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The Great English Novel is dead. Long live the unruly, upstart fiction that’s flourishing online

The reason I’m so excited David Mitchell is writing on Twitter is that he’s one of the few authors who really understands how the medium, as well as the message, makes the story.

Sonmi (Doona Bae) and Hae-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess) in the film version of Cloud Atlas
Sonmi (Doona Bae) and Hae-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess) in the film version of Cloud Atlas

In recent months, some writers have yet again begun to lament the demise of the Great English-Language Novel. Writers of unloved books complain that modern readers have problems with their attention span; that technology is changing the way we read and write. They worry that the internet is killing fiction with a thousand tweets. In this doom-laden atmosphere, imagine my excitement when I heard that David Mitchell was writing a short story on Twitter.

I get funny about novelists. You don’t get to be a reporter without developing an extremely high fawning quotient, and if you put me in a room with a politician, a rock star or an actor, I will remain calm. I even retained bladder control in the presence of Benedict Cumberbatch. Novelists, however, are different. Kate Zambreno, the author of the cult hit Green Girl, is a friend of friends, and I once had to be reminded at a party not to stare at her as if I was trying to imagine what her skull looked like from the inside. Which I was, although not in that way. Mostly not in that way.

Something similar happened a few years ago when I was stealing snacks in the press area at a literary festival and ran into David Mitchell. Not the lovely and talented comedian of the same name, but the equally lovely and talented novelist, who doesn’t like to announce himself, so it took a name-tag to inform me that I’d been caught nicking sausage rolls by the author of Cloud Atlas.

If you ever want to see literary criticism gone wild, get me drunk and get me to talk about Cloud Atlas. I won’t tell you the plot, because I’m not one of those enthusiasts who spoils every story by giving away the ending; I’m the other kind, the sort that grabs both your hands and says, in a slightly scary voice, “You just have to read it.”

Cloud Atlas, with its literary ventriloquism, its stories stacked inside each other like nesting dolls, is important. After the second gin, we’ll get to the part where the book was robbed, I tell you, robbed of the 2004 Booker Prize because the judges presumably got snooty about science fiction. Around one in the morning, I’ll probably start rhapsodising about how, at a time when there are so many different ways of telling a story, the novel does something that only the printed word can manage. The reason that I’m so excited that Mitchell is writing on Twitter is that he’s one of the few authors alive today who really understands how the medium, as well as the message, makes the story.

David Mitchell is not the first writer to use Twitter to produce innovative fiction. The Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole has become an internet phenomenon after his seeding of fractured stories on the social networking site. Mitchell’s story, “The Right Sort”, does something new again. The experience of a boy with a Valium addiction going to visit a mysterious benefactor is told in 140-character nuggets, because being on Valium “breaks down the world into bite-sized sentences. Like this one. All lined up. Munch-munch.”

Fiction isn’t dying – but it is changing. The new thriller by Robert Galbraith, a pseudonym for the Harry Potter author, Joanne Rowling, is a deliciously gory satire on the old-fashioned publishing industry. Long-suffering agents, shambling publishers and stuffy Great Men of Letters are ruthlessly and literally vivisected in it – which is appropriate, given the horrified response of the literati when it turned out that the talented new male crime writer they had all been championing for months was J K herself.

The delivery mechanisms might change but we cannot get on without stories, especially not in an age and time when all the old certainties of God and State and Family and Capital are collapsing around us.

I have always believed that the essentially secular nature of British culture partly explains our mania for fiction. There are 170 literary festivals in Britain alone, and thanks to online services such as Hive, independent bookshops are not disappearing as fast as was once predicted. The internet has produced innovative ways of reading, writing and recommending, from Goodreads to author blogs, and new sorts of writer are scaling the ladders of literary acclaim, all at once, like invaders storming a castle.

Technology has upended the business of publishing at precisely the same time as writers with a broader range of stories to tell about human experience are finally gaining a platform. In the past year I have scarfed down novels by and about survivors of the mental health system, as well as immigrants, queers and angry young women whose experience informs their prose but does not define it. On those nights when I wake up worrying that some day I’ll have read all the interesting novels, I am comforted by the sure knowledge that there are more than seven billion stories to tell, and they’re being told better than ever.

Some serious male novelists – such as Tim Parks in an essay for the New York Review of Books – allege that the modern novel has become frivolous and fluffy, a lightweight accessory for lightweight thinkers. Yet there is nothing lightweight about the fiction of, say, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Eimear McBride or Khaled Hosseini, unless “lightweight” is now a synonym for “readable”. What is happening is not extinction, but evolution.

Fiction, as the late American novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace put it, is “about what it is to be a fucking human being”. And in the digital age, what it is to be human is changing, too. In 100 years, when scholars draw up lists of the authors who defined our age, those lists won’t be slim – they’ll be longer, more diverse, and more vital than ever. 

Laurie Penny is the contributing editor of the New Statesman