The Idiot Writer Who Had Nothing to Write About

[MAY 14, 2009 UPDATE: Four years later, it turns out that Steve Almond was right and I was wrong. Mark Sarvas used me. Just as he’s used other people. Which means that the thesis behind this post no longer holds up. (Indeed, four years later, it’s a silly post. But then I’m a silly person.) Essentially, I defended a scumbag who pretended to be a friend, and now the whole damn essay here is phony.

I have personally emailed Steve Almond to apologize for my words. But I leave this riposte and the subsequent comments up: unedited, unmodified, and all the regrettable nastiness presented as is. Because unlike Mark, I don’t rewrite history to serve my ever-shifting purpose. Unlike Mark, I don’t delete entire posts and comments. Unlike Mark, my feelings and encouragement to others is genuine. I’m interested in people because I’m interested in people. The literary community is a small one. And we’re all in this together. But I don’t react to entitlement and arrogance very well. And it’s a considerable understatement to say that I feel like a chump.

Not that it matters now, but Mark Sarvas basically used Dan Wickett and me (and a few others) to keep the Litblog Co-Op going. I was proud to be part of the LBC. It was a moment in litblog history when the litblog world wasn’t nearly as competitive as it is now. When litblogs came together to champion books. I miss those days. But let’s face the facts. They’re over. I’ve tried tor restore some of the spirit in some of the roundtable discussions included on these pages. But at least Twitter has some of that old school cooperative feel.

Behind the scenes, Dan Wickett and I rallied the team. I was the one who made all the calls to the publicists for the books, negotiated with them to send 20 copies of books to various bloggers (no small matter; this was a time in which the publishing industry was still trying to understand what blogging was all about), and I produced all the podcasts. Until Carolyn Kellogg came along to help me out on the latter. But it all became too much. There were too many nights in which I was going to bed at 3AM and waking up at 6AM to keep things going. And I was forced to resign from the LBC. Sadly, the LBC’s demise came not long after.

What did Mark do? In his defense, he offered an early push for the LBC. Certainly when the newspapers wanted to give him his attention. But after that, nothing. He basically sat back and hogged all the media attention. There was a false peception in the literary community that Mark had done all the legwork. But since I’m so used to being screwed, I stayed quiet and tried to be the better man. Mark would constantly belittle me every time we’d hang out. And any time I would leave even a remotely critical comment on his blog, he would throw some hissy fit and attempt to destroy our relationship. (Never mind that he said nastier words to me.) Then I’d try some diplomacy. And this would happen again, and again. And he only communicated with me to serve his purposes. Which was publicity for Harry, Revised, which I gave him in the form of a one hour podcast. And then he dumped me like a sack of potatoes for the stupidest of reasons. Just as he’s done with so many other people. Just as he managed to get his wife to leave him.

Mark took advantage of my empathy. He took advantage of my passion. He took advantage of my indefatigable work ethic. You might call Mark the Wiliam Shatner of the early litblog scene. A somewhat charismatic talent capable of so much more, but ultimately a narcissistic prima donna who will probably end up in a sad and lonely place in a few decades. Because he hates people. He’s incurious about them and it shows. He insists upon being the center of attention. He hates genre. Aside from Paul McCartney and Star Trek (the latter of which he doesn’t have the guts to be geeky about), he hates anything even remotely populist.

And really if you can’t laugh or marvel over something that regular people enjoy from time to time — as Steve Almond did with Candy Freak — then how in the hell can you live with yourself?

I’m sad that it came down to this. I do actually feel sorry for Mark. But he’ll have to learn to live with himself the hard way. I just hope that others don’t find themselves as emotionally exploited as I was.]

Steve Almond had been spewing out drivel for years. Then he ran out of ideas. So he somehow conned Salon into buying a near libelous piece about Mark Sarvas.

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine sent me a link to a weblog. A man named Steve Almond was guest-blogging at Bookslut. One of his entries read as follows:

I want to direct you brave fucknuts to a piece on by Lisa Gabriele, called Writers’ Block. It’s a brilliant rant about the dearth of good sex writing in the current crop of literary up-and-cummers, a veritable WEAPON OF ASS DESTRUCTION when it comes to all those prudish high-brows who feel it is beneath them to get graphic. I wish I knew how to represent the sound of a chicken clucking in print, cuz [sic] that’s what these folks deserve. The books Gabriele cites are all terrific examples of the literary tease, the good old, “Then we were in bed and it felt good and then it was the morning.” Cluck cluck.

This “analysis” or “commentary,” whether of “highbrows” or erotica who could say, wouldn’t even score a 1 on the analytical writing section of the GRE. Had this ostensibly developmentally disabled baboon even seen the inside of a classroom? (To my great horror, I learned that he had. More anon.) Why hadn’t such a sad case been relegated to a LiveJournal page where he could drone on and on like an overgrown teenager about the important things in life, such as Paris Hilton or (as I would learn later) peurile paeans to candy?

The thinking behind the post was so convoluted that I wondered if the man who penned these words even had the mental capacity to balance his checkbook. I lost tally counting the mixed metaphors in that first sentence. Was it four? Or five? “Brave fucknuts?” This guy reminded me of any number of people in junior high, many of whom used “fucknuts” within their limited stock of witticisms and their remarkable ability to occupy detention halls every weekend.

And if “Then we were in bed and it felt good and then it was the morning” was this guy’s idea of exemplary suggestion, the apotheosis no less, then heaven help the future of erotica and literature.

As it turned out, this Almond guy was a regular contributor to Nerve himself (nepotism anyone?), turning out such stories as “Skull,” which featured such contributions to the English language as:

She had the kind of voice you always imagine a phone sex operator would have, moist and soothing. The unusual thing about Sharon, she had a plastic eye.

I have never talked with a phone sex operator. But “moist” is not the adjective I would use to describe a voice. “Moist” in relation to a sponge or soiled panties? Sure. But given that the mouth is constantly piqued with moisture, Almond’s attempt at suggestion is redundant. Unless, of course, the phone sex operator was magically situated in the Mojave Desert in a hovel without air condtioning and had just imbibed some precious water just before talking with the protagonist. Only to talk with the protagonist. But it is doubtful that Almond, banging out this sentence faster than most of us utter a preposition, thought this far ahead.

Who was Steve Almond? Well, he was a writer, of course. A bad writer. A writer so abysmal that he had me reaching for the likes of Jude Deveraux and Jacqueline Susann for comfort. I hadn’t seen anyone mangle language like this since I had helped a young relative of mine spell “Pynchon” with a Crayola.

But more than a bad writer. I had discovered this picture of the infant savant turning his head from a camera — the same way that I often saw the most inebriated and coked out groomsmen at bachelor parties, completely oblivious that the debauchery they were committing was, in a sad and ironic manner, preparation for a beautiful ceremony.

Even more astonishing, this marsupial was actually teaching creative writing at Boston College. In other words, some hapless administrator had actually hired this guy to pollute the fresh vellum of students hoping to find a critical but encouraging voice and perhaps a bit of inspiration. But a quick search at the Boston College website revealed that Almond was neither a professor, nor even an assistant professor. Rather, he was in that safe and nebulous realm of Adjunct Lecturers & Part Time Faculty, the place where barely qualified instructors go to die or where hack writers hole up to make ends meet. No degree was listed by his name. Could it have been a correspondence course? A more closer angle on the Boston College page revealed another Almond photograph. He had an unmistakable resemblance to a gym teacher. It was only a hop, skip and a jump to Rate My Professor to learn that Almond had rated high on Easiness and low to mixed on Helpfulness and Clarity. One student had written, “Ewwwwwwwwwwww. indeed.”

Almond lived in Someville, Massachusetts, a city of 77,478 often referred to as “Slummerville” for its high crime rate. It was the town of Whitey Bulger, a man on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List who had committed 18 counts of murder and the leader of the notorious Winter Hill Gang. While Almond, to his credit, hadn’t yet put a knife to anyone’s throat, I learned from colleagues that his homicidal impulse concerning more enlightened topics (namely, the printed page) was Bulgeresque in nature.

Almond had written a book called Candy Freak, which had a charming enough premise (a memoir about his candy fixation). But in the hands of Steve Almond, what could have been a tale of how an obsession is related to identity goes quickly awry within the opening pages:

And then, as if we weren’t bamboozled enough, there was the sleek red package, which included a ruler on the back and thereby affirmed the First Rule of Male Adolescence:

If you give a teenage boy a candy bar with a ruler on the back of the package, he will measure his dick.

Oh where are you now, you brave stupid bars of yore?

It becomes immediately clear that Almond, instead of pursuing original and unlikely metaphors, opts for the easy sexualization of candy that has been a metaphorical mantra in this nation ever since the invention of the Blow Pop. Almond reveals his own shortcomings almost instantly. His defenders might view this as a cheap but amusing joke for the Animal House crowd. But, as a man who went through adolescence himself, I can assure you that Almond is utterly wrong about the First Rule of Male Adolescence. No adolescent male would be so reserved to stop at a mere ruler or its likeness. Because it is masturbation, as frequently and as frantically as possible, that is the thing. This penis is, after all, a fantastic utility that brings fantastic pleasure. Far from the myths that suggest that hair grows on the palm of one’s hand, masturbation is to teenage boys what habanero peppers are to good chilli: a way to put things into perspective during an explosive onset.

This leaves only one possible conclusion: The teenage Almond may have suffered from some permanent detumescence. While his adolescent friends were discovering a new application for Kleenex and Vaseline, Almond was left wondering why his own John Thomas failed to function. This may explain his later drift towards erotica (and, as we have established, unconvincing erotica). After all, what motivates a hopeless straggler than the allure of figuring it all out?

Almond’s remarkable incompetence is, like any failed exhibitionist, well on display at his website. His latest book, The Evil B.B. Chow and Other Stories, has paragraph excerpts (presumably because any story as a whole would reveal Almond’s deficiencies in toto). Here are a few choice excerpts.

From “The Soul Molecule”:

Wilkes had that drowsy pinch around the eyes you see in certain leading men.

Not a flap of skin, but a pinch, as if every thespian eye is inherently pinchable beyond the teevee. It doesn’t seem an accident that the only reference we have for Wilkes’ introduction is something purloined from a television set, rather than the more dimensional realm of reality.

From “Appropriate Sex”:

“This was a Friday in April, one of the last days of the term, and the undergrads were all worked up. You could see it in the way they touched themselves, those lewd innocent little caresses of the self, the way they lingered over their cigarettes out on the steps, a thousand bright sucking lips.”

Apparently, Almond believes his readers are too idiotic (or perhaps he himself is too idiotic) to figure out that April is near the end of a school term. Instead of clarifying specific gestures suggesting why these undergrads are “all worked up,” Almond, perhaps channeling Bulwer-Lytton’s inestimable lack of grace, paints a preternatural portrait of students all self-absorbed, somehow capable of ponying up five dollars each day for a pack of cigarettes (Almond is apparently unfamiliar with the commonly impecunious existence of college students) to sustain an existence, ending it with the overwrought image of “a thousand bright sucking lips.”

From “The Problem of Human Consumption” (Funny how all the Almond short story titles seem culled from the titles of undergraduate essays. Is this where he gets his inspiration? Can we expect “The Paradox of de Maupassant” as a future Almond offering?):

Paul looks at his daughter, looks her flush in the face, that soft pink swirl of youth, and suddenly he is hungry again, famished.

Clearly, these linguistical repetitions show that Almond is a man who, metaphorically speaking, couldn’t do the Lindy hop even if a league of instructors spent an entire weekend getting this incompetent bozo to step in time. Word count seems to be more of a priority in the Almond writing corner than clarity and polished coherence. As if we didn’t get the hint the first time that Paul is “hungry,” Almond reminds us a mere two words later that he is “famished.” He can’t even describe the daughter’s physical features, which might make us forget about the incestuous taboo Paul’s about to break. He settles instead on “that soft pink swirl of youth” rather than, say, “vigorous eyes calling for curiosity.”

Thus, the initial impetus that spawned Almond’s fury for Mark Sarvas is ironclad. He cannot spin sentences. He cannot properly describe. He cannot even suggest. He cannot, in sum, touch even remotely at this crazy little thing called life that fuels the best of writing. He cannot even get his terminology right in the Salon article. He suggests that Mark has committed “long-distance slander” when any dummy with a remote understanding of journalism knows that slander is spoken and libel is written. Here’s the initial entry from Mark’s blog that Almond cites as “false and malicious”:

The adulation accorded Steve Almond constitutes one of the blogosphere’s enduring mysteries. 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 the guys [sic] leaves behind. So I am, of course, delighted that the Washington Post’s Jonathan Yardley finally steps up and speaks the truth.

If Almond devoted a fraction of the efforts [sic] he brings to self-promotion to his writing, he might finally be on to something. But I doubt it.

Nowhere in Mark’s passage does he attack Almond’s character. He’s commenting upon his writing. Indeed, Mark is being encouraging by suggesting that Almond redirect his energies to something useful, like improving his writing.

From here, Almond makes a flying leap into his main thesis that Mark Sarvas is obsessed with him, based solely on an offhanded remark that Mark typed in an email to Dan Wickett about his “loathing for Steve Almond.” Not stalking. Not obsessing. Loathing for his prose, as established at his blog. But does this really make Mark a stalker?

Before I continue, I want to say a few words about Mark Sarvas. When I wrote and directed a play, do you know who came up all the way from Southern California to see it (aside from my sister)? Mark Sarvas. How many faraway friends do you know who would do that? When he was in Europe, he sent me a photo of Knut Hamsun’s grave. We’ve exchanged emails, talked to each other through rough times, encouraged each other, and suggested authors to each other. Beyond this, Mark Sarvas was the guy who organized the LBC idea. He is an avid bicyclist, a man who regularly checks up on all people he cares about, and a guy who even devoted time out of his schedule to teach an eight-week class to at-risk boys. Mark has never once invaded my privacy, nor has he showed up unexpectedly at my doorstep. He is a stable man with an exercise regimen that I don’t think I’d ever have the energy or discipline to maintain. Like any man of character, Mark is a passionate soul and he often lets loose words on one of his chief interests: literature. But they are no different from a cinema afficianado shouting at a television set during the Oscars about some has-been and untalented celebrity being granted a statutette while the real (and less attractive) talent who put his heart and soul into the part offers a sad grimace.

That Almond should fail to see the distinction between passion and stalking is not much of a surprise. But that he would be such a boorish and oversensitive pussy and put his poison pen to condemn Mark’s character through specious associations not only demonstrates how much litblogs have become a threat to traditional media and their counterparts (such as Salon), but that he truly has no worthwhile interest worth writing about.

Let’s take the examples that Almond uses to assassinate Mark’s character:

1. Shortly after a panel, while Mark is hunkered over his laptop, clearly in the middle of live blogging what went down, Steve Almond is amazed that anyone in the act of writing would be “startled.” Now if any rude asshole shouted in an earth-shattering voice, “Hi, I’m So-And-So,” when I was in the middle of writing, instead of, say, asking me if I were busy (when it’s clearly obvious), if it were me, I’d tell him to go fuck himself. But Mark, trying to maintain focus and friendliness, suggests that Almond talk with Jim Ruland. Classy guy. Decides instead, like any mischief maker, to note it on his blog, since Almond is there, wondering why his rude gesture hasn’t been rewarded with a handshake. And, no surprise, not a stalker!

2. Almond bemoans Mark’s failure to “rush the stage” after his reading, as if expecting the guy he’s just been a complete dickhead to, to gush him with adulations. Cry me a river, Almond.

3. I think it’s Almond who’s the real stalker here. He’s the man who’s expressing feelings of arousal, speculating about Mark’s sexuality, and going out of his way to make his life a living hell by not approaching him at, say, a post-reading bar when he’s not working. Like any DSM-IV case, it’s Almond there speculating about him with his girlfriend and his friends and now a long and self-serving essay.

4. Almond criticizes Mark Sarvas’ entry as being gossipy and conducive to “his own towering envy.” Too bad for Almond that the full entry Almond cites can be found here. It’s clear to just about anyone reading it that Sarvas is there asking questions of Wasserman, asking about the role of litblogs versus book review outlets — an ongoing dialectic carried over to his appearance on Radio Open Source.

5. Almond then wonders why a concentrated population reads litblogs. But it never occurs to him that litblogs are actually going out of their way to discuss literary topics. If we’re so foolhardy and if we’re such poor thinkers, why did Wasserman himself suggest to Mark during his Radio Open Source show that one of his posts proved thought-provoking. So if litblogs represent a certain nadir, is it possible that litblogs represent a nadir that is slightly more tolerable than the nadir of the L.A. Times and New York Times Sunday book review sections?

Perhaps Almond’s essay represents a confession. Having failed to get the customary rim job by someone who he presumes is one of his fawning admirers, he remains mystified that anyone with an online conduit would actually criticize his writing.

The real person to pity here is Almond. The problem is that pitying types like Almond is that it causes these characters to feed their own overinflated egos and, through their ostracizing actions, gets them removing themselves unknowingly from the great vales of human decency. Having failed to understand why his writing is deficient, why anything outside Almond’s head is worth considering, or offering a rational theory for why litblogs function, he has instead used his questionable professional credentials to confess unintentionally to the world that It’s All Steve, All the Time, giving into the First Rule of Sustained Adolescence in Adulthood: It’s all about me and every human action, no matter how minute, is directed somehow at me.

Kinder souls would call such a person “high maintenance.” I call one a self-absorbed asshole to be avoided at all costs. And a no-talent hack to boot.