Can the Author Survive the Internet?

This past weekend the London Review of Books celebrated its 30th anniversary with a panel on the future of the author—and why Andrew Sullivan may give up his blog.

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For the London Review of Books to host a discussion about “The Author in The Age of The Internet” might seem a bit like having Henri-Cartier Bresson give a lecture about the merits of Photoshop. The British magazine continues to publish great chunks of ink, paper, and high ideas each fortnight, typically illustrated with nothing more cutting-edge than an abstract watercolor.

Nevertheless publisher Nicholas Spice, editor Mary-Kay Wilmers, and contributors Colm Tóibín, James Wood, and John Lanchester seemed well-attuned to the promise and peril of the web, when they took to the stage at the Tishman Auditorium in New York City on Saturday night as part of a week of festivities in honor of the LRB’s 30th anniversary.

Spice started by celebrating the fact that the LRB’s previous events that week would not have happened had it not been for the Internet, since Tariq Ali and Jacqueline Rose were both stranded in Europe due to the Icelandic volcano. Thus they delivered their scheduled lectures to New York audiences via satellite link-up. “I wonder what Walter Benjamin would have thought of it,” mused Spice. “There was almost more aura than if they’d really been there.”

[James Wood] said he finds looking through readers’ comments on blogs to be akin to a descent into Hades.

But the aura around printed books is fast dissipating. With sales of e-books increasing by 176% in the last year, Spice fears that book chains may soon collapse, making it impossible for publishers to keep manufacturing hard copies.

Tóibín, who was recently awarded the Costa prize for his latest novel, Brooklyn, chimed in with a lament for the days of the “Net Book Agreement,” which used to prevent British bookstores from flogging bestsellers at knock down prices. The agreement’s demise in the 1990s proved to be fatal for hundreds of small booksellers.

But Tóibín was keener on blogging which he compared to the thriving pamphlet industry during the 18th Century. Swift, he said, might have knocked out a few blog posts in between finishing Gulliver’s Travels and delivering a sermon.

James Wood was somewhat less pleased with the “vituperation” he associates with the blogosphere (though Wood himself, it must be said, has been no shrinking violet when it comes to dispatching the pretensions of what he has dubbed the “hysterical realist” school of fiction). He said he finds looking through readers’ comments on blogs to be akin to a descent into Hades. He added that his friend Andrew Sullivan is buckling under the strain of writing three hundred blog posts per week, which has interfered with his ability to concentrate on anything longer than a few paragraphs. According to Wood, one of the Internet’s longest-serving and most prolific bloggers could even be about to call it a day as a result. (Contacted by The Daily Beast after the debate, Sullivan replied that “I have felt that way for five years and I’m still blogging!” He confirmed, however, that he had indeed considered calling it quits recently but would persevere if he could get an extra staffer.)

Wilmers admitted that she tends to limit her own exposure to cyberspace. “The only blog I read is our blog,” she said, “and I think it’s rather similar (to the essays in the magazine).” She was more intrigued by the emerging possibilities for narrative, particularly in the wake of historian Orlando Figes’s confession that he had deliberately smeared his rivals’ books on “There’s a plot there,” she said.

Speaking to The Daily Beast after the debate, Nicholas Spice attributed the LRB’s improbable success to a rare combination of high-quality writing and sustained investment over thirty years. These days, the Slovenian philosopher and LRB contributor, Slavoj Zizek even jokes that the circulation figures remind him of Soviet statistics for steel production. (An exaggeration perhaps, but with fortnightly sales at well over 40,000—half of them in the USA—the LRB is the most widely-read European literary magazine). Despite the LRB’s resolutely Old Media approach, Spice said that the internet had boosted the number of subscribers whilst helping them to organize public events like those in New York. “Magazines used to be locked into a very small universe. The web helps readers to find us.”

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Max McGuinness is a columnist for The Dubliner.