Matthew Weiner first became aware of the Los Angeles Review of Books when he read an essay on Mad Men it published a few years ago. "I don't remember if it was particularly positive or not," he says of the piece. No matter — he instantly was hooked on the then-upstart, California-born literary journal. "It speaks to Los Angeles in that it's a little bit renegade," he says. "It's got a little bit of 'f— you.' It has the highest chance of any place that I read for me to discover something new. It doesn't feel brokered, like a publicity arm for literature. And, importantly, it doesn't take itself too seriously, but it does take its subjects seriously."
Weiner's not the only fervent Hollywood champion of LARB (those in the know pronounce it like the Thai meat salad). John Green tweets out praise for its essays. Its intimate salon evenings at supporters' hillside homes, increasingly sought-after invites in town, feature such readers as Norman Lear and Lena Dunham. Its board of directors includes CalArts chairman Tim Disney (grandson of Roy) and wife Neda as well as THR Power Lawyer Matt Galsor. Its novelist-screenwriter-producer contributors range from Ray Donovan's Michael Tolkin (who wrote The Player and its screenplay) to Hell on Wheels' John Romano (a onetime English professor at Columbia University). Its annual winter fund drive includes donations from the likes of Tom Hanks, who's offered up a vintage typewriter from his collection each of the past three years. And its very existence — not to mention its rapid ascension to the shortlist of significant literary outlets not just in the U.S. but around the world — is a vibrant rebuke to outdated L.A.-as-cultural-wasteland cliches. (Yes, Hollywood reads, and not just script coverage.)
LARB was born in April 2011 as an ad hoc Tumblr by now editor-in-chief Tom Lutz — a nonfiction professor at UC Riverside, and the author of books on such phenomena as crying, slacking and anxiety. Within six months Lutz's invention was christened "one of the instant jewels of the internet" by The New Yorker. Two years after that, the first quarterly print journal arrived; there since have been 10 issues. Half a decade on, it's a multiplatform organization (now including podcasts and short-form documentaries) whose chin-stroking essays — on everything from the late German-Jewish Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin to the present-day feminist provocateur cum African-American political radical Beyonce Knowles — are published both in the glossy print edition and on its website, which now draws 500,000 visits a month. (By comparison, the venerable 63- year-old Paris Review boasts 1.1 million.) The Chronicle of Higher Education announced in January that LARB "beckons a new model of a literary review, not tied to a newspaper or based in a university."
That new model, a nonprofit akin to a public radio station or a museum — funded by grants from underwriters and donations from members along with sponsor advertising and sales revenue (copies of the journal are sold by bookstores, Amazon and other outlets for $12) — has found its crucial base of support in Hollywood. "Not only is it a place to read great writers writing about great writers, it's a hub for culture in L.A.," says Cameron Diaz, an early fan. "They celebrate and encourage online and offline community in a way that reflects their respect for the diversity of readers as well as for the evolution of the culture of books."
Just as one of its primary inspirations, The New York Review of Books, emerged out of a precarious moment in publishing, when New York City's newspapers ceased publication during a printers strike in 1963, LARB owes its genesis to the collapse in recent years of newspaper book review supplements, particularly the Los Angeles Times' once-storied insert, which disappeared while the publication's corporate parent languished in bankruptcy. "Doing this began not by finding seed funding but with a 'We're going to put on a show in the barn' approach," says Lutz, 63. The relentlessly connected academic charmed friends with his vision. "LARB has a glamorous beginning for me," says Romano, who next is adapting Philip Roth's American Pastoral for Ewan McGregor's directorial debut. "I was traveling with Tom, and one afternoon on a veranda in Zimbabwe or somewhere he talked to us about his plans."
Along with publishing rigorous essays on the likes of Susan Sontag and Karl Ove Knausgaard, LARB has taken an expansive view of which topics are worthy of cultural critique. Like many highbrow journals these days, it takes an unambivalent interest in being part of the pop culture water-cooler conversation (see the Feb. 3 exegesis "Are We Not Kardashians?: On 'The People v. OJ Simpson' "). But it also ranges farther afield, from the Brown Derby ("Magritte in Koreatown," a meditation on L.A.'s novelty architecture) to Tinder ("Perfect Strangers," an exploration of the intersection of 21st century fiction and social media). "I think they said, 'Let's not be rigid,' " says veteran producer Carol Polakoff, a member of the board. "It's not eat-your-spinach reading." Adds novelist and screenwriter Seth Greenland (Big Love): "LARB doesn't possess a particularly Los Angeles aesthetic other than to say that it's not snobby."
The review's attitude, its partisans note, is a departure from its more established associates. "LARB is much more interested in finding people who are enthusiastic about the writing they're looking at than the takedown," says Tolkin. "That's an East Coast device, not a West Coast device." He adds of the publication, "It's not a tight club like the New York Review or the London Review of Books or N+1. That fits the way writers live in Los Angeles." Says board member Susan Morse, an architect who has also served on the board of the Santa Monica Museum of Art: "It's successfully pulling in energy from unexpected, unconventional places."
While Los Angeles is in its name — and its Sunset Boulevard office, situated near that of book publisher Taschen, is at the historic and frequently filmed Crossroads of the World complex in Hollywood (Danny DeVito's gossip hound used it as headquarters for his tabloid Hush Hush in L.A. Confidential) — LARB's ambitions extend far beyond California. Its eclectic ethos has built an online audience that is one- third international, heavy on academics posted at the far corners of the Earth (Brazil, Taiwan, New Zealand). And yet it's rooted in an unmistakably indigenous mentality: "What's L.A. about it is that it's fundamentally open-minded when it comes to ideas," says Galsor.
The review is a "reflection not just of its place but of its time," says Morse. "The way it was birthed allows people to access it and become involved in a fresh way." Romano notes that LARB grew "at a time when television became more literary." It was LARB board chairman Albert Litewka — founder of the marketing firm Creative Domain, which worked with the major studios (Litewka sold it in 2005) — who pulled together many of the venture's Hollywood supporters. "It's several generations down the line from when the other reviews started," he notes. "We're finding a new model, financial and creative."
To its advocates, the review's traction represents further recognition of L.A.'s at-long-last emergence as a world-class city. It's "the pure expression of L.A.'s dynamic energy," says Beasts of No Nation producer Bill Benenson, another board member. Adds donor Mary Sweeney, board chair of Film Independent: "Its identity and ambitions are reflective of the cross-pollination that defines the city." The proof, Lutz proudly notes, is in the web traffic patterns: "At one point, going back and forth for a few weeks," he recalls, "our two top stories were about Kendrick Lamar and Heidegger."