By BRUCE WEBER
Published: October 17, 2009
SAN FRANCISCO — The event to honor the novelist Amy Tan at the Herbst Theater here on Wednesday night was supposed to be in the spirit of a roast. But the organizers couldn’t quite call it that — “a braising,” they suggested instead — and the speakers had a hard time saying anything terribly mean, even in jest. The running joke concerned Ms. Tan’s ordinarily placid demeanor, which was attributed to her husband’s sexual prowess.
Maybe the occasion could have been spiced up by a little of Don Rickles at the Friars Club, but this is San Francisco literary life in a nutshell — not the sex part, necessarily, but a willingness to honor and an unwillingness to undermine. You could probably find mean-spirited, competitive writers here, the kind who make literature a blood sport and the literary life a conniving enterprise and a purely mercenary pursuit. But not without a serious hunt, and certainly not this past week, as the city’s writers — and, notably, its readers — celebrated the 10th anniversary of the book lovers’ festival known as Litquake with dozens of readings, panel discussions and other events (including the braising of Ms. Tan). It all culminated in Saturday’s edition of Lit Crawl, the annually overcrowded word-and-drink fest in city bars.
It was, over all, a pep rally, an emblem really of the school spirit that San Francisco literary life has established in the last decade or so. And though the city has a venerable history in letters, the community of writers has never been as, well, communitylike as it is today. Like the thriving theater culture in Chicago, which coalesced around a few key companies and created an important center for the art form without becoming a rival to New York City as a center for theater commerce, so San Francisco’s writers have come to recognize and trumpet the idea that this city prizes their craft, its solitary difficulty and what can emerge from it, even though there isn’t much of a publishing industry here.
A few recent landmarks: Fifteen years ago Po Bronson, Ethan Watters and Ethan Canin founded the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, a collective that now provides work space for 33 fiction and nonfiction writers who not only support one another but give well-attended writing classes and readings all over the city.
Eleven years ago Dave Eggers founded McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, a literary journal that has grown into what is perhaps the city’s signature publishing house, producing books and a monthly magazine, The Believer. And in 2002 Porchlight, a series of storytelling evenings based on the model of the Moth in New York City, took root and became a staple of the literary scene.
Further, the writerly population of the Bay Area is continuously replenished by the Stanford University creative writing program, whose annual Wallace Stegner Fellowships provide health insurance, tuition and a living stipend of $26,000 per year for two years to 10 emerging writers. And all of this is actively supported by the city’s fine bookstores, where hundreds of readings, classes and other events are offered every year and where readers return the enthusiasm. Remarkably, more than half of the city’s book sales are recorded by independent stores. The national figure is around 10 percent.
“It’s not like New York, where you have a lot of publishers, editors and agents around,” said Stephen Elliott, the author of the memoir “The Adderall Diaries.” “You go to a writer event there, and that’s who you see. Here you go, and it’s all writers.”
This, perhaps more than anything, contributes to the collective attitude that the tide raises all boats, and indeed, as a couple of hundred writers honored Ms. Tan on Wednesday, there seemed enough honor to go around.
The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Ms. Tan, 57, is of course the author of five novels, including “The Joy Luck Club” and “The Bonesetter’s Daughter,” that reveal her as a surgeon of mother-daughter relations. A former business writer, she’s also a faux dominatrix, playing that role as a backup singer in the Rock Bottom Remainders, an all-writer band that includes Stephen King, Dave Barry and Scott Turow, whose occasional gigs raise money for literacy programs.
She was teased for all these things, gently, probably too gently, by the writers Ben Fong-Torres, who has known Ms. Tan since her business writing days and was the evening’s master of ceremonies — “I’ve known Amy since before she became Chinese again” — Armistead Maupin, Rabih Alameddine and others.
And the writer Andrew Sean Greer gave her credit for his first homosexual experience, which he said occurred in college after a dorm-room study partner pulled out “The Joy Luck Club.” He then stripped off his coat and shirt to reveal a silver-sequined vest and, accompanied by an onstage band, sang an original composition: “Amy Tan,” he snarled musically, “made me a gay man!”
The high points of the evening focused on arts other than literature. It opened with a stunning demonstration of Chinese lion dancing and ended with several classic rock songs performed by Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, giving everyone of a certain age in the audience a thrilling nostalgic frisson. A friend, Barry Humphries, in the garb of the perpetually self-involved Dame Edna, checked in via video, declaring she’d recently discovered that she was half Chinese and had begun eating Chinese food with one chopstick and a fork.
Ms. Tan, clutching Bombo, one of her Yorkies, acknowledged her accolades with the flustered gratitude of an Oscar winner. She was introduced by Mr. Maupin, who said to the roomful of writers, “She embodies what’s most important about this city, what we love about it.”