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

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Track changes: a history of the railways

Simon Bradley's new book takes us from the train carriage to station signposts, walking the line between nostalgic reminiscence and hard evidence.

In his classic travel book The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux wrote that “the trains in any country contain the essential paraphernalia of the culture”. Of nowhere is this truer than the first railway nation. So much of Britain is what Simon Bradley calls “railway-haunted territory” – its landscape either directly transformed by the bridges, tunnels, cuttings and marshalling yards or indirectly touched by the social revolution wrought by the train. The train compartment is a micro-society that has brought the classes together to gawp at and dissect each other. “I can watch a dirty middle-aged tradesman in a railway-carriage for hours,” wrote Rupert Brooke in 1910, “and love every dirty greasy sulky wrinkle in his weak chin and every button on his spotted unclean waistcoat.” From the romance of steam to the curled corners of the British Rail sandwich, the railways have stirred the national imagination. So a single-volume social history of the scale and ambition of Bradley’s feels overdue.

The book is arranged spatially rather than chronologically. It begins in the railway carriage, the “mobile enclosure in which millions of people enjoyed or endured billions of hours”, and then takes us along the permanent way and its hinterland, ending on the platforms and concourses of the great railway stations. The non-linearity makes for some slightly awkward transitions (“so now we must move out of the compartment for a time . . .”), but it does allow Bradley to show how, on the railways, the present is always colliding with the past. Victorian carriages, divided into single compartments, survived on electrified commuter lines into the 1960s; W H Auden’s Night Mail was still “crossing the border” into the 1980s; the slam-door carriages and wide-window vistas of the InterCity 125 add a 1970s retro-chic to the present fleet.

Bradley was a schoolboy trainspotter, and he retains something of the spotter’s meticulousness and completism (or perhaps he has acquired this as a joint editor of the Pevsner Architectural Guides). For arcane knowledge, alight here: we learn about the varieties of upholstered leather used to cover seats, the different types of lavatory (early prototypes exposed the user to a
hurricane-force draught from below), the many iterations of platform tickets and the minutiae of buffet-car menus. “A straw in the wind,” he writes drily of the slow decline of the Pullman trains, “was the abandonment of croutons with the soup course.”

While Bradley does not always succeed in separating the telling details from the mere details, his book is still generously stuffed with the former. He tells us how the steam that hisses so evocatively from the halted train in Edward Thomas’s poem “Adlestrop” was produced; how the diddly-dum, fourfold beat of a moving train comes from the way 20th-century track was welded together, unlike today’s continuously welded rails, which have done away with this lovely music for ever; and how the graffitied railway carriage of the 1970s owed less to a broken society than it did to the new technologies of aerosol paint and the marker pen.

Bradley’s book picks up full steam whenever he evokes the sensual experience of travelling by train in the days before it became like being on an airliner: “the sour smell of wet cigarette ash” on a rainy winter’s day, “the tobacco-tainted condensation on single-glazed carriage windows” and the “mysterious creaks, squeaks and groans” of the sleeper train, with its promise of magical translation, separated by unconsciousness, to another place.

It is harder to gauge Bradley’s politics: he does not have the crusading interest in political economy of that other great railway writer, Christian Wolmar. Skating over privatisation in a few pages, he passes up the chance to explore the railways as a case study in the tussle between free-market economics and subsidised, fixed-capital industry. Yet even as a boy he “sensed the integrity and purpose of the railway”, and he seems kindly disposed to the last days of British Rail and resistant to the mythology of national decline with which they became indelibly linked. He retains a particular affection for the high-speed trains of the ­pre-Thatcherite era, their aesthetic appeal and technical excellence forged out of an ideal marriage of state intervention and commercial nous.

Like most of us, Bradley is not enamoured of the Virgin Pendolino, with its parsimonious window-to-wall ratio and its failure to accommodate the inexorable rise of the rigid-wheeled suitcase. And he wryly notes the monetising of the everyday which leaves even the space on station signs up for sale. Clapham Junction is now “Home of James Pendleton Estate Agents, a passion for excellence” and Cambridge “Home of Anglia Ruskin University” – although I’ve always assumed that this is not “unintentionally comic”, as he says, but a rather clever joke.

But Bradley is too even-tempered to give way to bloviating about the good old days. He walks a nice line between nostalgic reminiscence and hard evidence. He is sanguine, for instance, about the conversion of stations from messy and multifunctional social spaces, with clattering trolleys, porters and waiting rooms, into a generic retail opportunity. As he points out, the railways were always a commercial proposition and never set out to be romantic or atmospheric – and besides, “cappuccino and croissants smell better than diesel fumes”.

The Railways: Nation, Network and People by Simon Bradley is published by Profile Books (645pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war