California Complex

Ken Gordon
From the January/February 2008 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Why was Californication, the Showtime series that debuted last August starring David Duchovny as an author who moves from New York City to California after optioning his best-selling novel, renewed for a second season? Surely literate grown-ups, the show's target audience, have better things to do with their free time, and yet they kept tuning in. Why?

Serious readers and writers have long condescended to California, specifically Los Angeles.

Were they that happy to see Duchovny break out of his post–X Files muddle or just titillated by Californication's sex-heavy pilot? Or did the show's portrayal of entertainment industry angst, combined with the odd allusion to Nabokov and Flaubert keep them coming back? Certainly the original characters can't be responsible. Hank Moody, the writer Duchovny plays in the show, is just a stubbly Hollywood cliché (New York novelist sells out and walks around feeling miserable about his writer's block) with a twist (as a result of selling out, he falls into a rock star's dream of beautiful women, drugs, and booze).

Perhaps the most addictive thing about Californication is that it lets non–Golden State viewers feel superior to writers like Moody, who are completely hobbled by life on the West Coast. They think they're watching for the glamour and showbiz decadence, but what keeps them wanting more is how smug the show makes them feel. ("We may have made compromises, we may sometimes feel miserable," one can almost hear the masses mutter, "but at least we're not living like Hank Moody.")

Serious readers and writers have long condescended to California, specifically Los Angeles, the place John Updike called "the capital of organized unreality" in his novel Bech at Bay (Knopf, 1998). The problem isn't the city's fabled fruitiness, nuttiness, or phoniness, but the fact that writers have been known to do extremely well out West (notwithstanding the issues at stake in the Writers Guild of America's decision to strike after their contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers expired last November).

After all, California is where generations of Barton Finks flock to pick up paychecks the size of the Hollywood sign. As novelist and short story writer James Salter once told the Paris Review, "Movie writers…are among the most overpaid people on earth. In a certain sense you would do a movie for nothing, just for the fun of doing it. In addition to that, you are lavishly paid." (Under the terms of the Writers Guild's expired contract, the New York Times reported, "the six major film studios must pay a minimum of $106,000 for an original screenplay, while networks must pay at least $20,956 for a teleplay or a prime-time comedy show and $30,823 for a prime-time drama.")

The truth is, Californication's hackneyed view of California—surprise, surprise—isn't true. The state isn't made up entirely of malcontent sellouts. Take, for example, Los Angeles–born, Sacramento resident William T. Vollmann, whose new nonfiction book Riding to Everywhere, in which he chronicles life on the rails as a twenty-first-century dharma bum, is being published this month by Ecco. They don't make writers more serious, literary, or Californian than Vollmann, who won the 2005 National Book Award for his novel Europe Central (Viking).

David Mamet recently relocated from Massachusetts to Los Angeles, and is no less a genius for it. The West Coast has failed to damage the talents of either Robert Hass, winner of the 2007 National Book Award in poetry for Time and Materials (Ecco), or Michael Chabon (who did some screenwriting on Spider-Man 2). Joan Didion, a sometime screenwriter herself, has produced brilliant work in and about California. And Charles Bukowski, whatever else can be said about him, stayed remarkably true to himself, even in Hollywood. To show their appreciation, a group of fans banded together last summer to declare Bukowski's East Hollywood bungalow—where he met his publisher, John Martin of Black Sparrow Press—a historic monument. (Bukowski fans should note that "Hank" is the name their author often employed for his autobiographical characters.)

Compare Hank Moody to Richard Lange, a fiction writer in Los Angeles whose recent collection, Dead Boys, was published by Little, Brown last August. Lange writes subtle, realistic stories about people who live in Southern California: a salesman traumatized by the rape of his sister; a likeable middle-class bank robber; a failed, alcoholic actor who grows up while drying out at his mother's house. These stories don't make readers feel superior to the characters; they convey the truth that actual human beings live in the City of Angels.

Better yet, consider T. C. Boyle, who has been teaching at the University of Southern California since 1978 and has produced an important—and hefty—shelf of fiction. He survived the adaptation of his book The Road to Wellville (Viking, 1993) into the Alan Parker film of the same title, and Fox nearly made a group of his stories into a television series, with Boyle as a host. "They put Anthony Hopkins and Bridget Fonda on the cover of The Road to Wellville," Boyle said in an interview with Robert Birnbaum in 2003. "And I resent that. To a degree. But it sold lots and lots of copies."

In California, there's no question that authors are less powerful than actors, directors, producers, and even screenwriters. In her essay collection Married to the Icepick Killer (Random House, 2002), Carol Muske-Dukes, whose first novel, Dear Digby (Viking, 1989), was nearly made into a movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer and whose late husband, David Dukes, was a successful actor, writes about living in the same neighborhood as not just Ellen DeGeneres and her then-girlfriend Anne Heche, but the man who voiced Carlton the Doorman on Rhoda. Think, for a moment, about what living in such a neighborhood might mean to a serious literary artist. ("Maybe screenwriting's not such a bad gig. Maybe I should try to write a more commercial novel—I've got bills to pay!")

Most writers hope for fame and money, but what happens when you produce serious work among neighbors who are busy churning out sitcoms for the boob tube and have accumulated considerably more of both as a result? What's it like to keep up with Carlton the Doorman?

Perhaps the success of Californication says something about how literary people simply feel beaten by the influence and power of television. Of course, Hank Moody isn't a real writer, in any sense of the word. His life is just a fantasy grounded in longing and envy—something to distract us from the fact that, wherever we live, most of us will never even have the chance to sell out to Hollywood.

Ken Gordon, the editor of, contributes to such publications as the Boston Globe Magazine and the New York Times. He lives in Newton Centre, Massachusetts.