Like John Scalzi, my most immediate reaction to Steve Almond's "The Blogger Who Loathed Me," was to wonder why in the world the powers that be at Salon thought this sophomoric essay ought to be published. It's about nothing other than the author's own apparently inexhaustible egomania and adds nothing other than verbal flatulence to the discussion of the role of literary weblogs, if this was in some way intended to be the subject of Almond's gaseous outburst.
As far as I can tell, Almond is upset that two years ago Mark Sarvas commented on his weblog that "From the very first days of this site, I've shaken my head in a sort of dazed wonder at the wake of overheated prose stylings [Almond] leaves behind" and that "If Almond devoted a fraction of the effort he brings to self-promotion to his writing, he might finally be on to something." Almond calls these statements "long-distance slander" (although not until he's indulged in a couple of smarmy paragraphs mocking Sarvas on the basis of a photograph and because he lives in Los Angeles).
Later, Almond reads another of Mark's comments, this time in a libloggers' forum organized by Dan Wickett. (I participated in this one myself. Dan has conducted several such forums, interviewing dozens of bloggers by now.) Mark writes that "I launched The Elegant Variation in a fit of madness on October 14, 2003 with a declaration of my love for James Wood and my loathing for Steve Almond." Since Mark's "love" of James Wood is clearly of the literary variety, it is equally obvious that likewise his "loathing" of Steve Almond is an expression of distaste for Almond's writing, not of Almond the author. But Almond inflates this statement of literary opinion into the assertion that Mark must "the president of the Official Steve Almond Haters Club."
Finally, Almond quotes from a passage Mark wrote after a reading given by Almond:
. . .we can report that Steve Almond's reading did nothing to alter our opinion of him. . .We found his story to be wholly not our cup of tea, its literary sensibilities a bit too informed by the pages of Penthouse Forum for our tastes ... We're scarcely prudes but Almond's work is all assfucking and facials without much to commend itself for ... we're struck by an absence of context ... of character ... of depth. . . .
To this bit of thoroughly cogent literary criticism, Almond responds with some eighth grade-quality sex talk: "Sarvas couldn't have known this, but my response to this entry was a distinct sense of arousal ... thinking about him typing those words ... assfucking and facials ... with his actual fingers ... we wondered what Sarvas might have been wearing when he posted ... was he dressed in a leather jacket? ... maybe nothing but a leather jacket ... might he be whispering my name?"
Thus out of a few scattered remarks summing up Mark Sarvas's opinion of Steve Almond's fiction is built a 4,000 word essay the ultimate point of which seems to be that criticism of Almond's work should be off limits, especially to bloggers who overuse the royal "We." I got nothing else out of it, except that Steve Almond really likes the--nudge, nudge--sniggering sexual innuendo.
Although a clear implication of Almond's essay is that bloggers ought to leave poor writers alone--or at least writers who, like Almond, have reached a level of dismal semi-fame--it turns out that his biggest grievance is that Mark, well, left him alone. When Almond comes across him at the reading mentioned above he's prepared to have it out, but Mark pays him no mind. How dare he not acknowedge that here before him is the dedicated writer he's maligned and merely allow him to go about his business. "I felt oddly preempted. After all, it had been my plan to pretend I didn't know who Sarvas was, and here he was pretending he didn't know who I was, even though I had just introduced myself to him." The unmitigated gall. Whoever heard of considering literary diiferences to be only that and refusing to make a public spectacle out of them?
As if realizing his own unseemly preoccupation with Mark Sarvas is unwittingly painting a very ugly picture of him, Almond switches tactics and pretends he sees Mark as some kind of doppelganger: "Sarvas horrifies me precisely because he represents certain desires that live inside of me: the desire to avoid the solitude and humiliation of sustained creative work, to choose grievance over mercy, to find a shortcut to fame." It certainly is the case that in writing this Salon essay Almond has found a way "to avoid the solitude and humiliation of sustained creative work"--although he ought to find the essay he's written humiliating enough. And in accusing Mark Sarvas of seeking "a shortcut to fame," he only reveals that it is "fame" he himself is after, "sustained creative work" being the means to accomplish this, the long way around presumably a better way to convince oneself one deserves one's fame.
Almond's defenders assure us that at least his essay is funny. I've gone over it several times now and have yet to find a single funny line. Is this supposed to be it?: "For another thing, my discussion with Pete had hipped me to the idea that Sarvas wanted, rather desperately, to be involved with me. Whether he knew it or not -- chances are not -- he was toting around a whole scrotum full of fantasies." This?: "Then later, if it felt right -- and only if it felt right -- I would pull down his Underoos and spank him on his hot little blogger bottom." Or this?: "I stood there for another few seconds, kind of confused, staring at Sarvas as he stared at his computer screen. I wanted to say something to him, something like: 'Does anyone around here smell blog pussy?'"
Boffo! Guffaw! Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha. I might have found this sort of thing funny when I was a college freshman and discovered there were writers who actually used dirty words in print, but that was quite a long time ago, and I now find it rather pathetic that some writers must still find it daring. Snore.
Oh, yeah. There's this: "[Robert] Birnbaum is not a young, African-American blogger from Compton who goes by the street handle OGB (Original Gangsta Blogga). He is a paunchy middle-aged Jew. . ."
What a laugh fest!
Salon honcho Laura Miller has come in for a good deal of criticism on literary blogs, especially for the shallowness of the essays she once wrote for the New York Times Book Review. One wonders if the appearance of "The Blogger Who Loathed Me" isn't in part an effort on Miller's part to exact some revenge. There's certainly a good deal of generalized hostility to litblogs in Almond's essay. "[Sarvas's] entries did not compose a meaningful discussion of literature -- few of the so-called lit blogs actually undertake such a thing," Almond writes. But this is simply wrong. Clicking through to any number of the blogs listed on the right will reward the reader with a great deal of intelligent, well-considered literary discussion. Certainly more intelligent, well-considered discussion than one finds at Salon these days.