From the Web to literary hot seat

Times Staff Writer

Mark Sarvas, who was raised in a Hungarian Jewish family in Queens, N.Y., has become notorious as the acid-fingered blogger at the Elegant Variation, a literary site he launched in 2003.

Right out of the gate, he's been a champion of authors he loves -- John Banville, J.M. Coetzee, Zadie Smith -- and a harsh critic of those he doesn't: the Los Angeles Times Book Review, British provocateur Christopher Hitchens, literary "it" boy Keith Gessen, and, going back to the site's first week, writer Steve Almond. (That vendetta provoked a 4,000-word retort on Salon's website from the Boston-based journalist and author.)

Sarvas' new novel, "Harry, Revised," is about a disoriented nebbish who is so self-conscious he can barely act. But that doesn't keep him from falling for a red-haired waitress named Molly while getting lunch at Cafe Retro on the day of his wife's funeral. Complications ensue.

We talked to Sarvas, who lives on the Westside and came across as a remarkably well-behaved lad. Could it be because of the book about to drop?

What came first for you, the desire to criticize and assess or the urge to create characters and narrative?

The desire to write, to create, came first. Like a lot of others, I came out to Los Angeles originally to write screenplays, and when you spend any amount of time doing that, you quickly find that it's not very satisfying. I would get feedback from my agent and producers that 'There's a novelist in you trying to get out.'

When did the urge to judge and assess, which you work out on your blog, come into it?

As anyone who reads my blog knows, I'm a naturally opinionated creature. That impulse has always been there: I've never been shy on weighing in on what I think about something.

But with the Elegant Variation I saw an opportunity to join a conversation that was just beginning to take off. There are now thousands of book blogs: If I did nothing different with the Elegant Variation but launched it today, I'd be a cork in the ocean. So I benefited from timing.

I noticed there was a lack of discussion about L.A. and its literary scene -- these blogs were more based on the East Coast -- and given my European upbringing and my family, my taste ran more toward European writers: I didn't see people like John Banville being written about.

What was on your mind when you started the site?

I really launched the site without a great deal of thought: I was sitting at home in an apartment in Westwood; I was getting increasingly excited by the things I was reading on these other literary blogs. I found [the blogging platform] TypePad, and within an hour or two it was up and running -- I was posting.

The blog's mission has definitely evolved over time. I read those very early posts every now and then with this horrible, wincing shame. But I thought I was working it out in private even though it was becoming quite widely read.

How many and what kind of people read the Elegant Variation?

It can fluctuate, but it looks like there's a core of 7,500 coming in daily now. They seem to come from all over the world.

The thing I'm proudest of about the Elegant Variation is that it's probably the highest-profile literary blog that still maintains an open-comment policy. It's still a place where people can argue and discuss. What I find is that the readers are passionate and knowledgeable and really capable of having a respectful to-and-fro. Once in a while I have to step in like the schoolyard master, but in the main, I love watching these 30- or 40-deep threads evolving based on a comment I've thrown out.

What kinds of targets do you most enjoy going after? The site is famous for that.

I'm not spending my mornings thinking, 'Who can I go after?' But on the other hand, when someone or something gets up my nose, I won't hesitate in saying so. A great example being the rampant idiocy we've seen pouring out of Martin Amis for the last year: his public commentary on Islam, and his new terribly shabby collection of essays ["The Second Plane"] that Leon Wieseltier gave a just dressing-down to.

I'm more inclined to go after someone who can take it, who's a big boy. I don't think [recent targets] Christopher Hitchens or Martin Amis much care what I have to say about them. I'm much less inclined to go after a first novelist, someone who's starting out, unless someone's courting that kind of reaction. When someone says something unforgivably stupid, I will leap out and say so -- and I've been guilty of saying some unforgivably stupid things myself.

What's the stupidest thing you've heard recently?

God, I'm not really sure I can say. The stupidest thing. . . . ? You know, there's no secret that I have an open rivalry with the crew at n+1 and Keith Gessen. And I do find not so much stupid but a real self-importance, an unforgivable level of self-righteousness.

There's been a lot of hand-wringing about the state of literature: How healthy do the worlds of literature and criticism seem to you?

When I look around I see a culture that's passionately taken up the space that's been ceded by newspapers. There are so many avenues, and the Internet is such a powerful tool. This is where the future generation of readers will be found.

How lively does the literary scene in L.A. seem?

It's wonderful. I've watched it grow since I moved out here in August '86. You see the apotheosis of this in the L.A. Times Festival of Books. It's a salutary environment in a way that New York isn't: The writers I meet out here are generally well disposed to each other. And you have wonderful writers: Percival Everett, T.C. Boyle, Marisa Silver. I don't feel the we're-not-New-York insecurity I felt five years ago.

Do you worry about tossing a first novel into a literary sea that you helped churn up?

Ah, sure. My biggest worry is that there will be those who criticize the book not on its own merits but for who I am. People who read my blog decide they don't like me and take revenge on my book. I don't put myself in the same class as either critic or novelist, but it's something that happened to James Wood when he put out his first novel. The sharp knives will come out. But those reviews, when they come out, show themselves for what they are.

Speaking of rivalries, I see that Steve Almond, who you've attacked in the past, called you, years ago, "a wannabe writer bravely dedicated to long-distance slander." Is that a fair comment?

No, because actually it's libel when it's written: He should learn the difference.

You just got hammered in the New York Times Book Review. Do you want to respond?

As a reviewer, I know it's just one person's opinion, and I lost the coin toss in a very public way. I do wish they'd assigned someone with some literary gravitas. It's so off-the-charts negative that it's easy to dismiss. As Oscar Wilde said, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.


Mark Sarvas reads tonight at Vroman's Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, and Tuesday at Village Books, 1049 Swarthmore Ave., Pacific Palisades.

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