked them to tell us their San Francisco story. What is the city's literary narrative? What, to use a horrible cliché, do we talk about when we talk about San Francisco?

I'm not surprised that some of what we got was about rent — about the fact that nobody like us can live here anymore without rent control, that the housing crisis brought on by the latest tech boom has made it a terribly unfriendly city for writers.

But they also talked about beauty and passion and the reasons that, despite it all, we remain.


One day after I'd been in San Francisco a few years, my brother called me from Boulder, Colorado, where he'd enrolled as a University of Colorado student. "I can't stand it here," he said. "There aren't any fucking problems."

Yep — everyone he saw in Boulder was rich and white and clean and educated and healthy. He dropped out pretty quickly, and went back to his America, where it's nasty and you fight for every scrap and life sucks and then you die — but along the way, you meet the greatest people in the world and you live and love and get in some awesome kicks.

Me, I stayed in my city, a place worth fighting for.

I spent my childhood and college years in New York and Connecticut; I grew up in San Francisco. This is my place in the world, and, as the late great John D. MacDonald said of Florida, "It is where I am and where I will stay, right up to the point where the Neptune Society sprinkles me into the dilute sewage off the Fun Coast."

And for better and for worse, San Francisco is a great story, a world of love and hope and fear and greed and all these people who wake up every morning and try to make it and the world a better place, often against the greatest possible odds.

Herb Caen said it once: "Love makes this town go 'round. Love and hate, pot and booze, despair and buckets of coffee, most of it stale." We are strange, and we are proud, and we are freaks, and while our local politicians try to tamp us down and make us normal, the rest of the world treats us as special because of who and what we are.

We are immigrants, most of us, and we all love the city we once knew, and those of us who have been here a while are the worst kind of radicals, the ones who hate change ... but inside us, inside the ones who know and care and believe, there's a heartbeat that says: We have something special here, and part of it comes from tradition, and part of it comes from the shabby underclass side of life, from the fight against greed and landlords and smart-eyed speculators who want to charge for what San Francisco once gave away free.

And that's a kind of style and class that doesn't fit into anyone's portfolio of stock options.

I can talk about policy options all night. It's a disease you get when writing becomes journalism and the fight goes out of the pen in your hand and into the pen where the decisions that change your life get made. I could tell you a thousand ways that San Francisco can stop becoming a city of the rich and too fucking cool for words and could give a little, tiny bit of its soul to the population that made it great.

I could say that the booms that ruined so much of this city's crazy madness would never have happened without the Beats and the Summer of Love, and that we ought to honor our ancestors — even if it means the newcomers have to do what everyone else did, and live a little lower for a while.


This is dross. Guess what…all the beat artists and writers who ‘went before us’ are now landlords in the pandhandle and leasing out their non-rent controlled places while enjoying their spreads in Sonoma. The fact is there are struggling writers out there in San Francisco who are finding ways to make it work despite the high costs.
The fact is you can’t see it- since you’re not 22 anymore. Another thing is it’s a digital world and anyone can publish anything with little or no costs and still have thousands read it.
It sucks for print, but it’s true. Enjoy your whiskey.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 18, 2012 @ 7:42 am

'the rest is dross.' But I'll hazard to say that your poorly-selected Pound allusion probably fell on deaf ears.

First, I have to point out that most of the Beat Generation is dead, and consequently probably not in possession of the pretty little Victorians on the Panhandle.

Secondly, I'm getting tired of hearing this malarkey about internet publishing. I have doubts - billowing, ballooning, speculative doubts - about the internet giving us anything of aesthetic value when it comes to Literature with A Big L. The internet will give us a couple novelties, and a whole slew of cultural artifacts that *are* aesthetically interesting. Web comics. YouTube video series. Webisodes.

But not poetry. Not the novel. In fact, some corners of the internet seem hell-bent on killing the English language as we know it - not glorifying it. It's reductive, telegraphic, limiting, narrowing. What doesn't fit in a Tweet is too long. What doesn't cause a conversion is 'useless.' What gathers the most clicks, what gets the most attention after being put out in the market place of attention (the internet) is what wins out.

I half wonder if the universe will just collapse in on itself out of irony. E-publishing makes it so that, at last, art has become the perfect commodity. To think, artists across the planet struggled for years to keep it from happening, but I guess if the supply equals the demand, it must be good...! Efficiency! Usefulness!

In any case, what irks me most about your flippant comment is also what makes it so typical of our ideologically clusterfucked nation. It lacks any sort of empathy or care - it shows the typical 'I did it - why can't you?' attitude that makes me ashamed to be an American. This new American selfishness is like a splinter in our body politic, and it has no place in the city of our history.

Cheers Tim. Great article.

Posted by Fantomina on Oct. 18, 2012 @ 2:40 pm

"...makes me ashamed to be an American."

Every time I read this line, it makes me ashamed to be an American.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 21, 2012 @ 12:23 pm

Even having read them all, I can say that San Francisco writers have never had a thing to do with my enjoyment of San Francisco. Adopting the poverty pose or romanticizing poverty to prove you're an "artist" is just plain silly, though in your case it did succeed in institutionalizing your mewling liberalism in a way that NY and CT likely wouldn't have.

Posted by Ruth Bladder Ginsu on Oct. 18, 2012 @ 10:15 am

What if you Bay Guardian staffers showed a little more courage and didn't permit your boss Bruce Brugmann to bust your union in 1971? This "woe is me, I'm a writer in SF and this place is so expense" nonsense wouldn't be as shrill. Because you'd have more money in your pocket.

But you were too cowardly to unionize. You were afraid to ask to be paid what you're worth. I have no sympathy for you, you coward!

Posted by Peter on Oct. 18, 2012 @ 12:25 pm

none of us worked here in 1971? Just a thought.

Posted by admin on Oct. 18, 2012 @ 12:51 pm

None of you worked here in the 1970s. None of you lived here. None of you come from here. None of you grew up here. None of you know the history of the newspaper you work for. Is ignorance bliss, Admin?

You're cowards through and through. Nothing stops you from trying to organize, Admin.

For your benefit, here are some Web sites to get the ball rolling and help you :

* The Newspaper Guild (part of the Communications Workers of America):

* Newspaper Guild:

* Society of Professional Journalists:

* A history of union busting at your newspaper:

Posted by Peter on Oct. 24, 2012 @ 12:05 pm

I never can understand why so many self-professed writers feel the need to bludgeon to death the idea of the starving artist, and how unenlightened the rest of us are.

First off, everybody “knows about life”. Eating Top Ramen on the regular and being a shitty boyfriend bears no relation to life experience or writing prowess, nor does it automatically equal interesting. And the attitude you have for your former classmates, while perhaps true in some cases, just reeks of a competitive, reflexively combative attitude. Methinks there’s enough room out there for multiple writing perspectives, from those that have observed life as well as experienced it. Remember that until very recent history, ALL esteemed writers and artists were of the gentry or funded by them.

I agree that writers need more real cheap. But they aren’t the only ones, and they’re also not the only ones who are being let down by the city. Yearning for the days of “cheap that isn’t cool” is kinda another veiled attempt at cool, and blaming it on the mythological creature known as “hipster” is so, so shortsighted, insipid, and just plain ole mean-spirited.

Lots of people like to write about the things they don’t like because it threatens them personally. I’d love, in our jaded times, to read something about what we don’t like because it threatens us all.

Posted by Amy on Oct. 22, 2012 @ 4:34 pm

Dear Tim,

There are all kinds of authentic writing lives.

Choosing to suffer in the hopes that it will give you something to write about is not a more authentic choice than holding down a soul-numbing 9-5 job (or several) in order to support oneself and one's family (and not necessarily children, but family members who are working hard and having trouble making ends meet), and STILL getting up at 5:30am every morning.... to write.

It's strange to me that you take the same entitled attitude toward being a writer that you fault in others.

And the idea that suffering for art is somehow authentic? Do you see that you are fetishizing poverty? That's not only insensitive, but arrogant.

San Francisco, even if you are a native, does not "owe" you $2 tacos and $4 beers just because you are an artist. But as a writer, you do owe your audience a valid attempt to weave some beauty out of your suffering, whether you chose it or not. If you've decided that what a writer is what you are, then question other writers' authenticity less, and your own more.

-LJ Moore

Posted by LJ Moore on Oct. 26, 2012 @ 12:53 pm

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