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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After Strictly, I'd love to see Ed Balls start a new political party

My week, from babbling at Michael Gove to chatting Botox with Ed Balls and a trip to Stroke City.

If you want to see yourself as others see you, write a weekly column in a national newspaper, then steel yourself to read “below the line”. Under my last offering I read the following comment: “Don’t be angry, feel pity. Her father was a member of the European Parliament. Her older brother has been a member of parliament, a cabinet minister, a secretary of state, a historian, a mayor of London. Her younger brother is a member of parliament and minister for universities and science. She has a column in the Daily Mail. Can you imagine how she feels deep inside?” Before I slammed my laptop shut – the truth always hurts – my eye fell on this. “When is Rachel going to pose for Playboy seniors’ edition?” Who knew that Playboy did a seniors’ edition? This is the best compliment I’ve had all year!


Three parts of Michael Gove

Part one Bumped into Michael Gove the other day for the first time since I called him a “political psychopath” and “Westminster suicide bomber” in print. We had one of those classic English non-conversations. I babbled. Gove segued into an anecdote about waiting for a London train at Castle Cary in his trusty Boden navy jacket and being accosted by Johnnie Boden wearing the exact same one. I’m afraid that’s the punchline! Part two I’ve just had a courtesy call from the Cheltenham Literature Festival to inform me that Gove has been parachuted into my event. I’ve been booked in since June, and the panel is on modern manners. De mortuis nil nisi bonum, of course, but I do lie in bed imagining the questions I hope I might be asked at the Q&A session afterwards. Part three There has been what we might call a serious “infarction” of books about Brexit, serialised passim. I never thought I would write these words, but I’m feeling sorry for the chap. Gove gets such a pasting in the diaries of Sir Craig Oliver.

Still, I suppose Michael can have his own say, because he’s returning to the Times this week as a columnist. Part of me hopes he’ll “do a Sarah Vine”, as it’s known in the trade (ie, write a column spiced with intimate revelations). But I am braced for policy wonkery rather than the petty score-settling and invasions of his own family privacy that would be so much more entertaining.


I capture the castle

I’ve been at an event on foreign affairs called the Mount Stewart Conversations, co-hosted by BBC Northern Ireland and the National Trust. Before my departure for Belfast, I mentioned that I was going to the province to the much “misunderestimated” Jemima Goldsmith, the producer, and writer of this parish. I didn’t drop either the name of the house or the fact that Castlereagh, a former foreign secretary, used to live there, and that the desk that the Congress of Vienna was signed on is in the house, as I assumed in my snooty way that Ms Goldsmith wouldn’t have heard of either. “Oh, we used to have a house in Northern Ireland, Mount Stewart,” she said, when I said I was going there. “It used to belong to Mum.” That told me.

Anyway, it was a wonderful weekend, full of foreign policy and academic rock stars too numerous to mention. Plus, at the Stormont Hotel, the staff served porridge with double cream and Bushmills whiskey for breakfast; and the gardens at Mount Stewart were stupendous. A top performer was Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, who runs his own conflict resolution charity. Powell negotiated the Good Friday Agreement and also has a very natty line in weekend casual wear. Jeremy Corbyn has said he wants a minister for peace, as well as party unity. Surely “Curly” Powell – a prince of peace if ever there was one – must be shoo-in for this gig.

PS: I was told that Derry/Londonderry is now known as “Stroke City”. I imagined stricken residents all being rushed to Casualty, before I worked it out.


On board with Balls

Isn’t Ed Balls bliss? From originating Twitter’s Ed Balls Day to becoming Strictly Come Dancing’s Ed Balls, he is adding hugely to the gaiety of the nation. I did the ITV show The Agenda with Tom Bradby this week, and as a fellow guest Balls was a non-stop stream of campery, charleston steps, Strictly gossip and girly questions about whether he should have a spray tan (no!), or Botox under his armpits to staunch the sweat (also no! If you block the armpits, it will only appear somewhere else!).

He is clever, fluent, kind, built like a s*** outhouse, and nice. I don’t care that his waltz looked as if his partner, Katya, was trying to move a double-doored Sub-Zero American fridge across a shiny floor. After Strictly I’d like to see him start a new party for all the socially liberal, fiscally conservative, pro-European millions of us who have been disenfranchised by Brexit and the Corbynisation of the Labour Party. In fact, I said this on air. If he doesn’t organise it, I will, and he sort of promised to be on board!


A shot in the dark

I was trying to think of something that would irritate New Statesman readers to end with. How about this: my husband is shooting every weekend between now and 2017. This weekend we are in Drynachan, the seat of Clan Campbell and the Thanes of Cawdor. I have been fielding calls from our host, a type-A American financier, about the transportation of shotguns on BA flights to Inverness – even though I don’t shoot and can’t stand the sport.

I was overheard droning on by Adrian Tinniswood, the author of the fashionable history of country houses The Long Weekend. He told me that the 11th Duke of Bedford kept four cars and eight chauffeurs to ferry revellers to his pile at Woburn. Guests were picked up in town by a chauffeur, accompanied by footmen. Luggage went in another car, also escorted by footmen, as it was not done to travel with your suitcase.

It’s beyond Downton! I must remember to tell mine host how real toffs do it. He might send a plane just for the guns.

Rachel Johnson is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories