Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Slake Tells LA's Stories

PORN, celebrity, poetry and sharp graphic design: It’s got a little of everything, just like the city it chronicles.

I’D heard enough good things about the new LA-centric quarterly, Slake, to have high hopes for it. But so far, to my initial assessment, Slake – a publication of fiction, art, photography and journalism -- has exceeded he high expectations I had for it.

Part of the reason for my high hopes – and my lack of interest in being “objective” in my assessment -- comes from its founders: Joe Donnelly was very briefly an editor of mine at New Times LA, and Laurie Ochoa was the well-regarded editor of the LA Weekly, to which Joe moved just before New Times went under. (Both were canned by the new owners.)

I expected the journal to include work by Weekly writers – there’s a typically witty, incisive piece here by John Powers on celebrity and crime, “Out Stealing Purses.” And local legend (and current Weekly scribe) Jonathan Gold offers a brilliantly observed piece about sex and the still life in “Fallen Fruit.” I’m looking forward to reading the story “Separation” by novelist Michelle Huneven and the report by Judith Lewis.

But there are surprises here, including a provocative essay (or is it a manifesto, or a piece of fiction?) by House of Leaves author Mark Danielewski, a witty meditation by walking freak Geoff Nicholson, “The Hollywood Pedestrian,” and a striking photo essay by Shannon Donnelly. Slake includes a number of drawings and paintings by Sandow Birk. 

There are also a lot of names I barely know, and there is no clear house style or single vision, though the graphics work together well. (Like LA, you might say, it has no obvious center.) The focus on life in Southern California, on its art and literary scene, feels fresh.

“There’s too much intellectual talent, creative talent, and dynamism in this city not to have something really great to reflect that, to serve as an amplifier,” Joe Donnelly told when he met to discuss Slake with The Misread City. He also wanted to reflect the move of the city's culture to the Eastside.

“In LA, we’re dependant on New York as an intellectual and cultural filter. Having lived long stretches in both cities, I can say that LA is a more interesting place. New York is ossified – it was an awesome 20th century city." Manhattan, he says "is a shopping mall now.”

But LA has had a problem New York doesn’t: Its publications are pieces of out-of-town media chains. Or as Donnelly puts it: “They all suffer from the same problem – outside ownership,” by people who don't quite get the West Coast And they’re all obsessed with celebrity and consumerism: “The bling, the stuff, the how-to-live-this–lifestyle.”

Part of what is heartening about Slake is its commitment to print. It’s full of long pieces of prose – Ochoa has compared their mission to that of the Slow Food movement – and to the kind of graphic design that makes sense only on paper. The visuals, he says, “help take some of the earnestness out of it.”

But Donnelly didn’t want to be like the other literary journals: He thinks of Granta, with its visual austerity, as a little “like cod-liver oil  --  good for you, but hard to digest," and finds McSweeney’s entertaining, "but sometimes its reliance on irony and postmodernism leaves me a little cold. It can feel out of touch with the real world to me." 

Of course, the difficulty of launching a magazine in Los Angeles was well known even before the latest print-media meltdown. And unlike the institutional support enjoyed by Black Clock, which is put out by Cal Arts, an off-the-mainstream publication does not have it easy. So as much as I love Slake and want it to thrive, I wonder about its ability to survive in a ruined economy. (The LATimes estimable media critic James Rainey praises the publication and wonders as well, here.)

Donnelly can’t promise Slake will survive, but he and Ochoa are already working on another one, and hope to get more sponsors on board. (The first issue has a few, including the Hammer Museum and Pasadena’s Europane Bakery, where by coincidence I had an excellent lunch on the 4th.)

 It’ll be a scramble, he says. “But we want to publish books, we want to have an imprint, we want to grow our website but not have it replace this [magazine]. We want to do documentaries – these are the grand ambitions.”

Several Slake contributors -- Gold, Danielewski, Huneven and David Schneider -- will read at Skylight Books this Sunday at 5 pm.

Here’s a tip of the pen from The Misread City to Slake – long may your flag fly.

BREAKING: The retro-minded Los Angeles architect Stephen Kanner has died. Here's an appreciation by Frances Anderton of KCRW's "DnA: Design  and Architecture."


JJ said...

Just want to add that I love McSweeney's. They've given a lot to the world. Sorry, bad moment.

Scott Timberg said...

I like McSweeney's as well, and know that in another moment Joe might have a different take on them as well.

The key, I think, is that Slake is setting itself in a different direction from these other pubs.

Anonymous said...

It takes all kinds to make a world.............................................................