Saturday, May 3, 2008

NYTBR on Harry, Revised

Troy Patterson reviews Mark Sarvas's novel Harry, Revised in the Sunday Book Review, and his take isn't much different from mine a few days ago:
Harry does not seem to have been reread, never mind revised. I will grant you that these days, only chess players seem to use the word “gambit” properly, but Harry is supposed to be infatuated with the game of kings. Other terms that the novelist is pretentious enough to use despite his not knowing their precise meanings include “enormity,” “parameters,” “jumper,” “tortuous” and “petty crime.” The choicest mixed metaphor finds Harry “keeping his balls in the air” while he’s “stuck on a roller coaster” carrying him along by “sheer momentum.”

Hang-ups about class seem to be both a theme of “Harry, Revised” and a motive for its composition, with Sarvas writing about “old money” in a fashion indicating that he’s never met anyone in possession of it. Harry, whose background remains vague, has always felt inferior to Anna’s “swarm of Greenwich suitors” and jealous of her “patrician” metabolism. Does there exist a Fairfield County Anti-Defamation League?
I noted this latter anxiety myself while reading, but there was just so much to pick on Sarvas about I left it out. Thinking back to it, though, the cluelessly sniveling reactions Harry (and his author) have to the "old money" set dovetail smoothly with what I have noticed is a certain amount of reflexive animosity on Sarvas's part toward the East Coast and its elites. There is a long history between Sarvas and n+1 (which appears to be, for Sarvas, exemplary of hollow New York literary elitism), a history which is in itself quite interesting and which I may post on separately at some point.

However, I'll offer a link to one Sarvas post to demonstrate the virulence of an anti-East Coast bias that I honestly never knew existed in such a potent strain. Note well that the main reason I'm linking to it is to highlight a comment on Sarvas's blog, not his own writing, and while I fully recognize that it is not a very fair practice to use the comments on someone's blog against them, in this case the venom is so disproportionate that I feel Sarvas should have stepped in to moderate. The fact that it was an anonymous comment makes it more necessary, as bloggers do, I feel, have an obligation to maintain a balance of transparency and civility on their blogs. If your commenters are not going to be civil, they should claim their words; if their words are trivial, anonymity's sort of beside the point.

This entry—from a couple of years before the 2007 clash where Sarvas posted Gessen's private correspondence—is itself reeking of bile, but read the response to it by an n+1 supporter and then especially read the long comment by "Citoyen Fantomas" to get what I'm talking about. It's really quite incredible.

More (5/4): I don't have very much more to say about Sarvas and that put-upon air bloggers get when they see their name in print not fixed between two compliments or as a byline but I find the bloggers' reactions to Patterson's review exceedingly frustrating. A friend of Sarvas's questions Troy Patterson's motives, alluding to a line which bloggers have descended upon en masse already "That you are reading a review of this novel in these pages is a testament to the author’s success as a blogger.":

Now, it's possible that Mr. Troy Patterson, the reviewer, read the novel, hated it as much as he seems to have based on his comments, and then looked into Mark Sarvas' background. But, I don't think so. Mr. Patterson follows it up with comments about a couple of other literary bloggers, detailed enough to suggest he's well enough aware of them that he knew of them prior to being given this novel to review.
It might just be my reading of the review, and it could certainly be that I have some bias as I a) consider Mark a friend, b) really liked the novel a lot, and c) am a literary blogger myself (supposedly), but I read the review thinking the whole time, 'Wow, this guy really hated this book, and he, .... Oh, wait, he doesn't like the fact that a blogger is getting attention."
I question the judgment of anyone who thinks Sarvas wrote a good book, but I am even more skeptical of someone who is so paranoid of print that he'll wave away a fairly well-supported excoriation of Sarvas's book by implying that Patterson's just jealous. Which is not to say that jealousy does not play a part in reviewing (paging Dale Peck), but why should Patterson be jealous of a man whose first book is being panned in one of the back pages of the Book Review?

Patterson could not have written anything more incendiary for bloggers—it obliquely affirms a certain disdainful consciousness among print-based media of the blogosphere while supposedly denying them (really, just denying Sarvas) a claim to literary merit. Not to mention that the idea this statement implicitly supports—that coverage in literary reviews may be based in certain cases on something other than the book's merit—confirms the image of print culture that bloggers love to denounce—all about insider relationships, advances, publicity machines, drained of any actual love for literature or desire to find and promote books that bloggers people everywhere will enjoy. Because bloggers are never nepotistic and never write about anything they don't believe in with all their heart. You can trust a blogger—they're in it for all the Right Reasons.


Mike Eagle said...

"I question the judgment of anyone who thinks Sarvas wrote a good book ... "

Well then, I guess you'll question my judgment.

I have a very different take over at

Anonymous said...

I find that defensive stance very strange. The whole "The book reviewer gave you a bad review because he's JEALOUS of your success and talent" rings very false to me. First of all, what are we, 10? That sounds like something my mother used to say to me when a boy would call me ugly in elementary school. The straw man of jealousy is set up and knocked down so that none of Sarvas's friends actually have to talk about whether the book is any good or not. Notice how they all seem to be attacking Patterson but not really defending Sarvas? If the book is really good, why don't they talk about what made the book good, just like Patterson (and you) talk about what makes the book bad?

Second, as a freelance writer myself who has published both online and in print and who has her own blog, I think it's silly to imagine that any of these book reviewers are sitting around stewing about the success of a blogger and vowing to put him in his place. The review says exactly the opposite, in fact. I don't know any reason why we shouldn't take the reviewer at his word when he says that the book is being reviewed because of Sarvas's success as a blogger. I'm getting pretty sick of these lit bloggers talking about how no one in print takes them seriously and how print journalists are all assholes, then turning around and publishing in print themselves. Oy! Most writers these days are multimedia. You have to be to survive. Lit bloggers cannot let go of those straw men though. It seems like an obvious case of projection to me.

I haven't yet read the book, but I find the TEV blog to be pretentious, wooden in tone and very irritating to read, so I really can't see myself ever picking up this novel. Thanks for the review and the rundown.

Anonymous said...

Too bad that personal jelousy prevents you from writing an objective opinion.
It was a fun reading in two sittings.
Obviously, I must be a literary zero.

Andrew Seal said...

@ anonymous May 24th:
Everyone, look! Mark Sarvas reads my blog!