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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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage