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Originally published Sunday, May 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Literary blogger Mark Sarvas ventures into the receiving end of critique

It could be said that literary blogger Mark Sarvas got a taste of his own medicine with the debut of his new novel — Sarvas, an online...

Seattle Times book editor

Mark Sarvas' blog

"The Elegant Variation" can be found at marksarvas.blogs.com/elegvar.

It could be said that literary blogger Mark Sarvas got a taste of his own medicine with the debut of his new novel — Sarvas, an online book reviewer the Los Angeles Times labeled "acid-fingered," found himself at the other end of the pointed pen.

L.A.-based Sarvas was recently in Seattle to read from "Harry, Revised" (Bloomsbury, 265 pp., $24.99), the story of a widower who comforts himself with the attentions of a diner waitress. His tour trailed in the wake of a New York Times review that took several pointed jabs into the guts of "Harry": "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," said reviewer Troy Patterson.

But it's not really about karmic payback — "Harry, Revised" has gotten some good reviews, and Sarvas has elevated more writers than he has excoriated. One of the first and best of the lit blogs, Sarvas' "The Elegant Variation" has championed Irish writer John Banville (and his mystery-writing alter ego, Benjamin Black) and has doggedly sustained a crusade for David Leavitt's novel about a British mathematician and an Indian math genius, "The Indian Clerk."

Then again, Sarvas has repeatedly taken British author Martin Amis to the woodshed for all manner of offenses. In a recent post, Sarvas said Amis "has, it seems, fallen on the battleground of his own war against cliché," a backhanded reference to an Amis title, "The War Against Cliché." Ouch.

Sarvas has a way with words, and 7,500 daily readers lap it up. In Seattle, he talked recently about blogging, books and the future of book reviews:

Q: When was "The Elegant Variation" born, and why?

A: I started it in October 2003. Blogs were just starting to creep into the public awareness, and I wanted to be part of the conversation. In other blogs and books coverage, not a lot of L.A. authors were being covered — it was very New York-centric. And I wanted to share my enthusiasm for authors like John Banville, who was only a Booker finalist at that point.

Q: Now you're a sort of senior statesman of bloggers, and your blog is only five years old.

A: I was lucky with my timing. Creating it was easy — not a lot of thought went into it. It was the last window where you could do that and still get noticed. Now there are thousands and thousands of lit bloggers.

Q: You're as much an advocate for certain books as a reviewer, as well as a novelist. How do you juggle these roles?

A: I wear three separate hats (reviewer, advocate, novelist). I'm a wonderful compartmentalizer.

The novelist part is fairly easy to keep separate. The TEV site exists as a vessel for my enthusiasms. I don't pretend to bring the writing on the blog to the level of rigor of my book reviews. As a reviewer, I try to bring a disciplined approach to that work.

The blog is a reflection of the proprietor. For me, the most rewarding part is the conversation I have with my readers. They disagree, they dispute, but they're generally civilized. "The Elegant Variation" is a virtual literary salon where people can come and chat.

Q: How do you handle bullying and name-calling?

A: I won't allow name-calling or ad-hominem attacks. I'll e-mail the author (of the offending post) and say, would you like to reframe that without the name-calling and foul language? They generally do. The process is self-selecting over time.

Q: I worry that the kind of reading, that trancelike state you achieve when you get deep into a book, is going away in favor of a different kind of reading on the Internet. And what do you think is going to happen with book reviews? Will they eventually migrate to the Net, and how will that affect them?

A: There are different kinds of reading. The kind you do on a couch with a book is different from what you do with your blog.

I share your troubled view of the future — but I think it has absolutely nothing to do with the Internet. This is not just about book reviews; it's about classical music, architecture, movie reviews.

It's not a crisis in book reviewing; it's the fact that we live in an age that I find distressingly incurious — interested in material pursuits, unreflective, narcissistic, shallow. An age when the thing that's on everyone's mind is ... "Did you see 'American Idol' last night?"

It's nothing to do with the Internet or the loss of newspapers. It's a much wider critical moment, one that I leave to the cultural anthropologists to figure out.

Q: Can you make a living as a blogger?

A: I don't want the hassles of making money off it. If I don't want to blog for a day, I don't blog. John Banville asked me, "How is this as a financial venture?" I told him how things worked. He said, "Oh, so it's a philanthropic venture."

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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