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.  

29 thoughts on “What Passes For an Online Literary Feud These Days

  1. Who, me and Leland Gregory? I can’t imagine he actually hates me. I certainly don’t hate him. Indeed, I think everyone should buy his books — after, of course, they have purchased mine.

  2. Yeah, I know. I actually stopped reading it about a page through and forced myself to go back to see if it was really that bad all the way through. Not only was it, it got worse the further one went along. I simply can’t imagine writing something like that and then wanting to attach my name to it. I certainly hope his books are better.

  3. Oh we’re definitely better looking! And “nicer” has been satisfactorily established, I think. Not sure I’d vouch on the saner bit, though …

    By the way — “congratulatory literary fartsmelling” — I had to put on my LOL-ler skates for that one. ;-)

  4. Well, Cherie, you are better looking, anyway.

    (I’m not flirting with her, people. Take a look. Definitely better looking than the average member of the typing class. Someone match her up with China Mieville to compete in the “all-literary genre hawttie contest” and SF/F will totally kick ass.)

    But yeah, in general, not so much with the saner thing.

  5. On Topic:

    Hi-larious. Aren’t writers supposed to be smarter than that? God bless the sci-fi writer and reader. But especially the writers. Saved my sanity in my childhood, it did.

  6. Look, you sneaky bastard, I — um … well, thank you. Now I’m all embarrassed and stuff; I assure you that in person, I am quite goofy. Trust me on this one.

    China is a good looking guy, though. You shorn-head fellows, and your shiny baldpates, you. Though my own significant other is no slouch himself, and I would probably freak out if he cut off his hair.

    It sure does work for some guys, though — yourself included.

  7. Your feud with Gregory was much, much better.

    For the sake of completeness, I read the whole Salon article and Sarvas’ reply. The feud ties in rather well with points you made in the ‘Writers on Writers’ post. There were one or two funny lines in Almond’s article, but the whole exchange left me feeling slightly dirty.

  8. Cherie Priest writes:

    “Though my own significant other is no slouch himself, and I would probably freak out if he cut off his hair.”

    Well, clearly he has not reason to go bald, him and those tresses of his. And a Dead Can Dance shirt! He does look the 4AD type.

  9. Now I’m all embarrassed and stuff; I assure you that in person, I am quite goofy.

    I’m with Scalzi. You’re lumpy in all the right places.

  10. “You’re lumpy in all the right places.”

    Possibly not the smoothest way to put that, there, Dean.

  11. actually, i really enjoyed the almond article. lit fic (and i call it that because in german, the word “fick” means “f*ck”) is all about me!me!me!me!me! anyway, so it’s nice to see a writer willing to make an ass of himself for the purpose of making another writer look bad. plus i found it quite readable, which is more than i can say for sarvas’s blog (UGH! we thinks it’s bad, precious!)

    they’re both idiots, though. i think the biggest mistake made here was almond’s responding to sarvas at all. he just gave away two years of high ground (and getting higher). no essay, no matter how good (or nasty) is worth losing that advantage.

  12. Sage comment, Claire. One does usually wish to look better than one’s detractors. Also, if one must dis a detractor, best to do it in one devastating line if at all possible. 4300+ words is a little much.

  13. Of course Salon feeds out the rope, like the Devil gladly and cheerfully handing out money to his marks. Nothing sells better than Schadenfreude, after all.

    Now Mark Twain was the master of the insult:

    “First God created idiots, this was for practice. Then He made School Boards.”

    Alas, the lightning has passed, and we live in the age of lightning bugs.

  14. “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.”

    Oh, I dunno. I was once written about by a pretty well-known (in the SF microcosm) writer, who basically argued “This guy is a flaming nutcase.” And it was five years before I found out about it. And that was when it was reprinted in a best-of-the-year collection. (Nice to know that if I’m not capable of greatness myself, at least I inspire greatness.)

    Of course, this was before everyone and their dog was blogging and there was no Technorati or Google to egoscan with. And the writer never actually mentioned my name in the piece; but I was pretty damn identifiable from what was written, and I’m sure at least a few dozen people would have recognized me when they read the piece on its first publication… and nobody ever mentioned it to me. Ouch.

    (I suppose I should state for the record that I thought it was a brilliant piece of writing, and even pretty accurate as far as it went. Not many people could tear a person apart so thoroughly without mentioning a single fact, quote, or example.)

  15. Never mind whether Almond is an obnoxious human being or not – what on Earth made someone at Salon think he can write? I stumbled on his piece this morning, and my eyes glazed over in the first paragraph. (Truth to be told, Sarvas’s blog wasn’t much better; if that’s litblogging, I will stick to genre hackdom, thank you very much.)

    Pity Lisa Nichols upthread, who says she had to read it for work. (Why?) Time to look for a better job, Ms. Nichols!

    — Rick

  16. “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.”

    Snagged for my personal funny-quote file. May I sig this, good sir?

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