What Passes For an Online Literary Feud These Days

This entry at Galleycat about my and Cherie Priest’s recent observations about writers (entitled "Sci-Fi Writers Saner & Nicer, Probably Better Looking," — well, we’re nicer, anyway), clued me in to the fact there’s some recent online literary-esque unpleasantness involving writers Steve Almond and Mark Sarvas. The throughline here is that Sarvas apparently bags on Almond’s writing all the time in his blog, and yet when the two of them were in the same room at the same time during a recent LA literary gathering, neither of them physically beat on the other, or even simply immolated in some sort of bizarre literary matter/anti-matter event that would have taken out the entire of Los Angeles’ literati, a tragedy from which it would have taken the US literary scene at least fifteen minutes to recover (Aw, shut your hole. I’m from LA, damn you. I can make these jokes).

Almond wrote about the event, or lack thereof, in an astonishingly awful piece that could only have run in that miasmic hole of self-regard known as Salon; Sarvas batted back in his literary blog. Of the two of them, Sarvas comes off better, as he’s internalized the blog world response of cool and bemused indifference to character assassination, including the delight in showing off some of the invective of the person attacking them. As I’m no stranger to such maneuvers myself, I appreciate the performance of the form. But neither comes off covered in glory. In this sort of thing, one rarely does.

However, the true bad actor here, if you ask me, is Salon. It actually paid Almond to write his unholy example of congratulatory literary fartsmelling. If the piece is genuinely indicative of Almond’s personality, it’s no wonder Sarvas didn’t bother to seek him out, since he makes himself seem terribly unpleasant to be with or even near. Salon’s editors should have taken Almond aside and said to him, "now, you know this makes you look an ass, right?" Because if they didn’t, they did the poor man a disservice. This is what editors are supposed to do: Correct your grammar and keep you from making an ass of yourself in public (the two are not mutually exclusive).

But then Salon seems to make a business out of giving writers enough rope to hang themselves with. The seven most damaging words in the English language for the reputation of any novelist might very well be "I just wrote an article for Salon." If it weren’t for the fact Salon’s book section is serialing Cory Doctorow’s latest novella, it would be almost entirely useless. Seriously, people: Salon’s book section. It’s death, in online magazine form. Enough said. 

Authors, if you must write a piece in which you assassinate the character of some other writer, don’t take money for it. That’s just icky; there’s something unspeakably unseemly about Almond having taken money for suggesting that some other writer might spooge in his pants just through the act of meeting him. It certainly doesn’t make you want to handle any change that Almond might give you.

Really, now: do it on your blog. Unmediated, ill-advised gouts of ego-salving literary otherhating are what blogs are for. And then you get the fun of actually conducting a writer’s feud in your comment thread, because the chances of the other writer not finding out you’ve written horrible things about them (via their daily egosurf through Google and Technorati) are slim approaching none. You get all of the dubious thrill of slapping down some other wordsmith, with none of the reputational taint of taking filthy lucre for what is essentially an exercise in degrading yourself.

Mind you, you shouldn’t be initiating an online literary badmouthing in the first place. Other than cheap thrills, it doesn’t do anybody any good, and you develop a reputation for being something of a twit (responding to a literary badmouthing is fine, although remember the key to success is bemused indifference, at least in the initial response. Wait to bring out the knives until the inevitable comment thread to follow). Better than debasing yourself online is to save that sort of thing for bar talk, where it can eventually settle into the sediment of literary gossip. It’s more fun that way. In any event, I suspect it would lead to a higher chance of a physical altercation, which is what Almond seems to have been hoping for, anyway. Although, honestly, watching authors fistfight is like watching geese play Jeopardy. There’s a lot of honking and squawking but no one ever gets to what they’re supposed to be doing.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s just that no one knows how to conduct a real literary feud anymore, online or otherwise. It’s a shame, that.