Grant Faulkner likes big stories and small stories. He lives in the Bay Area and is the executive director of National Novel Writing Month and the cofounder of 100 Word Story. His stories have appeared in dozens of literary magazines, including the Southwest Review, Green Mountains Review, and PANK. His essays on creativity have been published in the New York Times, Poets & Writers Magazine, Writer’s Digest, and the Writer. He recently published a collection of one hundred 100-word stories, Fissures (Press 53, 2015), two of which are included in The Best Small Fictions 2016 (Queens Ferry Press, 2016). His book of essays on creativity, Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Prompts to Boost Your Creative Mojo, is forthcoming from Chronicle Books in the fall of 2017.
When I first came to San Francisco as a young English major during my spring break in 1987, I knew nothing of the Bay Area’s literary history. I didn’t know that the young bootstrapping Jack London had determinedly chiseled himself into a writer in nearby Oakland, or that Allen Ginsberg’s famous “Howl” reading had riled the literary world (and its censors) in San Francisco in the 1950s. I hadn’t yet read Dashiell Hammett’s noir novels, nor Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice (Ramparts Press, 1968), nor Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City (Harper & Row, 1978). And I had no idea that Gertrude Stein had said, “There’s no there there,” about Oakland (if only she could see the “there there” now).
I didn’t know that so many writers had lived out their insurrectionary impulses and beliefs in San Francisco—that for many authors the Bay Area served as a place of refuge, escape, and even salvation from the rest of America.
I had only one thing on my list. A friend told me that if I did just one thing in San Francisco, I had to go to City Lights (261 Columbus Avenue), a bookstore and publishing house owned by the doyen of the Beats, Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
I’d never be quite the same again. When I walked through the doorway, I didn’t just see rows of bookshelves; I felt drawn in, seduced, by the exotic call of the ideas and stories that seemed as if they were part of the air itself. The wooden floors were creaky and uneven, each room a mysterious cavern, a haven. I picked up books published by presses I’d never heard of, books that felt alluring and dangerous, as if they’d prick me with new thoughts. I greedily bought as many as I could afford, and then went to Vesuvio Cafe, the bar across the alley from City Lights where the Beats themselves had thrashed through ideas over too many drinks, and I immersed myself in the lawless careening of their words, enthralled by an edgy, searching, incandescent expression I didn’t know was possible.
Thus began my love affair with the roguish spirit of the Bay Area and its literary tribes of misfits, dropouts, and seekers. If you haven’t been to San Francisco, ban the popular notion of it as a bastion of tie-dyed hippies with streets full of cute cable cars and postcard views of the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s much more than that. It’s a place spawned by the raucous boom-and-bust spirit of the Gold Rush, a place where people have always exuberantly and recklessly searched for different kinds of fortunes. It’s a city that disregards the need for stability, resting precariously on a restless fault line, inviting gate crashers who strive to push the limits of being and shake up all forms poetry and prosody.
“It's an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco,” said Oscar Wilde. It’s a city for those who feel “other,” who feel lost, and then find themselves in the Bay Area.
Literature Born in the Streets
Silicon Valley has moved into San Francisco in many ways—“invaded” or “encroached,” some might say, driving up rents and driving out bohemians—but the rollicking energy of former days is alive and well in literary festivals like Litquake, an annual orgy of readings and discussions that sends literary tremors throughout the city for nine days each October. Events take place in unlikely spaces—chapels, bars, and hair salons—and everything culminates in a bacchanalia called Lit Crawl, a pub crawl of readings that wends through the teeming streets of the Mission District on the final Saturday night.
What’s nice about Litquake is that while it includes a healthy lineup of big-name authors, it is fundamentally a celebration of local authors and the maverick spirit of the city. Founded in 1999 by San Francisco writers Jack Boulware and Jane Ganahl, Litquake is now the largest independent literary festival on the West Coast, and it’s grown to Austin, Seattle, New York City, Iowa City, Los Angeles, Portland, London, and Helsinki.
Similarly, Oakland has spawned the Oakland Book Festival, a festival that captures the unique character of the quickly evolving East Bay, which has in some ways become the Bay Area’s version of Brooklyn, a haven for artists priced out of San Francisco. It’s not a festival designed around book tours, as many festivals can be, but serves as an exploration of ideas on topics related to Oakland’s past, present, and future, with the goal of encouraging debate. Each year’s festival, which takes place in Oakland’s City Hall in May, has a different theme. This year’s theme is “Equality and Inequality,” following “Labor” and “Cities.”
The Bay Area offers so many literary events and festivals that I can’t list them all. Beast Crawl, a version of Lit Crawl for the East Bay, takes over Uptown Oakland for one night every July with more than one hundred and fifty writers who have roots in the East Bay. The San Francisco Writers Conference brings together best-selling authors, literary agents, editors, and publishers from major publishing houses every President’s Day weekend to help emerging writers launch their professional writing career. And then the Bay Area Book Festival, now in its third year, features notable authors from across the country for a two-day festival in early June in downtown Berkeley. Of note, each year the festival constructs Lacuna, an outdoor library that is assembled with fifty thousand books, all available to take for free, and always empty by the end.
You might say the Bay Area itself is an ongoing literary festival, though. Bookstores are crowded with authors on book tours, and there’s a farrago of ongoing series that break the boundaries of conventional readings and invoke a communal spirit that transcends them.
Quiet Lightning, a submission-based reading series, has produced more than a hundred shows over the last seven years—in locations as varied as night clubs, a greenhouse, a mansion, a sporting goods store, and a cave. The series is named Quiet Lightning because it aspires to create “that feeling of what was in the room when someone has stopped talking, but everyone has been listening and paying close attention,” says Evan Karp, founder of the series. Quiet Lightning readings are always bursting with people, yet exist in a hush of focused attention. One person reads, and then the next, with no banter or introductions in between, creating a focus on just the work itself and a feeling that the entire evening is an experience of a single continuous piece of art. Of special note, Quiet Lightning publishes a corresponding book of writings from each show.
Other reading series are less quiet, but pack their own definition of lightning. Porchlight, a monthly storytelling series that takes place at the fabulous Verdi Club (2424 Mariposa Street), features six people telling ten-minute stories without using notes. Like Quiet Lightning, cofounders Beth Lisick and Arline Klatte don’t invite just famous storytellers, but strive to create a space for the voices of all sorts of characters of the city. Storytellers have included school bus drivers, mushroom hunters, politicians, socialites, sex workers, social workers, and even me.
Then there’s the ribald, bawdy Shipwreck, which is billed as “San Francisco’s premier literary erotic fanfiction event,” and takes place on the first Thursday of every month in the Booksmith (1644 Haight Street), one of San Francisco’s best bookstores. Shipwreck thumbs its nose at the sanctimony of conventional literary events by “destroying” classic works. A few weeks before each event, six local authors are selected and assigned to write an erotic story from the point of view of a character from a classic novel. Their pieces are then read aloud to the audience while the authors watch from the stage, trying to show no signs of which piece is theirs before voting begins. In December, Victor Hugo's Les Misérables was erotically plumbed, and this January, Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Little House on the Prairie will be undressed.
Writers With Drinks is a monthly literary variety show with a raucous cross-genre approach held each month at the Make Out Room (3225 22nd Street) in the Mission, which hosts many literary events. Writers With Drinks features six readers from six different genres, but the show isn’t just about readings—it’s one part stand-up comedy, one part erotica, one part rant, and one part something else. I go just to hear the hilarious host, Charlie Jane Anders, spin fictitious biographies of the authors. And then there’s plenty of drinking, of course.
I sometimes sneak out of work for the Lunch Poems series that former U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass started at the University of California in Berkeley’s sumptuous Morrison Library (101 Doe Library). When I first heard that the Mechanics’ Institute Library (57 Post Street) was a private library, I imagined it as an elite bibliophile’s country club, but it’s anything but that. It hosts a diverse range of cultural events including author readings and conversations, the CinemaLit Film Series, and the oldest continuously operating chess club in the United States (its plump leather chairs are also perfect for afternoon naps, as I learned when I worked nearby). The San Francisco Poetry Center (1600 Holloway Avenue) was founded in 1954 with a small donation by W. H. Auden, and it now puts on thirty public readings, performances, and lectures each year on the San Francisco State University campus and at various off-campus venues. If you can’t go to a reading, dive into its American Poetry Archives, a collection of five thousand hours of original audio and video recordings documenting its reading series.
Other engaging series include Why There Are Words, a monthly reading series put on by Peg Alford Pursell that fills the Studio 333 gallery in Sausalito every second Thursday. And then I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the series I cohost with Jane Ciabatarri, Kirstin Chen, and Meg Pokrass, the Flash Fiction Collective series, which showcases writers in San Francisco’s bustling flash fiction scene at the funky Alley Cat Books (3036 24th Street). Many call San Francisco the hub of flash fiction because so many writers in the Bay Area have found a literary home in the shorter side of stories.