A couple of years ago, a writer friend of mine sent me a link to a weblog in which a guy named Mark Sarvas posted the following statement, under the headline “THE TRUTH MUST BE TOLD”:
The adulation accorded Steve Almond constitutes one of the blogosphere’s enduring mysteries. From the very first days of this site, I’ve shaken my head in a sort of dazed wonder at the wake of overheated prose stylings the guys [sic] leaves behind. So I am, of course, delighted that the Washington Post’s Jonathan Yardley finally steps up and speaks the truth.
An excerpt of Yardley’s review followed. Then this summation:
If Almond devoted a fraction of the efforts [sic] he brings to self-promotion to his writing, he might finally be on to something. But I doubt it.
Who was Mark Sarvas? Well, he was a writer, of course. You could tell this because there was a portable typewriter right next to him in his photo, which was taken outside. So he was clearly dedicated to his craft. But he was also a cool writer, the kind who wore a leather jacket and shades while hanging out next to typewriters outside.
Sarvas lived in Los Angeles and this meant he was a novelist and a screenwriter. Somehow, between novel drafts and pitch meetings, he managed to produce a blog that he had named, unpretentiously, the Elegant Variation.
His entries did not compose a meaningful discussion of literature — few of the so-called lit blogs actually undertake such a thing. They were gossip items for the most part, links to articles, an occasional belch of schadenfreude. His prose style favored elevated diction, convoluted sentences, serial use of the royal “we” and, in an effort to convey a stream of consciousness … lots … of … ellipses.
Writing like Henry James (or, at least, a learning-disabled Henry James) helped Sarvas preserve the fantasy that he was not just a wannabe writer bravely dedicated to long-distance slander.
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A few months later, I received an e-mail from another friend, directing me to an on-line forum of lit bloggers put together by a guy named Dan Wickett. The forum included Sarvas, who described the birth of his blog like so:
I launched The Elegant Variation in a fit of madness on October 14, 2003 with a declaration of my love for James Wood and my loathing for Steve Almond. Nine months later, my positions remain unchanged.
Now it became clear to me that Sarvas wasn’t just your garden-variety Steve Almond hater. No, he was special. He was the president of the Official Steve Almond Haters Club. I considered writing him a congratulatory note and sending along a signed photo. Sadly, I do not possess any signed photos.
Indeed, it struck as me as one of the dinkier titles in the history of belles-lettres to be the president of the Steve Almond Haters Club — like being an ambassador to Liechtenstein, or maybe, more accurately, an ambassador from Liechtenstein.
Pynchon. DeLillo. Foster Wallace. These were authors one might be proud to revile. But me? I was a short story writer with a small press. The closest I’d come to the New Yorker was a subscription. I couldn’t even find an agent to represent me.
Poor Sarvas! As I considered the guy from afar, I began (almost involuntarily) to feel sorry for him.
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Of course, any serious writer needs to preserve the bulk of his pity for himself, so I put Sarvas out of my mind.
That changed this past spring, when I was invited to the Los Angeles Times Book Festival. Knowing I was headed into town, a guy named Jim Ruland e-mailed me about participating in a reading series called Vermin on the Mount. Ruland had written me before and seemed like a nice guy, so I said sure. His next e-mail listed the lineup, which included … Mark Sarvas.
As it emerged, Ruland knew all about the Sarvas blog and his hatred for me. But strangely, he never felt compelled to address the issue. (Oh, just so you know, you’ll be reading with your cyber-nemesis.) In fact, he also asked me to come by the Vermin booth to sign books. Among the features of this booth: Sarvas would be “live blogging.”
The idea of not doing these events never occurred to me. Sarvas seemed like such a blowhard. The juvenile part of me very much looked forward to calling him out.
When I told my pal Pete about this plan, though, he shook his head.
“What?” I said
Pete paused. “He’s in love with you.”
“Please,” I said.
“Hatred is a form of love,” Pete said. “Look at it, dude: He founded a whole Web site based on his feelings for you.”
“It’s a blog,” I said.
“He’s obsessed. He’s obsessed with you.”
“He hasn’t even read my work.”
“What’s that got to do with anything? It’s what you represent. You’re like his big, sexy daddy.”
I took a moment to let this sink in. “Are you saying I should sleep with him?”
“No,” Pete said slowly. “What I’m saying is that you should sleep with him and film it and post the video on the Web.”
“That is so hot,” I said. “I’m getting hot just thinking about it.”
Pete put his hand on my shoulder.
“So is he. I guarantee it. So go. Go make magic with your secret, online luv-toy.”
But of course I could not make magic with my secret, online luv-toy. Life is never that simple.
For one thing, I had a girlfriend out in L.A.
For another thing, my discussion with Pete had hipped me to the idea that Sarvas wanted, rather desperately, to be involved with me. Whether he knew it or not — chances are not — he was toting around a whole scrotum full of fantasies. The basic one in which he mustered the courage to insult me to my face. The exalted one in which he read so brilliantly at our shared appearance that I was forced to bow down before him and admit that he was right: I really was just a self-promoting hack. The kinky one in which we slapped one another with silk gloves then changed into tights and fought a duel.
It was my job not to gratify this shit. Any sign that I knew who he was, that he mattered to me in any way, would simply give him too much pleasure. (Let me be honest: I was concerned he might ejaculate in his pants.) So I had to be very detached.
My plan was simple — I would pretend I didn’t know who he was. When introduced, I would say a few nice, disingenuous things about blogs, and if he, or someone else, mentioned his antagonism I would smile and say, “Thank God someone is out there keeping me honest!” Then later, if it felt right — and only if it felt right — I would pull down his Underoos and spank him on his hot little blogger bottom.
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I have never been too good at following plans that call for me to act like an adult, because I grew up with a couple of brothers who often behaved like jerks and got away with it and this shaped my psyche in such a way that I developed a rather wide and intractable self-righteous streak. When people (other than me) act like assholes, I feel compelled to confront them.
My plan to show restraint in the Sarvas matter didn’t last long. I had been at the book festival for barely an hour when I made a beeline for the Vermin booth. I walked right up to him and stuck my hand out and said, in a loud, friendly voice, “Hi! I’m Steve Almond!”
He looked up, startled. “Jim’s over there!” he said, pointing to the tall fellow on his left. My hand hung in the air, waiting for the shake that would initiate our super-charged literary smackdown. But Sarvas took a swift step to the side and sat down in front of his laptop and refused to look up again.
I felt oddly preempted. After all, it had been my plan to pretend I didn’t know who Sarvas was, and here he was pretending he didn’t know who I was, even though I had just introduced myself to him.
I stood there for another few seconds, kind of confused, staring at Sarvas as he stared at his computer screen. I wanted to say something to him, something like: “Does anyone around here smell blog pussy?”
But this would be blowing my cover, giving him that precious gift of acknowledgment, so I shook hands with Jim instead and waited (in vain) for him to introduce me to Sarvas, who remained hunched over his machine, live blogging.
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“That was Sarvas,” I told my girlfriend, as we walked away from the booth.
“The dude at the computer.”
She was confused. She was trying to square the image of my cyber-nemesis with the hunched figure at his keyboard.
It was at this point, I believe, that she began to refer to Sarvas exclusively as blog bitch. Actually, that’s wrong. She didn’t bestow this nickname until that night, when — despite her best impulses — she checked his blog.
Here is a direct transcription:
1:41 – Steve Almond is standing right in front of me … We haven’t spoken; he’s talking to Jim … Wondering if he’ll punch me out … I think I could take him …
As sad as this might seem, even sadder was the response of his fellow blog bitches. One of them, a guy named Robert Birnbaum, sent the following response:
Yo! Fo! Shizzle! Almond b a wus. He gotz to be got.
Remarkably, Birnbaum is not a young, African-American blogger from Compton who goes by the street handle OGB (Original Gangsta Blogga). He is a paunchy middle-aged Jew who conducts long interviews with writers for his lit blog, often mentioning himself and his dog Rosie. Having been interviewed by Birnbaum myself, I tend to think of him as the Regis Philbin of the lit game, though that may be overstating his charm.
For the record, Birnbaum: If I get wind of you dissing my junk ever again, I’m gonna track down your mutt and see how she like my chocolate bone.
Cuz that b how real authors do they bidness.
The Vermin reading was at a bar in Chinatown. I made sure to show up early enough to catch Sarvas, though more interesting was Jim Ruland’s introduction. He described Sarvas as a selfless champion of literature, a local hero. It was especially disheartening to see this, because Ruland was smart enough to recognize how little Sarvas actually cares for art, the extent to which his blog is an elaborate and indulgent plea for attention.
At the same time, Ruland was running a reading series in Los Angeles, a town where books were a minor cultural curiosity that occasionally spawned depressing movies and, more often, sat on coffee tables, suggesting a certain intellectual depth and accenting the color scheme. His desperation, in other words, endowed Sarvas with some perceived power, which explained why he was on the bill in the first place. It was a kind of sponsorship showcase.
The piece Sarvas read exuded a dismal semi-competence. As I recall, one of the characters spoke through clenched molars. Later on, he (or she or it) did something to no avail. He didn’t much care for his people, and it showed.
There was an intermission, during which I milled around downstairs with my girlfriend. I was the first reader after the break and I was talking to a woman who was reading after me. At a certain point, Sarvas came by and nervously announced to this woman that intermission would be over in five minutes. Then he scurried off.
What amazed me — and still does — is that none of the local lit trash at that bar had enough gumption, or plain old mischief-making instincts, to engineer an introduction. Most knew who Sarvas was, and that he hated me. But none of them would acknowledge the dynamic. Instead, they all stood around in a cloud of unrequited rubbernecking.
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As for my reading, it was a letdown. Ruland got the name of my new book wrong. Sarvas failed to rush the stage. I read a story, stupidly, that expressed my predominant feelings about Southern California:
The sun was gone now; the purple smog of dusk was upon them. This was a summer evening in LA, just the way they drew it up all those years ago. A breeze came rolling in and the street lights began to come lit. The very thought of the city beyond his hotel exhausted him: the knotted freeways, the vast, flat valleys of porn, the hot distance of everything from everything else.
A few hours after the event (ah, the joys of the Internet!) Sarvas offered his readers the following assessment of our respective performances:
We’re pleased to say the reading was a smashing success … Folks even seemed to like our offering, laughing more or less where they were supposed to … and we can report that Steve Almond’s reading did nothing to alter our opinion of him …
Later he added:
We found his story to be wholly not our cup of tea, its literary sensibilities a bit too informed by the pages of Penthouse Forum for our tastes … We’re scarcely prudes but Almond’s work is all assfucking and facials without much to commend itself for … we’re struck by an absence of context … of character … of depth …
Sarvas couldn’t have known this, but my response to this entry was a distinct sense of arousal … thinking about him typing those words … assfucking and facials … with his actual fingers … we wondered what Sarvas might have been wearing when he posted … was he dressed in a leather jacket? … maybe nothing but a leather jacket … might he be whispering my name? … through clenched molars? … we were trembling … yes, trembling … entry … the very word dripped … assfucking … entry … We’re scarcely prudes … was Sarvas trying to tell us something? … we tried to keep from touching ourselves … honestly, we did … alas, it was to no avail …
Thankfully, Sarvas and I had one more shot at love — my Sunday morning visit to the Vermin booth! He would have to be there (live blogging!) and, with an hour to kill in the same small booth, he would have to talk to me. I wore something low-cut, but not slutty, and curled my hair.
But he didn’t show.
I realize that I’ve said very little about the book festival to this point, and part of the reason is because I found it so depressing. I find all book festivals depressing, because we writers are so disappointing in person, so awkward and needy and choked with status angst. But it was even worse in L.A., because the entire town runs on the bad Kool-Aid of fame.
The festival honchos had given us all the star treatment. We stood around on a sun-dappled veranda nibbling canapis, somewhat puffed on our temporary importance. But then every 10 minutes or so a minor film celebrity like Eric Idle or Michael York would drop by and we would all stop talking and stare and recognize, at once, how sadly unfamous our little kingdom is.
I had two gigs at the festival. The first was as a moderator of a nonfiction panel. My four authors had written books on the following subjects:
2. Political activism
3. The development of penicillin
4. Anal sex
I am going to spare us all the embarrassment of detailing this particular panel.
The other panel was devoted to the short story, and by the time I arrived at the host auditorium it was packed. Sarvas was right in the front row, with his computer.
Before I could stop myself, I walked over to him and laid my hand on his shoulder and said, in a soft voice, “Hey, I really enjoyed your reading last night.”
I was hoping to get his phone number, obviously. I was hoping to be a part of his next entry. (I am so transparent!)
Actually, that’s not true. My intentions were a bit less prurient. I hoped this comment might teach him something: that he’d do best to conduct himself like an adult, to be supportive of other writers, to exhibit grace even when what you wanted to do (maybe even had the right to do) was tear someone a new asshole.
But the lesson didn’t take.
I’ll explain why, but it’s important first to talk about the panel, which was the most inspiring I’ve ever been a part of. Our moderator, the writer Tod Goldberg, did a great job of loosening up the crowd and drawing us out.
Merrill Gerber talked about what it was like, as a woman of the ’50s, to write stories about domestic life at a time when her colleagues — men like Robert Stone — were offering up accounts of war and drugs and politics.
Aimee Bender, whose stories are often fantastical, helped me see plot in an entirely new light. “When you write outside of realism,” she observed, “plot becomes the internal life of the character.”
Bret Anthony Johnston spoke, with terrifying eloquence, about, well, a whole bunch of stuff. “I don’t believe in the idea of talent,” he told the audience at one point. “I don’t believe in the idea of inspiration. I don’t believe in a muse or anything like that. I believe in work. I believe in dedication … Your job is to try to make a piece of art and the way you do that is by going to your studio every day.”
There wasn’t a single comment that didn’t smack of the truth, that didn’t make me think about my own writing and the larger role of art in the present culture. I actually took notes.
Of course, Sarvas was also taking notes. Aside from bashing me, here is the sum total of what he had to say on his blog:
On the subject of the short story, the panel is moderated by Novelist/Blogger and former The Elegant Variation guest host Tod Goldberg; the other participants include Aimee Bender, Bret Anthony Johnston and Merill [sic] Joan Gerber.
Tod keeps it light, querying the authors on everything from peanut butter preferences to whipped cream references … We also learn Tod has a short story collection coming out in September … but apparently Tin House won’t publish him … Aimee Bender apparently brought a cheering section, as the room erupted into cheers at her introduction … Tod identifies her as crush-worthy for smart 13 year olds … The most notable thing to us is that Gerber has published seven collections of short stories … seven collections … we wonder how on earth she manages to get them published … (Forget the seven novels she’s also published … ) Over the years, Redbook published 42 of her stories…
Attending this panel had forced Sarvas to confront his actual role in the literary world: He was a pretender with a press pass, a person who lacked the dedication Bret Johnston spoke of, and who therefore had created his own narrative (the blog) in which the essential topic was not literature at all, but his own towering envy.
So it came as no surprise that his “coverage” of the event read like a Page Six dispatch. Nor that his loyal readers felt well-served by this summary. What astonished me was that Tod Goldberg, our moderator, responded. “Thanks for providing coverage,” he wrote. “And wonderful as always to see you out causing trouble.”
Why would Goldberg — an excellent writer and genuinely thoughtful guy — offer such a comment? I suspect because he views Sarvas as someone who might help his career. The same is true of Jim Ruland. Even Dan Wickett, who appears to spend his life promoting writers, provided a forum for Sarvas’ vitriol. Whatever they might think of his ad hominems, in the end they aggrandize his persona.
Publishers have started doing the same thing. If you want an index of just how desperate the industry has grown, look no further than the rise of the blogger as a phenomenon. Some folks are even parlaying their blogs into book deals. Why? In part, because publishers are drawn in by the mystique of the Internet and the notion that an author has a built-in — what is the word the marketing people use? Ah yes, here it is — platform.
To be clear: Some bloggers, such as Wendy McClure, also happen to be terrific writers. They use their blogs to undertake the honest labor of self-reflection. The improvisational form activates their love of the language. More power to them.
But there are also bloggers who, like Sarvas, are simply too lazy and insecure to risk making art, to release their deepest emotions onto a blank page with no promise of recognition. So they launch a blog instead.
I can understand the temptation. It’s one I feel every day. Sarvas horrifies me precisely because he represents certain desires that live inside of me: the desire to avoid the solitude and humiliation of sustained creative work, to choose grievance over mercy, to find a shortcut to fame.
Does that turn you on, Sarvas? You’re inside me.
I said before that few of these lit blogs actually discuss literature in a meaningful way.
Why, then, do so many people read them?
To begin with, not so many people read them. Instead, a very concentrated population of people read them over and over. Namely, other bloggers. They all read one another, in the hope something they mentioned on their blog will be cited on another blog. It’s a kind of Ponzi scheme in which the object is attention, and the shared illusion is one of relevance.
That said, plenty of aspiring writers and publishing folks also read blogs. With coverage of literature all but disappearing from corporate media, lit blogs serve as instant clearinghouses for news items, local readings and reviews. Many (Sarvas’ included) advocate for favorite writers. They allow people to feel connected to the world of letters. All this is perfectly commendable. At their finest, blogs contribute to a serious discussion of literature and the culture at large, which is why I happily write essays for sites like Mobylives.com.
But lit blogs also have a tendency to boil that world down to a series of conflicts and controversies. Reading them often becomes a legitimized form of scandal mongering. (It’s a lot easier to read about Philip Roth’s angry ex-wife than it is to read one of his books.)
Most writers perceive themselves as failures. They suffer rejection and disregard on a daily basis. Even the lucky few who get published can’t get the New York bigwigs to return their calls. The modern writer is engaged in an enterprise almost guaranteed to crush her spirit. And certain blogs — like other forms of modern media — serve as bulletin boards for the resulting feelings of despair, spite and rage. Their chosen topic happens to be literature, but it could just as well be politics or sports. Their deepest allure resides in the gratification of primal negative emotions.
As a side note, this dynamic is the reason the conservative movement now runs our government. Rush Limbaugh may be a dissembling fascist, but he knows how to connect to citizens through fear and grievance. In the absence of sustained moral courage, the demagogues win.
Which is why a guy like Mark Sarvas has more readers than a brilliant novelist such as John Williams.
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It will have occurred to nearly all of you at this point that I have made a dream come true for Sarvas. He has officially made it into my world. And all it took was two years of sustained slander!
He hasn’t realized this — and he never will — but his subconscious motive for attacking me was the hope that I would someday write this very piece. He envisioned something truly vicious, something he could feed off for a good, long time. I’ve tried to oblige. But I’m also going to offer him something he wasn’t bargaining for: my forgiveness.
I don’t mean pity. I do pity the guy, but that’s a condescending posture, and it only gets you halfway to the truth. I mean forgiveness.
I forgive the guy for hating me so much. If I were in his position, I would feel the same way. And I have. I’ve felt the same burning jealousy he has, toward those writers whose artistic and commercial success shames me. And if I haven’t broadcast those feelings to the world, it is only because my act is a little more polished than his.
But we’re basically the same guy. We both face the same doomed task: to write in an era that has turned away from the written word, to love the world in the face of considerable self-hatred.
I hope the best for Sarvas. I hope the best for you, Mark. May the best of who you are win out, in the end. That would be a triumph no one could ever take away from you, or diminish. Shit, man, it would be a work of art.