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

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

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

Photo: Channel 4
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Who will win Great British Bake Off 2017 based on the contestants’ Twitters

An extremely serious and damning investigation. 

It was morning but the sky was as dark as the night – and the night was as dark as a quite dark rat. He walked in. A real smooth gent with legs for seconds. His pins were draped in the finest boot-cut jeans money could buy, and bad news was written all over his face. “I’m Paul,” he said. “I know”. My hooch ran dry that night – but the conversation never did. By nightfall, it was clear as a see-through rat.   

Some might say that going amateur detective to figure out which contestants win and lose in this year’s Great British Bake Off is spoiling the fun faster than a Baked Alaska left out of the freezer. To those people I’d say: yes. The following article is not fun. It is a serious and intense week-by-week breakdown of who will leave GBBO in 2017. How? Using the contestants’ Twitter and Instagram accounts, of course.

The clues are simple but manifold, like a rat with cousins. They include:

  • The date a contestant signed up for social media (was it during, or after, the competition?)
  • Whether a contestant follows any of the others (indicating they had a chance to bond)
  • A contestant’s personal blog and headshots (has the contestant already snaffled a PR?)
  • Pictures of the contestant's baking.
  • Whether a baker refers to themselves as a “baker” or “contestant” (I still haven’t figured this one out but FOR GOD’S SAKE WATSON, THERE’S SOMETHING IN IT)

Using these and other damning, damning, damning clues, I have broken down the contestants into early leavers, mid-season departures, and finalists. I apologise for what I have done.

Early leavers

Kate

Kate appears not to have a Twitter – or at least not one that the other contestants fancy following. This means she likely doesn’t have a book deal on the way, as she’d need to start building her social media presence now. Plus, look at how she’s holding that fork. That’s not how you hold a fork, Kate.

Estimated departure: Week 1

Julia

This year’s Bake Off began filming on 30 April and each series has ten episodes, meaning filming ran until at least 9 July. Julia first tweeted on 8 May – a Monday, presumably after a Sunday of filming. Her Instagram shows she baked throughout June and then – aha! – went on holiday. What does this mean? What does anything mean?

Estimated departure: Week 2

James

James has a swish blog that could indicate a PR pal (and a marketing agency recently followed him on Twitter). That said, after an April and May hiatus, James began tweeting regularly in June – DID HE PERHAPS HAVE A SUDDEN INFLUX OF FREE TIME? No one can say. Except me. I can and I am.

Estimated departure: Week 3

Tom

Token-hottie Tom is a real trickster, as a social media-savvy youngster. That said, he tweeted about being distracted at work today, indicating he is still in his old job as opposed to working on his latest range of wooden spoons. His Instagram is suspiciously private and his Twitter sparked into activity in June. What secrets lurk behind that mysteriously hot face? What is he trying to tell me, and only me, at this time?

Estimated departure: Week 4

Peter

Peter’s blog is EXCEPTIONALLY swish, but he does work in IT, meaning this isn’t a huge clue about any potential managers. Although Peter’s bakes look as beautiful as the moon itself, he joined Twitter in May and started blogging then too, suggesting he had a wee bit of spare time on his hands. What’s more, his blog says he likes to incorporate coconut as an ingredient in “everything” he bakes, and there is absolutely no bread-baking way Paul Hollywood will stand for that.

Estimated departure: Week 5

Mid-season departures

Stacey

Stacey’s buns ain’t got it going on. The mum of three only started tweeting today – and this was simply to retweet GBBO’s official announcements. That said, Stacey appears to have cooked a courgette cake on 9 June, indicating she stays in the competition until at least free-from week (or she’s just a massive sadist).

Estimated departure: Week 6

Chris

Chris is a tricky one, as he’s already verified on Twitter and was already solidly social media famous before GBBO. The one stinker of a clue he did leave, however, was tweeting about baking a cake without sugar on 5 June. As he was in London on 18 June (a Sunday, and therefore a GBBO filming day) and between the free-from week and this date he tweeted about bread and biscuits (which are traditionally filmed before free-from week in Bake Off history) I suspect he left just before, or slap bang on, Week 7. ARE YOU PROUD NOW, MOTHER?

Estimated departure: Week 7

Flo

Flo’s personal motto is “Flo leaves no clues”, or at least I assume it is because truly, the lady doesn’t. She’s the oldest Bake Off contestant ever, meaning we can forgive her for not logging onto the WWWs. I am certain she’ll join Twitter once she realises how many people love her, a bit like Val of seasons past. See you soon, Flo. See you soon.

Estimated departure: Week 8

Liam

Liam either left in Week 1 or Week 9 – with 0 percent chance it was any of the weeks in between. The boy is an enigma – a cupcake conundrum, a macaron mystery. His bagel-eyed Twitter profile picture could realistically either be a professional shot OR taken by an A-Level mate with his dad’s camera. He tweeted calling his other contestants “family”, but he also only follows ONE of them on the site. Oh, oh, oh, mysterious boy, I want to get close to you. Move your baking next to mine.

Estimated departure: Week 9

Finalists

Steven

Twitter bios are laden with hidden meanings and Steven Carter-Bailey’s doesn’t disappoint. His bio tells people to tune in “every” (every!) Tuesday and he has started his own hashtag, #StevenGBBO. As he only started tweeting 4 August (indicating he was a busy lil baker before this point) AND his cakes look exceptionally lovely, this boy stinks of finalist.  

(That said, he has never tweeted about bread, meaning he potentially got chucked out on week three, Paul Hollywood’s reckoning.)

Sophie

Sophie’s Twitter trail is the most revealing of the lot, as the bike-loving baker recently followed a talent agency on the site. This agency represents one of last year’s GBBO bakers who left just before the finale. It’s clear Sophie’s rising faster than some saffron-infused sourdough left overnight in Mary’s proving drawer. Either that or she's bolder than Candice's lipstick. 

Chuen-Yan

Since joining Twitter in April 2017, Yan has been remarkably silent. Does this indicate an early departure? Yes, probably. Despite this, I’m going to put her as a finalist. She looks really nice. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.