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The Los Angeles Reader

Santa Monica blogger Mark Sarvas takes pleasure in “confronting the canard that no one reads in L.A.” His blog, The Elegant Variation (http://marksarvas.blogs.com/elegvar) — or TEV, as it’s known to its many readers — has been championed by such disparate sources as The New York Times, The Guardian, Forbes, NPR and the Los Angeles Times Magazine (now called West).

L.A. WEEKLY: You’ve become a voice of criticism to be reckoned with in the L.A. literary landscape. Is there pressure to review friends’ books positively and vice-versa?

MARK SARVAS: The site is mine to do with as I wish, and I prefer to focus on things I’m enthusiastic about. Sure, I will weigh in negatively, too, but there’s no great benefit to slamming hard-working authors, whether they’re friends or not. But if a friend were to write something I didn’t care for, I’d probably just let it die quietly. Most writers have the sense to pick up on that.

Now that lit blogging has been around for a while, and is certainly here to stay, where do you see it going next?

I’m not convinced podcasting will be the next big thing — it’s not as easily digestible as blogs are — but I’m hopeful and curious. We’ll probably see more collaborative efforts, like our own Litblog Co-op, while at the same time more publishers will jump on the bandwagon and launch their own blogs. Though they, of course, will have a credibility challenge.

There is a fear that traditional (consumer) sources of information/criticism are on their way out. Why would a book lover pay to subscribe to, say, the NYT Book Review, when they can read lit blogs like TEV for free?

Some Sundays I ask myself the same question, especially with respect to the [Los Angeles] Times. But the issue isn’t that blogs are free; it’s that most book coverage is lousy. Look, I don’t think blogs will ever fully supplant the major media outlets — you’re not going to find the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Terrence Rafferty, Clive James, James Wood and others at my place. (Well, at least not yet .?.?.) Star power does count for something. Then again, plenty of folks — including publishing-industry types — say that blogs are now their first source for literary news. Coffee over blogs has replaced coffee over the newspaper. So anything is possible.

Is TEV a labor of love for you, or a business, or both?

John Banville called it “philanthropic,” which I thought was a bit grand, but I’m not interested in capitalizing on the blog. I’m too lazy to manage the meager income it might produce, and I wouldn’t want to do anything that might impair my independence. As it is, I can criticize whomever I want, not post whenever I want and so on. I’m not prepared to trade that off so cheaply. And I think the freedom and independence is part of what draws people to book blogs and gives them credibility.

Were your parents readers? What drew you to the literary life?

My mother, in particular, is a great reader. She’s known as MOTEV on the site, and her literary pronouncements remain one of my most popular features. She was a professor of German literature and wanted to be a writer. So I suspect I was hard-wired from the outset. Family legend (apocryphal, I believe) claims that when I was 1, I ate the frontispiece from the family Complete Shakespeare and have been, well, digesting literature ever since .?.?.

What books do you consider “L.A.” literature?

Good writers veer from pigeonholes — the best writers here are concerned with much the same things as the best writers elsewhere. At the risk of sounding a bit Gertrude Stein, good writing is good writing is good writing.

How do you choose the content for TEV?

Remember playing pin the tail on the donkey? I have a wide range of sources, and a fair number of readers who write in with tips. But it’s more or less a nightly gut check. I do make an effort to pay attention to books that might get overlooked. And, of course, I’m a sucker for a cheap laugh.

What do you love about L.A.? What do you hate?

Some days, like today, I love everything. It’s another warm, perfumed night; I’m a five-minute walk from the ocean; there are great bookstores everywhere; there’s no line at my favorite sushi place; Jim Svejda is playing some beautiful music — what’s not to like? What do I hate? Right now I’m in too good a mood — nothing unique to L.A. comes to mind.