Will Self

Novelist, hack and a national favorite for political comedy, yet Will Self remains entirely independent. He talks to about life out side the bubble

“This whole imbroglio is epiphenomenal”, read the black and white slogan T-shirt stretched unforgivingly across the chest of a round and, from what I could tell, non-English speaking teenaged boy in Buenos Aires. For any that didn’t catch this social networking sensation, it sprung from Newsnight’s debate on the hacking scandal, in which novelist and writer, Will Self, infamous for both directness and opulence, used these characteristically verbose words to describe the drama. Steve Coogan – there to lend the ‘celebrity victim’ voice – let out an audible guffaw. Self, however, eyes set forwards, continued, spinning out his complex and deliberated perception of the “tectonic shift” from print to broadcast journalism that the debaters grappled with, and the “interregnum between cultural hegemonies” in which we live.
Perhaps more so than a lot of writers, words are something Self has often been both commended and chastised for. His unconventionally wide choice of vocabulary – as his novels, articles, speeches, what have you, slide liberally between using basic and highly intellectual language – have earned him labels as genius and pretentious.

“Actually,” says Self methodically, addressing the frenzy that followed his TV appearance, “there’s a fine line between using fancy words for the sake of it and actually expressing something well, and epiphenomenal imbroglio is about right when it comes to the relationship between the phone-hacking scandal and the shift – which tectonic – between print and web-based journalism.

“In general I’m both exasperated by people’s refusal to extend their own vocabulary beyond the standard 3,000 or so words mandated by plain English, and equally exasperated by my own wilful sesquepedalianism, which, try as I might, I seem unable to curb.”
Naturally before a minute was up this particular case of sesquepedalianism was well on its way to ‘trending’ status on Twitter, and a month later here I am on the other side of the world weighing up whether it was the power of said social network, the universal obsession with the hacking scandal, or indeed the fascination with the phrase itself, that landed it between this man and I plain and clear on black and white stretchy cotton.

“Shows like Newsnight give you the slightly queer feeling of being in a village – England as a mega-Ambridge”

It is probably a combination of all put together. It is probably also propelled by the fact that the phrase came from Will Self, a persona people have become attached to as an independent and outspoken commentator on next to anything he cares to accept – most will have him. Not simply a writer and a novelist – the profession he claims to – but an ‘expressor’, and something of a comedian.­­­­ Comfortably weaving narrative-like description into everyday speech, he seems to speak within the imagination of a child, using the mind of a highly intellectual adult, charged by fiersome political opinion. On the topic of the Clegg-Cameron characterisation (following his blog post on Clegg as the “verruca” of British politics’ foot), Self unreels his sharp and dramatised analysis: “Cameron is like the Scorpion in the fable – it’s in its nature. Some people – foolishly in my view – believed it wasn’t in Clegg’s nature either, but of course he’s just another tedous centrist politician. The centre ground of British politics at the moment is like watching several very hairy men share a lot of brushes between them. It’s that irritating.”
Growing up in North London, Self was a voracious reader: “I wanted to be a writer from my teens – but it seemed an impossibly high-flown ambition.” Making the early decision to take a less obvious road to get there – arguably a trait of his in approach to most things – Self went to study philosophy at Exeter College, Oxford. “I knew by the time I was 16 that studying literature in an orthodox way was something of a blind alley for people who wanted to write in an innovative way – rather than just writing books about books for people who read too many books. I was interested in philosophy and politics, and I’ve never regretted studying them.”

Though Self muses whether one can actually develop one’s work over time (“Evelyn Waugh said a writer has – if he’s lucky – two books in him, and these he simply rewrites”), he has certainly secured an “innovative” writing style – many casually refer to Will Self novels as making up a genre in itself – often under the banner of “shocking”, and “outrageous”.

Self is ­unsure about what he wants exactly from the reader, aside from setting a challenge: “I don’t want it to be easy for the reader – but beyond that I have no prescriptive intent at all. It’s up to readers to take away what they will, I’m not concerned with either propaganda or marketing, which amount to the same thing.”

Compared to such writers as J. G. Ballard and Hunter S. Thompson, Self’s fiction is famous for kicking rules and taboo up in the air – something that is forever linked with a time when, back before 1998, he referred to himself as “a hack that gets hired because I do drugs.” He has been clean of everything for 13 years but, as the straight talker he is known to be, remains just as refreshingly candid about the topic when I ask how he feels about people forever marrying his work to his past: “Well, they’re bound to, aren’t they – it’s what people do: personalise. It’s understandable, and really, if I didn’t want this to happen I should’ve avoided doing all those drugs!”
Whether critics put the content of his works down to a drug-fuelled past, or an eclectic imagination, Self makes clear that these seemingly lawless and unbound narratives do not come into being in a romantic haze of creativity, looming together novels and articles simultaneously in between the occasional TV appearance now and then. No, they are, he confirms, “not relaxed at all”. Although “all books begin with a sort of lucid dreaming and gradual accumulation of ideas, images, tropes, descriptions, scraps of dialogue that goes on for perhaps a year or two – often while other things are being worked on,” the work sets in:

“I sit down and write a draft, mornings are best, 800-1,200 words a day. Then I begin the second draft while the first is underway – about half way through – and that seems to help to thicken the broth in narrative and motif terms.”

It’s solitary, the lot of a writer, working individually and independently; the lot Self thrives and revels in. At my mention of Salman Rushdie referring to TV as the new literature he answered an abrasive “piffle” – he did once take some tentative steps into the television drama world, only to jump back into his bubble sharpish:

“My version of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The picture of Dorian Gray’ began life as a film script, but I stalled when I realised the amount of changes the producers were likely to inflict on my vision, so I turned it back into prose fiction. Writing for the screen, small or large, is essentially collaborative, and I’m a loner.”

Unlike approximately all hacks, Self does not tweet (he has an account to publish his various writings) – although “I’m not completely antipathetic to the WWW, I write journalism on a computer.” This public persona is not one he works at or has constructed for a life and career in television or collaboration, taking creative breaks in between. “I can assure you I’m asked a great deal more than I actually do – and I really don’t want to end up as a professional talking head, burneshed by the fraudulent regard of studio lights.”

Nonetheless, Self has become nationally, internationally, and, as he insists, involuntarily elected as a political spokesperson on matters of all kinds.

He is not necessarily averse to taking part in late night TV debriefs or debates. But when he does take part, he seems to do it on more of an ironic, observational level than anything else. “I do shows like Newsnight from time to time because they give you the slightly queer feeling of being in a village – England as a mega-Ambridge – you’re in on the goss’. And yes, sometimes because I think I have an opinion that I don’t see being expressed.”

As a writer/hack/commentator, Self has the immunity to sit back, watch the action and drop in with whatever he wants at any point – controversial or no. “However, rest assured, I’m not deluded enough to believe it counts for much.” M

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