LRB Talks Internet: James Wood Bongos, Colm Toibin Chats

The London Review of Books 30th anniversary celebration culminated in a panel discussion of “The Author in the Age of the Internet”: James Wood, Colm Toibin, John Lanchester, and Mary-Kay Wilmers joined moderator and LRB publisher Nicholas Spice on Saturday night at the New School.

A quick poll revealed that none of the panelists had Facebook or used Twitter. In spite of this, though, they had had vivid experiences of online life.

Mr. Toibin was eating chicken salad when Edmund White told him about chat rooms. The internet, he found, meant “the end of gay loneliness.”

From here Mr. Toibin segued into an extended riff on gender, age, and reading habits. This included (another Edmund White recommendation), the fact that “women still read novels in America,” and the enduring mystery of what heterosexual men think about–given that “if there’s a straight man over the age of 40 on a plane reading a novel, he wrote it.”

Mr. Spice cut Mr. Toibin off, although his audience and fellow panelists appeared entertained.

“It’s absurd this man doesn’t have a blog,” said Mr. Wood. “He’s already done three entries.”

As for the critic himself, he said that he has experienced “enormous enjoyment, really quite life changing, though Youtube”: the site allowed him to rediscover his teenage love of drums.

Mr. Lanchester suggested that dubious listeners search “james wood bongos.” (The Transom found swifter success with “james wood finger drums.”)

How does blog writing differ from regular writing, Mr. Spice asked the panelists?

“The only blog I read is our blog,” said Ms. Wilmers, an editor at the LRB.

Most were loathe to speculate as to cause and effect, citing examples of “bloggy” style that long predated blogs. Mr. Wood mentioned David Foster Wallace’s allowing sentences “to get ugly and scuffed”; Mr. Toibin said he imagined Jonathan Swift as a blogger.

Ulrimately, Mr. Toibin said that he wasn’t sure where the internet ranked in the grand scheme of technological innovations. When he prays, he said, it’s for God to improve the quality of his solitude, and when he applies this standard (does it improve solitude?) to technological advances, he comes out in favor of electricity: it allows for reading at night.

“The car has been good too,” he said.

“Anesthesia,” added Mr. Lanchester.

After the panel, Mr. Spice seemed jazzed, although he admitted to the Transom that “the weakness of the thing” was having to choose between LRB types and internet types–they had gone with LRB types. And while they had tried to get some young ones, schedules had not permitted.

“We’re all rather old,” he said. LRB Talks Internet: James Wood Bongos, Colm Toibin Chats