Mark Sarvas on His Elegant Variation and the Inelegant Review of Harry, Revised
Mark Sarvas, the unwitting bad-boy blogger of the popular lit blog The Elegant Variation, is doing his part to keep the novel alive. People throw down on his site like they’re defending the Bloods and Crips, not Banville and Amis. His own recently released first novel, Harry, Revised, is no less polarizing. It was skewered in the New York Times Book Review, but Sarvas is taking it gracefully. And why shouldn’t he? He has a loyal daily Web viewership of 8,000 strong and plenty of shoulders to cry on, if he were the crying sort, which he isn’t. And yes, Sarvas is in discussions to turn Harry into a film, as befits a former screenwriter living in Pacific Palisades. We met at his home there to discuss the blog, the book and the state of all things literary.
L.A. WEEKLY: Literary blogging has grown exponentially over the past few years. How do you think it has impacted the world of letters?
MARK SARVAS: It has opened up the conversation, to people who before would be sitting at home with their books and experiencing this passion for literature with no outlet for it. Now with the proliferation of lit blogs, there’s a book blog for every flavor. If you like science fiction, mysteries, romance, you can pick your poison. It serves as a virtual salon.
Do you find that the power balance has shifted? There is a sense, with lit blogs, of the seizing of the means of production.
There is, but I wonder if the power is a bit ... illusory? My blog has a great deal of visibility, but I’m not finding that the turnout for my events is necessarily much higher than for any other literary-fiction book tour coming through town. I’m starting to get a sense of what the limits of our power are.
But The Elegant Variation certainly took off.
It did. Part of what made my blog a destination was my ability to get interviews with Andrew Sean Greer, John Banville. Conversations with authors like David Leavitt. But the paradox is, I became able to get those conversations because of the growing visibility of my blog. Whereas any beginning blog today would be unlikely to get that kind of time with A-list authors.
Did you feel like the NYT Book Review write-up was fair?
It’s an interesting sign that when someone is so off-the-charts mean, Gawker comes to your defense. That should tell you something about the review. I’m confident that smart readers will know that it’s more about [reviewer] Troy Patterson than it is about my book. He didn’t particularly engage with the material. My only regret is that the Times chose to assign it to a sitcom and pop-music critic.
Whom would you have wanted to review it?
I would have wanted James Wood. But I knew he wouldn’t, because we had corresponded and had enough personal contact that he wouldn’t feel comfortable taking it on. The problem is, now that I’m in this world of book reviewing, I know too many people. I’d be interested to know what Michiko Kakutani thinks about it, but I’m unlikely to find out, as I’ve been critical of her on the blog.
You’ve been critical of a few people, including writer Steve Almond, with whom you’ve been in a colorful cyber war for the past four years. Did you really start your blog because of him?
No. Think of all the power that would grant Steve Almond. I don’t want to be known as the blogger who hates Steve Almond. And I don’t hate Steve Almond, by the way. I started the blog because there was an interesting literary discussion that I wanted to be part of. And I noticed things were missing from that: an L.A. focus, certain European writers I enjoy. And I began with a declaration of principles, and one of those was James Woods thumbs up, Steve Almond thumbs down. And it rather ballooned out of control after that.
Almond took you to task for your use of the royal “we.”
You want to know why do I write the “we”? I always loved the old New Yorker Talk of the Town pieces and that voice. But the core of it is a little bit of insecurity. I’m often asked, and wondered, and I’m sure Steve Almond is asked and wondered, why anyone would give a crap about what I think about anything. What are my credentials? What entitles me to hold forth and bloviate on literature? Subconsciously, I feel like the “we” invests me with a little more authority than I naturally deserve. There’s safety in numbers. There’s strength in numbers. It now fits like an old glove. But I know there are people who are instantly put off by it.
What’s your blog’s mission?
I have components to the mission. It is an elastic mission at best. To keep my readers apprised of the news of the day. To point them to worthy resources, articles, events. But in a larger sense, I want to create a place, a literary nexus where people can come to agree or disagree.
Why is Count of Monte Cristo a touchstone for you?
I remember as a kid being haunted by the idea of 17 years of imprisonment and tunneling out; it stuck in my consciousness. I came back to it in my 20s, and it was a triumph of narrative and plot. I was writing my first chapter, where [Harry] goes into the café and orders the Monte Cristo, because it seemed funny to me that someone with such fastidious taste would be given this disgusting sandwich. I realized, whoa, there’s big potential in using that book, with its own themes of change and reinvention of self.
In your acknowledgments, you say it’s a different experience having published your first novel in your 40s.
I’ve experienced things in the world more than the inside of a writing program. You see the differences in books in general that are written later in life as opposed to the 25-year-old wunderkind. It’s not that those books aren’t worth reading, and some of these young people have just shocking mountains of talent. They’re incredible, but the pages are still empty. They haven’t lived a life yet. I’m in awe of their talent, but I’m not yet interested in what they have to say.
There’s such an emphasis on the wunderkind.
Oh, yeah. It’s potentially depressing if you’re an older writer toiling away. If I had just been a 43-year-old dude with a first novel coming out, without the blog, I don’t know thatI’d be a pulse anywhere. In some ways, publishing learned some of the worst lessons of Hollywood. There’s this obsession with the blockbuster, the high concept, the young and the beautiful. And those things are not why people turn to literature.
Did you ever imagine you would write a novel?
When I was a kid, my mother made me write a report for her on my first decade. When I turned 10 years old, she wanted me to write a memoir. Writing Harry was as much about telling myself I could do it, that I had the chops to get to the end. That was a big day for me, when I finished it. With any luck, I can do it again.
Maybe that’s why writers want to do it. It’s the Tour de France of writing.
It very much is. We view the novel as the pinnacle of the form. When a novel hits all the marks, when it does what the form promises, it endures. We’re sitting in my dining room in Pacific Palisades talking about The Count of Monte Cristo more than a hundred years later. Those things sustain. And there’s a reason they sustain, and that’s a tradition that all novelists want to be a part of. To summon an entire world into being out of nothing? Brain surgeons have nothing on novelists.
Do you see Harry as a movie?
Yes. Everybody else does. There are discussions under way as we speak. We’ve been approached; there’s interest. My agent asked me if I want to write the adaptation, and I said no. I’m much more interested in writing my next novel.
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