A New Focus on California Literature

John Freeman, host of the California Book Club, celebrates a bountiful era for the state’s writers.

“It’s an exciting time to be a Californian, as a reader and as a writer.”
“It’s an exciting time to be a Californian, as a reader and as a writer.”

Why wasn’t he reading books by California authors?

It’s a question that eventually occurred to John Freeman while he was growing up in a suburb of Sacramento.

“We read about nature from Emerson,” Freeman says. “We read about class by reading Fitzgerald. And California literature was just seen as not cultural enough. It wasn’t seen as serious enough.”

Thankfully, much has changed. “In the intervening 30 years since I was a child,” Freeman says, “there has been a continuous explosion of literature across California, by native-born people or people who come to California.” The work, he says, is “truly exceptional.”

Freeman is now ready to celebrate that literature with other readers. Inspired by his Alta essay calling for a new California curriculum, Alta has launched a new California Book Club, which Freeman will host. The monthly virtual club, free to all, will kick off October 15 with a discussion of C Pam Zhang’s debut novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold.

Freeman spoke about the club and the range of California literature in an Alta Asks Live conversation with Mary Melton, Alta’s editor at large.

California literature, Freeman says, “comes in all shapes and sizes, from the miniaturization of Maggie Nelson’s essays and Kay Ryan’s poems, to Javier Zamora’s work in his debut collection of poetry, to Robin Coste Lewis’s debut book. I mean, it’s every single form that you want to work in. There’s T.J. Stiles, writing the kind of presidential and industrial biographies that he’s doing, or Rebecca Solnit, with her ongoing exploration of feminism and its battles. It’s an exciting time to be a Californian, as a reader and as a writer.”

Freeman is the editor of a literary anthology that bears his name: Freeman’s. A recent issue has California as its focus and includes writing by Rabih Alameddine, Natalie Diaz, Lauren Markham, and D.A. Powell. Freeman is also an author in his own right; his books include How to Read a Novelist, Dictionary of the Undoing, and the poetry collections Maps and The Park. He also edited a recent anthology, Tales of Two Planets, about the climate crisis and global inequality. And he is the executive editor of Literary Hub.

The California Book Club’s discussions will have civic dimensions, Freeman says: “This book club is a thrill because I think some of the most exciting things happening in California literature are bringing back and questioning and renarrativizing parts of [California’s] history, and who lives in the state, and how they got there. And that to me is an essential part of being alive as a Californian.”

Zhang’s novel, for instance, reexamines the gold rush era. As a child, Freeman says, he was taught that the gold rush was “largely positive, entrepreneurial.… You just get your ax and go into the hills, and maybe you get rich.… But that’s a cartoon compared with the actual history.”

Half of the 300,000 people who came to the state in roughly five years were from outside the United States, he notes. A tenth of them were Chinese. How did that contribute to the state’s sense of itself? What sorts of frontier justice were non-Americans greeted by? “There’s lots of California history that needs to be, I think, investigated and retold, and that’s a great time for literature,” Freeman says. “But it’s also a great time for a book club, because I think we can be transported and entertained while also breaking broken narratives. And that’s what these books are doing, the ones that we’ve chosen so far.”

The second title the California Book Club will read—all books are selected by a six-member panel—is Reyna Grande’s memoir The Distance Between Us. Freeman and Grande will discuss her book on November 19. “It’s a classic memoir of coming to America, and its costs, and to some degree the upsides of it. And it’s a journey that, I think, has been dangerously and unfairly stigmatized by everyone up to the president of the United States, which I think is unconscionable. And this book is really beautiful, and parts of it are even funny,” Freeman says.

Walter Mosley will join the club on December 18 for a conversation about his beloved novel Devil in a Blue Dress, the first book in his Easy Rawlins mystery series. “He’s a hilarious raconteur,” Freeman says. “But also a deep thinker about Black life in Los Angeles, about California, about growing up the son of a Jewish mother and a Black father, and what it means to inhabit parts of California history in his body.”

Freeman has lived in New York City for years, but he remains a Californian at heart in many ways. “I’ve never, ever fallen prey to the idea that the East Coast is the center,” he says. “Because there’s so much obvious energy when you come to California or never left. It just feels like the literature is creating a space that’s enlarged.”

John McMurtrie is the editor of the California Book Club.

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