Mark Sarvas hosts The Elegant Variation, which has been frequently cited as one of the top literary blogs. As a screenwriter, he has worked for HBO, Showtime and Warner Brothers. His fiction has appeared in Troika Magazine, The Wisconsin Review, Apostrophe, Thought Magazine and Pindeldyboz, while his book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Modern Word, Boldtype and the Los Angeles Review. Mark is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He recently sold his first novel Harry, Revised to Bloomsbury.
Wayne: You were born in New York, and you are a graduate of New York University. What about Los Angeles took you to the West Coast and turned you into an Angeleno (more than 20 years and counting)? How much of an influence was the screenwriting career of F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of your idols?
Mark: Like oh-so-many-others, I came to Casablanca for the waters. Oh, sorry – wrong picture. I came out here in 1986 hoping, like everyone else in this town not interested in acting, to write for film and TV. As for what turned me into an Angeleno, it began with some tough love from a dear friend. I spent the first year here bitching about how inferior everything was to New York, and one day he quite literally whirled on me and said, “Then shut up and go home!” It was bracing, let me tell you. And I decided to make the effort to get to know something about this place, to try to find my way, and now, with the exception of Paris, there’s nowhere else I can see myself living. From the beaches to the downtown library, I’ve found diversity and energy here that rivals any American city. It truly is a 21st century city. As for Fitzgerald, the truth is that at that age – I was 22 – I didn’t really know much about his life which, in retrospect, is probably a good thing, right? The screenwriting life didn’t exactly agree with him, though it doesn’t agree with most people – though seldom to such extreme ill effect. But if I had known, I might have stayed put in New York.
Wayne: Why has The Great Gatsby been so influential on you? Why is it a novel you reread every year, and how has your understanding of the novel—and Fitzgerald evolved?
Mark: Well, it was, simply, the first book that made me want to write. (Fitzgerald has much to answer for.) I remember days after I finished it, I sat down and wrote my first short story, one I haven’t had the nerve to go back and look at in more than ten years but I remember it as little more than a feeble Fitzgerald knock-off called “Imperfect Impressions.” As for Gatsby itself, I came to the book later than most. People usually are taught it in high school, but I wasn’t. A friend gave it to me in college because, he said, I reminded him of Gatsby. Which I realize now probably isn’t such a great thing – the man is a bit of mess, no? – but back then I was kind of flattered. And that was sort of it for about ten years or so, at which point I picked it up again and, of course, it was entirely different to my thirty-something eyes. And I marveled at the experience of returning to something I thought I knew so well and finding it so new – something I came to feel was the essential criterion of “Great Art.” And so I wanted to see if that trend would hold up. And so I read it again. And again. And as I did, I was getting older and, one hopes, wiser and so the themes of loss and the past become more resonant. (I still cry every time I read the famous shirts scene.) But I was also learning about writing, learning about reading, and so it went through distinct phases. Recently, I’ve read it almost purely as a novelist, trying to understand Fitzgerald’s choices, admiring his remarkable style and even coming to grips with the parts of the book I don’t think work so well. That was a big deal, to have the courage of one’s convictions to take on not just an idolized (and idealized) work but a part of the canon.
Wayne: You have said that you are “troubled by how much the book business continues to emulate the worst aspects of Hollywood; the search for the blockbuster, the focus on the widest possible common denominator; marketers in charge of making creative decisions; the lamentable fixation with Young And Attractive.” Yet you’re not above a good James Bond book or flick. How do you reconcile the two views? Which authors get the mix right?
Mark: I think there is absolutely nothing whatsoever wrong with a superiorly crafted piece of pure entertainment. Bond, yes, and I’d throw something like Indiana Jones or the Bourne films into that mix. It was, in fact, the wish to create just such entertainments that brought me here in the first place. I don’t think art and entertainment need (or should) be mutually exclusive. What I object to is how shoddy the process has become – it’s all focus groups and dozens of writers and too many idiot development executives and eventually the singular vision is diluted to the point of sheer tedium. And that’s regrettable in any medium. Where I see that similar trend in publishing is in huge advances for books by young attractive authors that are clearly not merited by the content of the work. It’s a chase of novelty and marketability but it comes at the expense of substance – how many twenty-year olds really have something interesting to say about the world? Some but not a lot. Still, the hype machine ends up kicking in and these books often do well – something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, people buy out of curiosity “So young! So attractive! So much money!” – leading to more of the same next time around, but they’re often just lousy books. Technically proficient perhaps (though not always) but absent any sense of a lived life inhabiting the pages. (Of course, maybe I’m just bitter since I’m no longer young and was never attractive.) As for who gets it right, I think people could do much worse than to look to Graham Greene, who had both his serious books and what he called his “entertainments.” I also admire – no surprise here – what John Banville has done with his Benjamin Black novel Christine Falls, in which it’s a real pleasure to observe the not entirely dignified spectacle of a serious author having the time of his life.
Wayne: On your site, you explain how you got the title “The Elegant Variation (TEV).” Essentially, you are referring to fiction that too consciously calls attention to itself. What else─beyond your criticism of mass and crass, does your selection of this title say about your view on today’s literary scene? On literature in general?
Mark: It’s interesting to see how the name of the blog is received and interpreted. The most common response is “Wow, what a cool name!” But I didn’t really intend it as a comment on the literary scene – although that’s admirably provocative and I might just make that my story from now on. Rather, it was really intended as a bit of self-deprecating humor. Blogs exist, after all, to more or less call attention to themselves. It seemed amusing to name a literary blog after a literary faux pas, suggesting that its proprietor wasn’t taking himself all that seriously.
Wayne: You talked about how other literary blogs inspired you to start a literary blog of your own. Why did you feel the need to add your voice to the world of literary critics? Why blog about literature and not one of your other—what you call—”obsessions” (cycling, the Beatles, Tintin)? What has surprised you most about the evolution of TEV?
Mark: It’s important to think about the context of the blogosphere in October 2003 when I launched TEV. There were a handful of established book blogs – Maud Newton, Moorishgirl, Book Slut and The Literary Saloon – and none were paying much attention to the Los Angeles literary scene which seemed to me, if not yet thriving, definitely up and coming. And my tastes, though similar to some of these bloggers, traveled toward some areas that I didn’t see getting as much attention, and I suspected my somewhat rambunctious sensibility was different enough, and I’ve never been shy so I just sort of elbowed my way into what seemed to be an interesting and lively conversation taking place online. As for my other obsessions, they’re amusing diversions but I don’t think any of them would, on their own, be interesting enough to sustain a daily blog – although there are surely blogs about cycling, Tintin and The Beatles. But I suspect even I would find those tiresome as a steady diet. As for what’s surprised me most, honestly, it’s been how visible the blog has become. In truth, I think I was just a beneficiary of lucky timing – as I said, the pool was much less crowded when I leapt in, so it was perhaps easier to make a splash. Now there are thousands of blogs about books and some of them are quite good but there’s no time to get to most of them. If I had been doing exactly the same thing I’ve always done but had started last year, I doubt my voice would have risen above the din of the crowd. The other great surprise is how well received my more personal posts are. I’ve always assumed people couldn’t care less about my personal life but those entries often generate the deepest comments threads.
Wayne: You have mentioned how useful TEV has been to you in meeting other writers, bibliophiles and people whose intellect you have found stimulating. How has that been useful to your writing? Your novel writing in particular?
Mark: I think it’s a given that when you move in circles that challenge or inspire you, it’s bound to have an effect. And you’ve got a wider, built-in support system to encourage you on when you’re doing something that really seems to work, like the feedback I got on my recent week devoted to David Leavitt’s The Indian Clerk. As for the novel side, the most illuminating thing for me was the de-mystification of the novelist. I’ve gotten to know many of these men and women who are so formidable on the page but when you speak to them in real life, they suffer from precisely the same anxieties and struggles that you do, and that’s very reassuring. And, finally, it’s nice simply to have loads of remarkably smart people to turn to when I have a question – which I frequently do!
Wayne: Despite the fact that you blog frequently, you have said that you are at heart a private person. Still, you share glimpses into your family life (your family’s roots in Hungary, stories about your parents) and some of your “obsessions.” How fair is it to ascribe some of the popularity of the literary blog to the fact that readers get to know bloggers like you more intimately than they do more traditional book reviewers? How else does sharing tidbits about your personal life help or hinder your ability to share your thoughts on the books you review?
Mark: Very interesting question, partially addressed above but worth delving into. First, not to get too Clintonian, but it probably helps to define “private” and “personal,” at least for the sake of this discussion. Perhaps one might substitute “intimate” for “personal.” There are plenty of bloggers out there who are wholly comfortable using their blogs as a sort of confessional, and although it can make for genuinely fascinating reading, I suspect I’m, at heart, simply a bit too fastidious to be that publicly open. So I might, for example, blog about my mother in the form of MOTEV posts, but it will be within parameters that can be accepted as at least mildly literary, or entertaining without being especially revealing. That said, whenever I’m asked “What makes a successful blog?” I always answer that it’s about voice. It’s about whatever it is that makes that blogger’s perspective unique and interesting and that, often, is personal. For me, there will always be a boundary that keeps the deeply personal away from the blog – unless (and this is the one exception) there’s a clear, literary connection. That’s where I’m willing to delve a bit and expose more. The essay I wrote remembering my writing teacher Steven Corbin is an example of that. As for the last part, I don’t think it has much of an impact one way or another on reviewing books. We are all the sum of our prejudices and predispositions, and anyone coming to a book review should necessarily assume that the author of the review has a point of view, even if it’s not represented in a specific review.
Wayne: The tone of literary blogs generally seems to be more intimate than that of traditional book reviews. At times, you are more of a confidante to your readers, and that seems to lead to remarks that are more off-the-cuff than those that might appear in the weekend newspapers. That tone has gotten you into some public spats with some well-known writers. How has that reaction surprised you? I am sure you feel that you need to be as upfront in your reviews as possible, but how, if at all, have these incidents taught you to be more measured in your reviews? You have said, for instance, that: “It’s easy to be careless and unintentionally destructive or hurtful and one must exercise constant vigilance.”
Mark: Again, we need to make some distinctions here. Actual “reviews” constitute a very small part of what I do at TEV – I do more of that in other venues – and specific rules apply there. I try to ensure that my actual reviews are always measured and carefully considered. But as for the daily commentary at TEV, well that’s a bit more no-holds-barred, and that’s the part that’s resulted in these spats. (Nothing I’ve ever written in a review, at TEV or elsewhere, has led to any trouble that I know of.) What’s surprised me the most, honestly, has been that anyone had been paying attention. My two most infamous spats – with Steve Almond and the n+1 editors – took me aback primarily because the ferocity of their replies seemed all out of proportion to any offenses I might have given. (With Almond, in particular, the blog was so new I had no notion that anyone outside of my family was reading.) But we’re all grown ups and if I criticize someone, they have the absolute right to criticize back (although I was surprised by the dishonesty that both these “foes” employed). That said, my quote that you note about constant vigilance was something of an outgrowth of those experiences, a recognition of the fact that people do, in fact, pay attention to what I’m saying, and when I’m critical, there are flesh and blood people at the other end of that criticism – people who in most cases (though not, in my opinion, these two) are coming from a position of good faith with respect to the work they do. And I’ve tried to take that into consideration, to make sure my criticisms can’t be perceived as personal but are focused on the work, and to try to follow the golden rule just a wee bit more than I have. I suppose that’s called growing up. That said, when someone like Richard Ford makes a willfully idiotic statement for all to read, I’ll still reserve the right to step up and call him a dipshit. I hope I don’t ever get too polite for that.
Wayne: Despite the fact that literary blogs are often used as an example of how traditional book review pages are dying, you and other literary bloggers frequently quote from those pages. You have said that it seems de rigeur for others to blast the New York Times Book Review, but you yourself admire the publication. Which book review pages do you admire and why? Any specific reviewers?
Mark: We don’t only quote from them, we contribute to them! I think the New York Review of Books and Bookforum are the two best American book reviews out there and should be on the bedside table of any serious fiction reader. I also think TLS and London Review of Books are superb. They are unfailingly serious, thoughtful, insightful. They’re given breathing space and assigned to writers who are elegant and inventive. At BEA, Heidi Julavits said that “Eight hundred word reviews are bullshit,” and although that might be overstating it a bit, it’s only a bit. There’s nothing quite like the luxury of space in which to flex one’s critical muscles. Among the daily papers, I think Oscar Villalon does fine work with the San Francisco Chronicle. The Boston Globe and Washington Post also offer above par coverage. The Nation and The Atlantic do quite well, as does the New Yorker. As for specific reviewers, my admiration of James Wood is scarcely a secret. I’d also add Daniel Mendelsohn and Louis Menand into the top ranks of critics. I think Michael Gorra is consistently thoughtful; I also admire Stephen Metcalf, Ruth Franklin, Walter Kirn and Adam Kirsch (when he’s not writing about blogs). Richard Eder, too. If we stretch the list to include the likes of Cynthia Ozick, and Joyce Carol Oates, then I could go on and on an on … What is common to all these great critics, I think, is considering works in their context – taking a long view, whether of an author’s entire body of work or the state of a genre. It’s about running long and deep and having the chops to full it off.
Wayne: Among the interviews you have done for TEV, which have been your favorites? Are there any specific thoughts that you have gleaned that have accelerated your own development as a writer? Who is on your short list of authors that you still want to interview?
Mark: My favorite – again, for obvious reasons – is my interview with John Banville. It was such a treat to be able to sit down across a lunch table and talk for hours … though it took a half bottle of Sancerre before I finally calmed down! (All I could think was, “Jesus Christ, I’m sitting here with John-fucking-Banville.”) I also have a real fondness for my interview with Andrew Sean Greer because it was my first extended TEV interview and suggested to some what the medium was capable of. To repeat what I’ve said above, I don’t think I gleaned anything specific other than the very reassuring fact that even The Great Man himself has doubts and frustrations. I do remember a lovely, encouraging moment in the cab on the way to the train station. Banville, very courteously, asked me about my novel. I said “Well, the truth is, I expected to write this literary, profound Banvillean debut and, instead, I’ve written this slightly squalid, trivial black comedy.” And he leaned in and conspiratorially said (imagine a gentle Irish lilt), “Oh no, that’s much better.” Which was hugely encouraging. My short list is pretty long because I’ve done so few interviews. The problem is to do them properly really is quite a lot of work and I can be a perfectionist. And when the Robert Birnbaums of the world do it so well, it’s more fun for me to sit back and read. But, in no particular order, I’d love to talk to Martin Amis, J.M. Coetzee, Zadie Smith, Ian McEwan, Jeanette Winterson, Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Toni Morrison, James Wood, Daniel Mendelsohn and … and … and …
Wayne: In many of your interviews and reviews, it is clear that you have absorbed much of the respective oeuvres. How systematic are you in your reading?
Mark: Well that’s one nice thing about being obsessive – you tend to do your homework. The problem is that it’s thorough – occasionally exhaustively so – without being especially systematic. Sometimes – like in the case of my James Wilcox review for the New York Times – I’m unfamiliar with a writer and so to review it properly, I’ll read all his work. (Nine books for that review but it was my Times debut so I was on best behavior.) It’s certainly easier – though often less interesting – to review first novels. Other times, I’m fortunate enough to dovetail an existing interest with an piece I’m writing. For example, I’ve got an essay in the fall issue of The Threepenny Review about Tom Stoppard’s first and only novel. It was my first chance to write a bit longer – about 1500 words – and in that case, I already knew Stoppard’s oeuvre quite well so I was able to deploy some of that knowledge in writing the essay. And still other times, I might simply latch onto something that piques my interest and read away until I drop. I’ve actually just begun reading a pile of books that constitutes research for my next novel, so I suppose that represents some kind of system, though it’s not fully revealed itself yet. For all the knocks blogs get about sloppiness, I do try to do my homework and know what I’m talking about. Otherwise, thereof one must remain silent …
Wayne: You are closing on four years as a literary blogger. What keeps you going?
Mark: I find the conversation endlessly fascinating and rewarding. And I’m flattered and honored to be a part of it. Or at least to be tolerated.