Mark Sarvas's Blog, page 4

February 20, 2012

After years of resisting the tide, I officially started using my long-dormant Twitter account today.  I have some mixed feelings about this event.  On the one hand, my attention span feels fractured enough already, and I'm reluctant to deform it any further.  I'm also worried about my well-documented obsessive tendencies - I've never met a rabbit hole I couldn't happily fall down.  But I've had the increasing sense that there was a potentially scintillating conversation taking place elsewhere, so I've heeded the advice of my dear friend Lauren Cerand and waded in.  

Flash in the pan?  Life-changing moment?  Remains to be seen.  Follow my account and see for yourself.

 •  0 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on February 20, 2012 13:28 • 23 views

February 17, 2012

Not sure how this one escaped my notice - when in doubt, I now blame everything on the kid - but there's a must-see reading this Sunday.  Edward St. Aubyn, whose Patrick Melrose novels have been rapturously received from likes of Zadie Smith and Francine Prose, will be at Skylight Books at 5 p.m.  Here's what Prose had to say last Sunday:

St. Aubyn's books are at once extremely dark and extremely funny. In "Bad News," Patrick visits New York, where his father has just died. "It was late May, it was hot, and he really ought to take off his overcoat, but his overcoat was his defense against the thin shards of glass that passers-­by slipped casually under his skin, not to mention the slow-motion explosion of shop windows, the bone-rattling thunder of subway trains and the heartbreaking passage of each second, like a grain of sand trickling through the hourglass of his body. No, he would not take off his overcoat. Do you ask a lobster to disrobe?" In "At Last," a minor character is described as having three drawbacks as a guest: "She was incapable of saying please, incapable of saying thank you and incapable of saying sorry, all the while creating a surge in the demand for these expressions." Meanwhile, the humor is deepened by our sense that the dazzling pyrotechnics of Patrick's banter have become a source of pain. In his own witticisms, he now hears echoes of the "pure contempt" of his father's mocking humor.

I'm actually considered stamping my passport and making the trek from the Palisades.  Details here. Even I can't get there, you should most definitely go.

 •  0 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on February 17, 2012 14:06 • 20 views

February 6, 2012

It is my very own lost cause.

Time after time I've taken to these pages to decry the idiocy of Elmore Leonard's inexplicably lauded 10 Rules of Writing, to absolutely no avail.  No decent interval can pass before someone out there notes them approvingly, and I'm forced back to the keyboard to object.

The latest offender is Olen Steinhauer, who says the following in his recent review of Leonard's latest novel, Raylan:

In an essay that appeared in The New York Times in 2001, "Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle," Elmore Leonard listed his 10 rules of writing. The final one — No. 11, actually — the "most important rule . . . that sums up the 10," is "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it." It's a terrific rule. In fact, I liked it so much that I passed it on to a creative-writing class I once taught.

It's actually a silly, empty rule.  If I were to put that rule in front of my students, here's what I'd tell them:  That it's one of those bits of seemingly clever writing that, upon actual closer examination, says nothing at all.  First of all, what - exactly - is "writing that sounds like writing"?  Does Shakespeare sound like writing?  Does Ondaatje? Does Zadie Smith?  Does Faulkner?  Does Pynchon?  It is a useless measure.

What one presumes Leonard is saying, given the other dumbed-down rules on his list, is that he eschews what we commonly refer to, for want of a better term, as lyrical prose.  One imagines he would have John Banville, Joseph O'Neill and Teju Cole busily erasing their manuscripts.  On the other hand, if he doesn't mean that, perhaps he means writing that, because it fails - because it is, essentially bad writing - feels "written".  So, basically, fix bad writing.  Thanks a whole heap, Elmo.

The  point, of course, is that these kind of lists, while sometimes amusing, rarely have anything to do with the real work of writing.  (I prefer to paraphrase Deborah Eisenberg to my students - you can do anything you want, provided you can do it.)  And it's dispiriting to see people who should know better trot these rules out yet again as some touchstone of great writing.  They aren't.  As the TLS so wisely pointed out about this list when it first appeared:

The eleventh rule is: If you come across lists such as this, ignore them. The rules may sound sensible enough, but, with the exception of No 5, each could be replaced with its opposite, and still be reasonable advice. Leonard complains that, while reading a book by Mary McCarthy, he had to "stop and get the dictionary" - as if it were a form of pain (William Faulkner, who broke most of these rules whenever he wrote, complained of Hemingway that he "never used a word you had to look up in the dictionary"). And what is meant by "leave out the part that readers tend to skip"? If every writer tried to be as exciting as Leonard, there would be no Brothers Karamazov, no Anna Karenina (remember those exquisitely boring sections on agronomy?), and the shelf reserved for Dickens or Balzac would measure about a foot. Banish patois, and we lose a library of fiction stretching from Huckleberry Finn to Trainspotting. As for dialogue, if Leonard samples Henry James, he will find "remarked", "answered", "interposed", "almost groaned", "wonderingly asked", "said simply", "sagely risked" and many more colourful carriers (these from a page or two of Roderick Hudson). Should they all be ironed out into "said"?

So what do you say, gang?  Let's give the rules a rest for the rest of 2012?  Because I have, you know, shit to do.  I can't be here schooling you every time out.  Peace out.

 •  0 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on February 06, 2012 15:23 • 21 views

February 1, 2012

The Worthy Readings sidebar is now current.  Ish.

 •  0 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on February 01, 2012 16:32 • 13 views


I've never cared much for David Gates's criticism.  His intelligence is obvious but his reviews tend to be hobbled by smugness or self-regard - how I have longed to reach out and pop the "I" key from his keyboard - and his attempts at humor have always felt strained to this reader.

However, I thought his review on Sunday of Elliot Perlman's novel The Street Sweeper, despite its cruelty, was exceedingly instructive, and would serve my Novel IV students as a handy precis of what to avoid in their fiction. Gates's lessons, highlighted in two particular paragraphs, should probably hang above the desk of any beginning novelist (a category of which I still consider myself a member).

Novel IV is an advanced class, so it's primarly workshopping.  The weekly lessons of Novel I-III are dispensed with in favor of sustained, detailed examinations of weekly submissions.  But I took time out at the beginning of class to walk through Gates's review.  This was the first of the two essential paragraphs:

... no decent writer should have to repeat variants of the line "Tell everyone what happened here" 12 times in two pages of a scene at Auschwitz; it takes on the robotic affect of the People's Microphone at an Occupy rally, and it loses force with each use. The Auschwitz scenes, based on the testimony of real-life survivors, will break the stoniest heart — how could they not? — but even here Perlman can't let ill enough alone. Two women about to be hanged for resisting the Nazis are described as "wingless sparrows," as if the genuine pathos needed to be amped up with a sentimental image. Near the beginning of the novel, Perlman can't resist framing the nightmarish murder of Emmett Till, and of the four black girls killed in the bombing of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church, as a literal bad dream, experienced by his untenured Columbia historian. The well-read Perlman may have had in mind Stephen Dedalus's line in "Ulysses" about history's being a nightmare from which he was trying to awake, but will any reader find this dream plausible rather than just thematically convenient?

In this advanced workshop, I have taken to advising my students to be as thorough and detailed as they possibly can; to banish the word "nitpick" from their vocabulary; and to understand that if they fail to bring a rigorous, thoughtful sensibility to these critiques, there is surely someone waiting out there who will feel no similar reluctance.  And it's  sad day for the author if that person happens to be a Times reviewer.   This first paragraph contains any number of amateur traps I warn my students about, particularly the last one - to beware of moments that exist solely to serve authorial convenience.  But it's the second paragraph that is a gold mine of "Don'ts":

But the writing of fiction has its own forms of morality. Its code takes a hard line against such silly devices as the historian's inner conversations with the girlfriend he abjured: " 'Adam, . . . you're trying to turn your fear of the future, your panic about parenthood and professional failure into something noble that you've done for me. I never bought it.' 'Diana, it's possible at the one time both to be afraid and to act nobly for another person.' " It evenhandedly forbids kitschy generic ingénues — "With dark eyes for falling into and jet-black hair, she could be both serious and funny, often at the same time" — and ciphers like "a charming, delightful woman in her 80s." It demands that the writer clean up toxic spills of syntax: "A single guest at weddings, couples would admire her appearance almost excessively and, in so doing, embarrass her, never for a moment dreaming she might know loneliness every bit as well, every bit as sharp, as they ever had." It calls for the renunciation of verbal pomp: "He was overwhelmed by a wave of self-loathing, panic and a sense of loss that, in staccato bursts, flushed the air from his lungs till the moisture in his sleep-starved eyes formed a vitreous glaze that mercifully blurred his reflection in the mirror." As the Book of John puts it, Jesus wept. All these passages suggest a writer who, whether through inattention or inability, hasn't engaged effectively with his characters or his language, who won't or can't take the work of fiction seriously.

I do warn my students against taking too dogmatic an approach to reading and writing, and I do caution that all rules can be broken.  That said, this paragraph is a brilliant and efficient summary of things to avoid, things I see all the time:  expository dialogue, particularly awful when it's unpacking emotional states; cliches both of language and character; lazy undescriptive descriptions (paraprhasing All The President's Men, I call these non-description descriptions); tangled, inept sentence work and unhinged prose.  It's a bravura paragraph that I will keep close as I continue on the second novel.

I pointed out that Gates is very careful to provide specific examples of all his objections, though we also acknowledged that nearly any sentence can be taken out of context and made to look foolish.  That said, it's hard to imagine any context in which the sentences noted above would work.  (I do think the review's one failing - aside from the current of mean-spiritedness that seems to animate it - is there isn't a single, sustained quotation from the novel to really allow a reader to hear Perlman's voice.)

But that's a quibble and, as I told my students, even the nastiness is instructive and, in its way, salutary - every writer must take the maximum possible care with his or her prose, because when you play in the NFL, the hard knocks are out there.  They are no fun to receive, as I can tell you, but no less instructive for the pain.

 •  0 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on February 01, 2012 12:15 • 13 views

December 16, 2011


I find myself immensely and unexpectedly saddened today at the passing of Christopher Hitchens. We sat up late last night watching video clips on C-Span and Youtube, and downed a surprisingly tearful Lagavullin (neat) in his honor. It seemed the thing to do.

In the light of day, I am trying to understand my intense emotional reaction to the news, reminiscent of what I felt when Tony Judt, another great thinker and writer I did not know, died too soon. And yet, like so many others, I felt as if I knew him. He was always essential reading, even when he infuriated me, as he did often. More than once, I let him have it in these pages, to what point I was never certain – a mouse roaring, surely.

He could be maddening; his writing, at times, hobbled by excess self-regard; a rigidity approaching the sort of fanaticism he decried; and a brilliant rhetoric that sometimes masked weak underpinnings. The last two traits were most prominently on display in his support of the Iraq War, which alienated many, including myself. I was disappointed, but not surprised – his stance seemed utterly consistent with his absolute loathing for the thought police, be they on the left or right.

And yet. These were the same traits that made me love him. Although I share his atheism, I felt his anti-God arguments lacked a certain nuance. Yet I deeply admired his refusal to seek the consolation of a deathbed conversion. I also loved his refusal to renounce his louche ways, his devotion to pleasures both high and low, despite their ultimate cost. And I was in awe of his brilliance, his learning, his instant (it seemed) recall, his stunning wit. I don't, as a rule, talk much about non-fiction, but I was effusive in my praise for Hitch-22 when I recommended it on NPR's On Point

But of the many Hitches (how many of us claimed the right to call him that, the unearned familiarity?), the polemicist, the political commentator, the contrarian, I think my favorite was the literary critic. Of his all books, my favorite, the one I return to time and again, is Unacknowledged Legislation: writers in the public sphere. If you've never heard of it, do yourself favor and add it to your shelves. People will probably remember him for Vanity Fair, but I preferred the remarkable book criticism he wrote for The Atlantic. When the political baggage was left at the door, he was as incisive and insightful a book reviewer as we had. Here he is on Philip Larkin, earlier this year.

Finally, though, I think the reason for my sorrow, for my tears, is simply this: There was great comfort in the fact that his voice was always there. Reliably combative, occasionally wrongheaded, always bracing, issuing a challenge that it was up to us to take up. I don't believe one life is necessarily more worthy than any other, but he was a man who clearly made the absolute most of his time here, squeezed out every bit of experience. He never disengaged. It seems grotesquely unfair that he is gone, that silence remains. That is, I think, worthy of tears.

His friend Andrew Sullivan has been heroically posting tributes all day. They are worth a look.

Cheers, Hitch. Perhaps you and Yahweh are sharing a final chuckle together. Either way, I drink to you.

 •  0 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on December 16, 2011 12:37 • 19 views

November 13, 2011

From this Sunday's New York Times Book Review, Leah Price on "The Subconscious Shelf":

The French gastronome Brillat-Savarin began "The Physiology of Taste" (1825) by declaring, "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are." You are also what you read — or, perhaps, what you own. In my college dorm, a volume of Sartre was casually spread-­eagled across the futon when I expected callers. We display spines that we'll never crack; we hide the books that we thumb to death. Emily Post disapproved: her 1930 home decorating manual compared "filling your rooms with books you know you will never open" to "wearing a mask and a wig."

To expose a bookshelf is to compose a self. The artist Buzz Spector's 1994 installation "Unpacking My Library" consisted of all the books in his library, arranged "in order of the height of spine, from tallest to shortest, on a single shelf in a room large enough to hold them." Shortly after the 2008 election, a bookstore in New York set out 50-odd books to which Barack Obama had alluded in memoirs, speeches and interviews. The resulting collection revealed more about the president-elect than did any number of other displays of books by and about him.


From the November 7 New Yorker, James Wood's "Shelf Life" column on his father-in-law's library:

And in this way, I began to think, our libraries perhaps say nothing very particular about us at all.  Each brick in the wall of a library is a borrowed brick: several thousand people, perhaps several hundred thousand, own books by F.E. Peters.  If I were led into Edmund Wilson's library in Talcotville, would I know that it was Edmund Wilson's library, and not Alfred Kazin's or F.W. Dupee's?  We tend to venerate libraries once we know whose they are, like admiring a famous philosopher's eyes or a ballet dancer's foot.  Pushkin had about a thousand non-Russian books in his library, and the editor of "Pushkin on Literature" helpfully lists all those foreign books, from Balzac and Stendahl to Shakespeare and Voltaire.  She confidently announces that "much can be learnt of a man from his choice of books," and then unwittingly contradicts herself by adding that Pushkin, like many other Russians of his class, read mostly in French: "The ancient classics, the Bible, Dante, Machiavelli, Luther, Shakespeare, Leibnitz, Byron … all are predominantly in French."  This sounds like the library of an extremely well-read Russian gentleman, circa 1830 – the kind of reading that Pushkin gave to this standard-issue Russian romantic, Eugene Onegin.  But what is especially Pushkinian about the library?  What does it tell us about his mind?

 •  0 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on November 13, 2011 22:37 • 21 views

October 26, 2011

My review of Nurrudin Farah's Crossbones has been published over at the Barnes and Noble Review.  It starts thus:

Most Americans, if they think of Somalia at all, know it only from Black Hawk Down, the 2001 film adaptation of Mark Bowden's 1999 account of the bloody Battle of Mogadishu. Tragic though those events were, they represent a mere sliver of the decades of internal strife that have left Somalia one of the poorest and most violent countries in the world. Moving from Communist rule to dictatorship to civil war, there has been no functioning central government for twenty years. Warlords and clan factions have given way to militant Islam, and pirates terrorize the coastal waters. "That unfortunate country, cursed with those dreadful clanspeople, forever killing one another and everyone around them," is the bleak précis offered by one of Nuruddin Farah's characters. It's to this unpromisingly harrowing milieu that Farah has tirelessly devoted himself for eleven novels that paint a more nuanced picture of the country's woes than one is likely to find on CNN.

 •  0 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on October 26, 2011 17:59 • 19 views

Some years back, I wrote a brief reminiscence of my friend and writing teacher Steven Corbin.  I've revised and expanded that essay as part of the Los Angeles Review of Books' Writers on Teacher series, and it's now online.  An excerpt:

He looked at me from across the table, realizing that I hadn't yet known (he thought he'd told me already); and he said, "I've shocked you." I remember mumbling something non-committal but before I could absorb the news, Steven began talking with his familiar enthusiasm about how he was confident of his chances of beating it, that he was healthy, his t-cell count was good, that he was going to beat it. I nodded and was supportive but later that day in my journal, I wrote one sentence: "Steven is going to die."

 •  0 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on October 26, 2011 13:33 • 26 views

October 23, 2011

Norman-2010-plank-fence-frontal-jpg-by-Miranda158Folks, seriously - do not miss this one.

The great Norman Rush is making an altogther too rare appearance in the L.A. area, where he will be in conversation with Mona Simpson at the Hammer on Tuesday evening.  It's the first time that I am cursing the fact that I teach that evening, and I'm tempted to shuttle my Novel III students over to the event.  

For those of you who don't know Rush's work, you can read what James Wood has to say about the superb novel Mortals here.  To wit:

In the way of all powerfully narrated first-person monologues, Mating occasionally breeds in the reader the desire to escape the constant intensity and interest of the language, as houseguests sometimes want to escape their over-vivid hosts. It is the price that the writer pays for the immediacy of first-person access. Mortals is told in the conventional third person, so that it distributes its effects more spaciously and calmly, as is proper for such a massive work. But Rush has not lost his interest in spoken language; indeed, he has intensified his study, at once funny and brilliant, of what happens to language when brainy Americans get mixed up with it. Mortals is many things, and does many things beautifully, but its central achievement has to be the fidelity with which it represents consciousness, the way in which it tracks the mind's own language. This concern with the insides of our minds makes Rush almost an original in contemporary American writing.

You can also read Rush's Paris Review interview here, in which he says:

It's a rare reader who doesn't go to the novel looking for a kind of encouragement to live. No doubt this is because the novel is the rude pretender who stepped into the place of that long-reigning narrative, the religious bedtime story, which, before Darwin and Lyell and those guys, was the only narrative in town. As I write a novel, I'm aware that I'm struggling against the "obligation" to solace. But I want my books to reach only the conclusions that are implicit in the trajectories of their characters. As it happens, bothMating and Mortals have sad outcomes—but optimistic codas. So sue me.

A related question is, when should novels end? I must love big novels, because that's what I've written. It takes a while before you begin to breathe the air the characters breathe. I also like long exchanges, because plots so often turn on nuances in the ways characters understand each other. In moments of madness, I've had the fantasy of simultaneously publishing my novels in two versions, Regular and Jumbo. In the book I'm working on now, though, I'm trying to keep everything shorter: shorter scenes, fewer plots, general brevity. But a shorter novel goes against some of my deepest instincts. Dostoyevsky died still intending to write another volume of The Brothers Karamazov. It's like a knife in my heart that he didn't.

Go.  Drink it all in.  Send me dispatches.  The details are all here.

 •  0 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on October 23, 2011 16:37 • 24 views