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Page refresh: how the internet is transforming the novel

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January 23, 2021 at 09:00AM

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Doom scrolling, oversharing, constantly updating social media feeds … the internet shapes how we see the world, and now it’s changing the stories we tell, writes author Olivia Sudjic

Towards the end of 2020, a year spent supine on my sofa consuming endless internet like a force-fed goose, I managed to finish a beautifully written debut novel: Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson, which comes out next month. And yet despite the entrancing descriptions, I could barely turn two pages before my hand moved reflexively toward the cracked screen of my phone. Each time I returned to the novel I felt ashamed, and the shame only grew as I realised that, somehow, though the story was set in the present, and involved an often long-distance romance between two young people with phones, it contained not one single reference to what by then I considered a hallmark of present-day humanity: mindless scrolling through social media.

There was something sepia-toned about the book thanks to this absence, recalling love stories from previous eras even as it spoke powerfully to more urgent contemporary issues. Azumah Nelson’s narrator mentions phones in the context of calls and private text messages, but the characters are never sullied by association with Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Was this because they were too sensible, ethical or self-assured to use such things, or is the omnipresence of these platforms now so implicit, in literature as in life, that they hardly seemed worth mentioning?

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