Literary Institutions With a Whimsical Flare
The Bay Area has spawned a number of renowned literary organizations that have put their mark on the world by taking a more experimental and playful approach to the written word. Just as Silicon Valley gave birth to Open Source, the Bay Area resists forming itself around literary fortresses and hierarchies, and gravitates more to a spirit of art for art’s sake (which often produces the best art, as it turns out).
National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), located in Berkeley, where I serve as executive director, grew from the idea that you don’t need to get an MFA or read how-to books to write a novel—you become a novelist by writing a novel. With that gate-crashing spirit—and an encouraging, whimsical community rooting you on—nearly 500,000 people sign up for our programs each year, including 80,000 kids and teens in our Young Writers Program. It is the biggest literary event in the world, with chapters in approximately 700 locations around the world, and it has given rise to thousands of published novels, including award winners and best-sellers. In fact, more novels have been penned in National Novel Writing Month than in all of the MFA programs in the United States combined.
Likewise, 826 Valencia embraces a DIY whimsicality to make writing fun and demystify the process. Located in the heart of the Mission—at 826 Valencia Street—it was started by Dave Eggers in 1999 and has since grown to have chapters in seven cities across the nation. Its Pirate Supply Store is a true literary landmark, where you can buy a pirate’s hook or eye patch to fund free programming for the kids being tutored in the learning center in the back of the building.
Oakland has its own version of an 826 center, Chapter 510 & the Department of Make Believe—“a made-in-Oakland writing center (and magical bureaucracy)” as they put it. You can purchase official “Permits to Make Believe,” “Licenses to Dream,” and “Creative Manifestation Filing” in the store to support their tutoring and creative writing workshops.
There are newer organizations—and new ways to engage with writing—that continue to blossom across the Bay Area. Left Margin Lit, a literary arts center in Berkeley, opened its doors in 2016, and aspires to be what the Loft is to Minneapolis or Grub Street is to Boston: a literary hub and learning center. Likewise, the Writing Salon has offered creative writing classes in the Bay Area since 1999, and San Francisco’s famous Grotto, a shared workplace for writers, features classes taught by many of its esteemed fellows.
Lit Camp just might be my favorite writing retreat and conference in the world. It offers amazing faculty (think Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners) in the rustic luxury of Mayacamas Ranch in Napa Valley for four days each May. It is affordable, and its warm, inviting casualness inspires an ongoing community of writers to work together afterward. It is more than a writing retreat, though. It hosts the monthly Writing & Drinking Club, a monthly meetup for writers at the Scholar Match/McSweeney's offices in San Francisco, and puts on a reading series (with free beer) every other month.
An Eclectic Mix of Bookmakers and Publishers
I’ve been told that the Bay Area is second only to New York as a publishing center, but that comparison doesn’t do service to the area’s unique range of presses. While it has large publishers such as HarperOne and is the home of titans of educational publishing such as Pearson and McGraw-Hill, the eclectic mix of literary publishers is what distinguishes the Bay Area.
Some say San Francisco is the center of fine printing and bookmaking in the United States. The premier letterpress publisher Arion Press offers weekly tours on Thursdays so that you can witness one of the last bookmaking facilities of its kind. Visitors can see how type is cast from hot metal in its foundry, watch pages being made up in the composition room and printed by letterpress, and learn how a book is bound by hand, from sewing to backing to casing in.
If you want to actually learn the art of making letterpress books hands-on, San Francisco Center for the Book offers four hundred workshops annually, spanning the range of bookbinding and letterpress printing techniques, from traditional methods to cutting-edge printing techniques and experimental book forms.
Manic D Press brings a different kind of artisanal energy to the fore, focusing on works shunned by traditional publishers, ranging from the late Justin Chin’s poetry collections to Beth Lisick’s early story collections to underground pop culture books and children’s books themed around punk rock. As a nostalgist for the upstart punk energy of the San Francisco of yore, Manic D is one of my favorite publishers.
Nomadic Press operates with a similar street sensibility, publishing underground and marginalized voices through an annual journal, seasonal chapbooks, translations, and special issues in print. Nomadic Press is far-ranging, as its name might imply, hosting regular reading events and performances. It’s a small press with a large presence.
Berkeley’s Counterpoint Press includes three imprints—Counterpoint, Shoemaker & Hoard, and Soft Skull Press—and publishes an array of edgy, fresh voices. Seal Press, which publishes “books that inform women’s lives,” is located nearby in the Berkeley office of Perseus Books Group, which also owns the major West Coast-based distribution companies Consortium and Publishers Group West, and is one of the nation’s largest publishers of independent imprints. Cleis Press, located just a few hops away, is the largest independent sexuality publishing company in the United States, focusing on LGBTQ, BDSM, romance, and erotic writing.
Chronicle Books, an indie publisher since San Francisco’s Summer of Love in 1967, publishes some of the most colorfully inviting books on anyone’s bookshelf, with a list that runs from art, design, and pop culture, to children’s books, calendars, and fabulous Moleskine notebooks. Make a point to visit their vibrant, fun store at their offices on San Francisco’s Second Street.
McSweeney’s has been publishing an impressive range of books, journals, and multimedia material since Dave Eggers founded it in 1998. Outpost19 provides “original provocative reading,” as its tagline promises, and publishes the annual anthology, New Writing From the Golden State, featuring short fiction and nonfiction by emerging and established authors. Heyday Books, a nonprofit publisher in Oakland, publishes approximately twenty-five books per year dedicated to celebrating and probing the diverse range of California’s heritage. The aforementioned City Lights publishes everything from poetry collections to literary translations to books on social and political issues. Fiction Advocate, founded by Rumpus books editor Brian Hurley, is an emerging local press that hunts for strange and exciting books that might not get published otherwise.
The hub of all of this exquisite and challenging roguery is Small Press Distribution, a nonprofit in Berkeley that helps offer book distribution, information services, and public advocacy programs to hundreds of small publishers.
As you might guess, the Bay Area is an ever-expanding hub of eclectic writing (how many times can I use the word “eclectic” ...but there’s no better word for the Bay Area).
There are highly regarded lit-mag institutions like ZYZZYVA, which has published established authors and new voices with a particular San Francisco bent since 1985, and the Three Penny Review, founded by Wendy Lesser in 1980, but there are also plenty of new, emerging magazines.
Stephen Elliott founded the Rumpus in 2008, with the idea of addressing what’s missing in literary and cultural matters on the Internet, and it’s gone from young upstart days to being viewed as its own type of institution (and sells one of my favorite writing mugs on the Internet emblazoned with advice from a famous Dear Sugar column by Cheryl Strayed—“Write Like a Motherfucker”).
Francis Ford Coppola isn’t just a filmmaker and a vintner, he also publishes Zoetrope: All-Story, a quarterly journal founded in 1997 that is distinguished by a different designer for each issue, including such names as Julian Schnabel, Laurie Anderson, and Wim Wenders. McSweeney’s publishes the highly regarded the Believer, edited by authors Vendela Vida and Heidi Julavits. It is highbrow, unpredictable, yet accessible and fun. Narrative Magazine has built a widespread digital presence through the fine writing it has published since 2003.
There are also several compelling journals published by the creative writing departments at Bay Area colleges and universities. Fourteen Hills is put out by graduate students in San Francisco State University’s creative writing department. Eleven Eleven is published through the MFA Writing program at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. 580 Split is the literary magazine published by Mills College in Oakland, and the University of San Francisco publishes Switchback.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my own journal of little stories, 100 Word Story, which I publish with Lynn Mundell and Beret Olsen. And I’ve just become acquainted with Foglifter, a queer journal “that queers our perspectives” with writing that explores the sometimes abject and sometimes shameful—honest, revelatory writing, in other words. And I hope to submit to Zoetic Press’s cool new mag, NonBinary Review, in 2017, which takes a piece of classic literature and invites authors to submit short stories, creative nonfiction, poetry, and visual art that interact with the work and extend its meaning.
Bring Your Crayons
The best way to absorb the literary moods and history of the city is to walk through its patchwork of neighborhoods that are nestled in forty-three steep hills. Despite the incline of its hills, it’s a walkable city, and I’ve spent many a day walking from one neighborhood to the next, one bookstore to the next, one café to the next.
"San Francisco itself is art...every block is a short story, every hill a novel. Every home a poem, every dweller within immortal," said longtime San Francisco writer William Saroyan.
Indeed, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (Knopf, 2010), Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue (HarperCollins, 2012), Frank Norris’s McTeague (Doubleday, 1899), Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Simon & Schuster, 2000), Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1989), Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (J. B. Lippincott, 1965), J. T. LeRoy’s Harold’s End (Last Gasp of San Francisco, 2004), Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home (Harper and Row, 1985), Czeslaw Milosz’s Visions From San Francisco Bay (Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1969), Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior (Knopf, 1976), Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968), and Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968) illustrate the many stories that weave through the Bay Area.
It’s a “viewtiful city” with a “thousand viewpoints,” said Herb Caen, the city’s famous chronicler. Or, as Eggers put it, “There's no logic to San Francisco generally…. It's the work of fairies, elves, happy children with new crayons.”
So be sure to bring your box of crayons when you come.