March 20, 2008



Curious, Mark, if you felt you received unfair treatment from the peanut gallery at the ToB. Their response to your judgment seemed particularly personal.


I do. But I have written privately to Kevin and John to express my disappointment.

Cesar Bruto

Oh Mark but you are robbing us of a good old public tiff. Don’t mellow out on us man. I mean, calling you Peckish is like one of the worse literary insults, no?

Incidentally, or perhaps not so incidentally, I also thought the decision against The Savage Detectives was unbelievable. Not that I'm usually a believer. That decision reminded of Jonathan Franzen’s Gaddis essay in which he validates the tossing of any "difficult" books for every lazy, benighted, nincompoopish reader. And The Savage Detectives wasn't even that difficult. And neither is 2666, or By Night in Chile, etc.


I thought your review was super cranky. You can do better.


I thought the judgment was a little snooty, perhaps, but regardless of its content, inviting someone to be a judge, only to then rail against their judgment, strikes me as somehow underhanded. It would be one thing if Mark's judgment were uncharacteristic, but both Kevin and John claim the exact opposite: that Mark's comments and review are characteristic of certain things they find inherently troublesome or problematic about his attitude and position as critic/writer (John, and Kevin, respectively). Given their seemingly pre-existing views, it's as if Mark were invited for this very purpose.


How could they have invited Mark knowing what he would write? The outcome wasn't determined--that's part of what Mark was expressing in his write-up. But that's what makes it fun! It's not a snooty review in the New York Times. It's a fun tournament. I can't see Maud Newton getting into a tizzy over The Believer and slamming Nick Hornby all in one review.

I also think John and Kevin did a good job taking the air out of Mark's sails. I'm just saying, Mark could have aimed a little higher.


Hey Mark. Honestly, aiming high is sort of contrary to the spirit of the Rooster. I'm a bit controversial sometimes, known for speaking my mind, and I'm sure the organizers knew that and, on some level, were even hoping for it.

The only part that I'll share is that I think it's pretty bad manners to essentially invite someone as a guest into your house, ask them to do a fair amount of work for you for free, and to thank them with vicious name calling. That's bad manners. And I think John's notion that I am somehow sexist is much more shocking and shameful than the Peck nonsense, which is typical TOB hyperbole.

Anyway, as I said, I've written to them both, though neither has replied as of this writing.

Steven Augustine

"...it's pretty bad manners to essentially invite someone as a guest into your house, ask them to do a fair amount of work for you for free, and to thank them with vicious name calling. That's bad manners."

*Word*, as the kids say.

However, it's pretty obvious, the (not entirely subconscious) mechanisms at play here. Sadly, there will be others along the way, man. Arm yourself... (Only rhetorically speaking, of course)


calling one of Mark's choices of words "vaguely sexist" is about the only name calling that I see. Seems hardly like "vicious name calling"


I think "pretentious a-hole" is pretty vicious, too, Mark. And, looking around the web today, a lot of others do seem to agree.


He didn't call you a pretentious a-hole.

Steven Augustine

This isn't more "good Kirk" / "evil Kirk" (with one of the Marks sporting a goatee), is it?


"Once you start telling people how not to write books, your own books become, perhaps unfairly, a response to the ones you didn’t like." --Kevin (from TOB)

Of all the half-baked critiques of Mark offered up by Kevin and John--and there are many--the above-cited is perhaps the most troubling when fully unpacked.

To begin with, the very notion that it is only AFTER "telling people how not to write books"--i.e., providing any review that falls short of full-on encomium (as apparently defined by Kevin)--that one's literary tastes will be unavoidably influenced by the books that one doesn't like is not only laughably false, but also bordering on elitist. That is, it hardly seems necessary for one to be writing a book of her own to have been influenced (positively or negatively) by the books she has read; subjectivity being, like it or not, readily available to laypersons and author/critics alike.

And why, for that matter, would one have to start trafficking in less-than-favorable reviews before having one's own book-writing efforts become "a response to the ones [books] you didn't like"? Surely a writer's personal style is, and has been, informed in countless and complex ways all along by works both good and bad (at the most basic level: what one "likes" or "doesn't like", e.g.), as opposed to hinging on some sort of single epiphanic outburst--"Oh my god, I don't like a specific book, so now I must go forth and write a countervailing work to make clear my own preferences!!" The suggestion is comical, of course, but somewhat less so when one realizes that this is more or less what Kevin is effectively propounding, or, more accurately, has wrongly accused Mark of doing.

Beyond that, throughout both Kevin and John's respective "commentaries," little time is given to establishing why Vida's is actually the better book; instead, so infuriated by Mark's opinion, several paragraphs are devoted to ad hominem attacks (and insinuations), since this, apparently, is easier (or more titilating) than addressing the review in question. Taken together and boiled down, the collective logic of these attacks runs approximately as follows: Mark is a jerk (or rather, an "a-hole"; seriously, "a-hole"? what are we, in seventh-grade shop class?) for not liking Vida's book more than he did, and thus must be a) sexist; b) mean-spirited; c) egomaniacal, on account of having himself received favorable blurbs; etc. These jabs, of course, are petty, and accomplish very little other than make their authors look foolish and reactionary.

But more than that, they are inherenly disturbing: for if one can no longer express an honest opinion without fear of being deemed "sexist" (with absolutely nothing in the way of backing-up or substantiation) or having his integrity needlessly called into question, certainly far more is at stake than which book advances to the Tournament's next round.


Well let's be fair here. Yeah, Kevin and John don't really spend much time trying to say why they like the VV book better--but that's not the point of the commentary is it? They're meant to be the play by play announcers.

And Mark doesn't spend too much time saying why he doesn't like the VV book. Mark's dismissal of the VV book amounts to two things: 1) a scene he doesn't like because he claims it's "self-consciously literary", i.e. the image of a woman holding two wind- up clocks to her head and 2) he doesn't like the section breaks and compares them to the Believer and Fraser.

I'm not sure how that image is self consciously literary--if Mark doesn't like it or buy it, fine. But his #2 gripe, to be fair, may not be VV's fault at all. It may be something the book designer laid out.


I would disagree entirely, Mark; that is, I think that "gripes" #1 and #2, as you call them, are essentially flip-sides of the same coin (though no less damning for being so): arguments against the sort of cloying, mannered quirkiness that, sadly, has become pretty much synonymous with the Believer/McSweeney's idiom. I suppose, for instance, that somewhere there are probably still kids high-fiving when they read french fries described as "potatoes served fried in the French manner," (Eggers), but I, for one, am ready to move on from this sort of cute-as-a-button diplay. And the meaningless use of blank pages. And whimsical doodles in the margins. And flipbooks to close the text. And upside-down prefaces. You get the idea.

It also seems highly unlikely that the section breaks in question were somehow added against Vida's say. What--some editorial type said, "Hey, let's throw these in there, just for grins!" and Vida then said, "Yeah, why not?" Please.

Finally, since you begin your post with a putative call to fairness, perhaps you can explain what, exactly, is "fair" about labeling someone sexist simply for disagreeing with one's own take on a book. That's a serious charge; not one that can be lobbed carelessly before ducking behind the rather thin cover of "play-by-play announcer."

Steven Augustine

I've seen lots of head-butting over literary matters online (unavoidable, in the absence of truly objective criteria, or even a general consensus about "taste") but what blew *my* toupee through the transom about this was the clunky/creepy, insinuative riffs about MS's blurbers and blurbees and so forth. A little bit like smuggling a flick-knife to an arm-wrestling match. Deeply unworthy, reputation-damaging (and I don't mean the victim's reputation) behaviour.

Zingers: good; mud-slinging: bad.


The charge is: vaguely sexist.

Here's the full quote:

"To be fair to Mark, I’m now going well beyond what I think is either his conscious or even subconscious intention, but the “slight” business in this case strikes me as vaguely sexist as well"

I don't think there's anything cute or McSweeney'sesque about VV's image of two clocks. Quirky, okay.

Also--Mark knew who he was getting into, I think when he wrote the review. (He's also getting publicity for his new book, which is fine.) Also, he admitted that he KNEW that this review would piss some people off. But what's fair is fair and I think John and Kevin's reaction isn't too harsh considering what Mark wrote.


"Also--Mark knew who he was getting into, I think when he wrote the review. (He's also getting publicity for his new book, which is fine.) Also, he admitted that he KNEW that this review would piss some people off. But what's fair is fair and I think John and Kevin's reaction isn't too harsh considering what Mark wrote." --(apologist) Mark

This is your argument, Mark? Ignoring the rather curious typos/punctuation issues (it's 5 o'clock somewhere, I guess), I can't say that I find it particularly compelling; that someone gets "pissed off" at another's opinion is simply no excuse for falsely crying sexism.

And are you honestly going to try to defend such rubbish as permissible on the basis that it gives Mark Sarvas publicity? Thus, by your logic, it's okay to smear someone as long as a book is on the horizon? How about any other public figure? That's an interesting worldview, I must say. . .

Lastly, that the charge is qualified by the word "vaguely" perhaps makes the whole episode more ridiculous, not less, as it indicates that the author probably knew the untenable nature of his assertion--again, he does nothing to back it up--but decided to level it anyway, purely out of anger and personal vitriol.

Sorry, Mark, but disagreeing with someone's opinion of a book does not a sexist make; you can play apologist all day long, but I'm not letting you (and John and Kevin) off the hook on this one.


Mark Sarvas wrote a snarky review.

John and Kevin snarked back at him.

What's fair is fair, right?


The whole game, as it is, with The Tournament of Books, is that Mark Sarvas would write a review of two books, pick his favorite, and then John and Kevin would comment on it.

Also, it is disingenuous to dismiss that "vaguely" here, I think. John didn't call Mark a sexist pig.


"Also, it is disingenuous to dismiss that "vaguely" here, I think. John didn't call Mark a sexist pig."

That's a transparently relativistic rationale, Mark, and, again, not especially convincing, though that's certainly been the pattern of your comments.

There was nothing remotely--or, if you prefer, "vaguely"--sexist in the review of Vida's book (which you seem to tacitly accept, since, throughout this entire rather dimwitted exchange, you've offered no evidence to the contrary).

If you were upset by the assessment of an author you admire, that's your opinion, and I would gladly defend your right to hold it just as strongly as I've defended Sarvas's in these posts. What I would never do, however, is take umbrage at a review I found "snarky" and then retaliate by making unsupported claims of sexism, all the while defending my missteps with a rather pathetic eye-for-an-eye calculus when unable to support my accusations. If you're unable (or unwilling) to see the difference between the two, I'm afraid I can't really help you.

The piece was not sexist; you know it; I know it; Vendala Vida knows it; end of story.

cheers, Bongo-Shaftesbury

Matt Pearce

I think PS's snark fits right in with the whole mess.

This is ridiculous.


Nicholson Baker is a better writer than Danielle Steele. Adam Kirsch's review is incompetently argued because it completely missed the point of HUMAN SMOKE. Also, by the crazed logic in this thread, I'm a sexist. So I guess I'll be with Mr. Sarvas in the Marriott snorting coke off a hooker's ass if you need me.


Honestly? I don't think Mr. Sarvas is a sexist, not at all. And PS/Bongo, I'm sorry you think I'm dimwitted; I guess there's nothing I can do now to make you think more of me.

I wonder what sort of reaction you expected, Mark, by writing such a controversial piece. Certainly, you didn't expect your words to be tagged as vaguely sexist, right? Fair enough. But you *knew* the format of TOB and you *knew* your piece would be commented upon. I realize it's not your style, because you are "controversial" but you could have done what Maud did with her piece--which was to review the two books at hand, and not whine and moan about how it was *ridiculous* that your favorite book didn't make it past the first bracket.

As the piece reads now, you dismiss the VV book very quickly, praise the Denis Johnson book and then you advance Tree of Smoke because:

"Tree of Smoke, on the grounds (as good as any) that in the event that it makes it all the way through to the finals, it is precisely the sort of Big Literary Book that frequently gives Nick Hornby such conniptions in his Believer column, and it will be entertaining to see how he takes to it."

If this is the end of your argument, are you really, truly suprised at what happened next? You're a writer. You know how words work and how they are put together. You're having a little fun with the other judges here, and that's fine. . .but to be surprised at the reaction (which honestly, seemed fairly mild to me) makes you seem a little clueless.

You must know, as a writer, that there is a massive difference between these two sentences:

"Dale Peck is a sexist pig."

And this: "To be fair to Dale Peck, I’m now going well beyond what I think is either his conscious or even subconscious intention, but the “slight” business in this case strikes me as vaguely sexist as well, as though a book about a young woman literally searching for her identity, no matter how skillfully it is rendered, could live up to the grand (at least judging by physical size) ambitions of either Bolaño’s or Johnson’s opuses."

David Worsley

If I'm reading the thread right, this is mostly a question of John and Kevin's return of service.
Vendela Vida's book is slight next to Tree of Smoke. I still believe it to be the better book, but Mark didn't and that's fine. To conflate "slight" and "sexist" context aside, seems over the top.
Advantage Mr. Sarvas

Kevin Guilfoile

Hi all,

Mark, I'm sorry I didn't respond to your email, but that's only because I didn't receive it.

If I could respond to a couple things here, though. First of all, I didn't intend my comments to be personal at all. I was taking the opportunity of Mark's review to comment on the tricky nature of book reviewing. Literature is the only artistic endeavor where artists are routinely paid to praise and trash each other's work. I don't have a problem with that, it creates drama and generates additional income for writers. But a lot of authors, and especially novelists, even ones who write reviews, have some ambivalence about it. And I think it's especially tricky for novelists who try to be provocative as critics. I'm not saying it's bad, or that they shouldn't try, I'm just saying there are pitfalls.

Also I was not insinuating that Mark did anything improper by soliciting blurbs from other writers. In fact I stated plainly that he did not. I was, however, using them as an example. When you ask someone to read your unpublished manuscript and lend his reputation with a quote of praise, you are asking him for a favor. Every novelist does it--blurbs are important grease for the publishing machine. Mark's book isn't even out yet and I'm sure he's already been asked to read any number of unpublished books with the hope that he will give the writer a quote. But a writer asking another writer for a favor is very different than a critic asking a writer for a favor. I mean, nobody has ever called me up and said, "I'm reviewing your book next month, could you come over and help me move?" So the life of the critic novelist is complicated. It's not impossible. It's not unethical. I was merely pointing out that Mark, a person many of us have followed for some time as a critic, is at an interesting, even exciting, point in his careers.

Finally I want to dismiss the hilarious idea that we invited Mark to be a judge only so we could ambush him with our commentary. Mark has been a judge since year one because we think he's interesting and opinionated reviewer. I can assure everyone that this exchange was not part of some diabolical four-year plan.


Sorry, Kevin - I had an old (Coudal) address. Resending my email to this one. Thanks.


I've also heard back from John, who has written an extremely gracious and thoughtful email, and I consider this case of misunderstandings closed, with no hard feelings.


Since it seems everyone's getting along now (or, everyone relevant, anyway), I just want to say that my brief exposure to Vendela Vida's work has always left me shrugging my shoulders, and that after burning through the first 75 pages or so of The Savage Detectives, what followed was sometimes great but also occasionally bored me to tears. Overall, I'd say that Mark's review was significantly less "controversial" than the official responses to his review, but I'm not sure that word is really warranted. Impolite, yes; controversial, no.

Mark, thanks for coming out east to tape Titlepage the other day. Was a pleasure to meet you.


Hugo Claus was one of the greatest writers of our time .He deserved the Nobel prize !

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