Lloyd Evans believes that the lesson of Will Self’s success — which he envies — is that it is better to be a ‘writer’ than to write well
It’s happened again. The other day I was deep in the Tube, powering my way through the loose maul, when a poster caught my eye. Will Self is promoting his latest book. At first glance the photo resembles an ad for a men’s magazine. Cool guy, cool clothes, cool chair, cool glare. Self sits sheathed in impassive black tailoring, with one leg casually thrown over the other; his intense skull and cold blazing eyes appraise you with a look of narcissistic derision. Hm, I thought, another Will Self novel. Already? They’re getting more frequent than rail crashes. In his cocked left hand — a sly affectation this — he sports an accessory that links him symbolically with the Great Thinkers of 20th-century Europe — a pipe. No really; I assumed they’d all been thrown away but here it is, sleek, discreet, unlit, a philosopher’s wand. To pose with a Gauloise would be a bit sixth-form, but the pipe is a cunning vanity, combining novelty, chic, reverence and rebelliousness.
So whatever the book is like, I can see that Will Self Worldwide is trading as vigorously as ever. And that infuriates me. It drives me mad. As I scurry through the seething tunnels I feel a rush of envy surge though my veins. I am beside myself with anger. Why am I beside myself? Because I am not beside Self. I am beneath Self — way, way beneath him. Along with hundreds of other neglected word-slaves, I toil and hack through the freelance jungle while above us soars this prolific bird, plying the airy canopy of literary stardom. He outranks us, outsmarts us, outsells and out-sneers us. And while the same might be said of numerous other authors, Self is in a different league. The venom he attracts from his fellow writers is pure and undiluted poison.
It might be consoling to take refuge in easy slurs, to call him talentless, over-rated, unserious or written out. But that’s only a fraction of the truth. When I first picked up his award-winning debut, The Quantity Theory of Insanity, I was staggered by its deliciously wicked opening. The narrator describes his mother’s death. ‘Cancer tore through her body as if it was in a hurry to get to a meeting with a lot of other successful diseases.’ What joyous audacity, I thought, and I was expecting further treats immediately. But instead I found a rather meagre dystopia enlivened all too rarely by bursts of lyrical and imaginative prose. Self writes like a prevaricating fiancé, always doing just enough to keep you engaged. His world is a narrow one, a lads-only habitat full of pill-popping neurotics and glamorous thugs. Women are parachuted in at intervals but only to a) couple with b) produce babies for and c) sexually betray the male principals. Around the edges there are credibility-stretching Cockneys who say things like ‘that’s as may be’ and ‘mind, he’s a dark one’. And there are dim-witted black men who sell rock, swear copiously and finish each sentence ‘and ain’t that the troof?’. But despite its faults, The Quantity Theory is still considered a sacred text among a populous readership of students, squatters, acid-heads and victims of the therapy industry. I too will always regard it with some affection. It’s the finest book I’ve never quite finished.
So I acquire the new novel, and unfold its aromatic pages, preparing to jeer through the opening chapters. The setting is a typical Selfscape, a north London enclave called ‘Kenton’. Feeding this name into my Enigma decoder I discover that Kenton stands for Kentish Town. The main character is a standard item from KwikSelf, a deranged sophisticate with a big house, a sexy wife and a much larger vocabulary than is strictly necessary to get by in north London. The twist is that the psycho is also a psychiatrist, but after 95 pages I put the book aside, unswayed by Self’s themes and maddened by his refusal to write in everyday language — or as he might put it, his disinclination to be ensnared by the quotidian.
I’m baffled that a writer of his talent should choose an exhibitionist tic that puts him on a level with 12-year-old university graduates, pub-quiz bores and Hitler. More than that, it betrays a disregard for the way language functions. Some of his choices are just the spasms of a professional maverick; irrupt, introject, assay and ascription rather than erupt, interject, essay and description. But words like hispid, moue, stria, perineum, frass, chancre, fungile and sateen throw obstacles in the way of understanding. It’s true that an arcane word has a dictionary meaning, but this is purely hypothetical. In practice, it has no meaning at all. It’s like putting tlfdtjdtx in the middle of this sentence. It jars and baffles the eye. It detracts from the semantic alchemy of words, the magical process by which a line of inky squiggles sets in motion an immeasurably complex network of associations in the mind. It’s like a pianist playing with a bust string. And for a writer, whose purpose is to communicate, using fancy hieroglyphs is a self-crippling indulgence.
All this would matter less if Self were just another lofty wordsmith putting out a new masterpiece every two years, to be widely acclaimed and universally ignored. But the fact is that Self is also a successful and highly efficient hack. Never troubled by writer’s block, he has the opposite anxiety: writer’s spout. The stuff just pours out of him night and day, apparently — essays, reviews, features, diatribes. If he were a graphic artist he’d have an atelier of apprentices working shifts and knocking out Self-like columns around the clock. All he’d do is swan in from the Groucho at sundown and add a few idiomatic flourishes, deleting ‘laugh’ and putting ‘cachinnate’, quashing ‘green’ in favour of ‘viridian’, ousting ‘slim’ and promoting ‘gracile’ and all that.
But writers must personally create every word of what they sell, and his fertility is quite prodigious. A recent interview revealed that in one day he produces enough finished work for three articles. Three in a day. The average hack might spend three days on one article. The jammy sod. He’s earning nine times what the rest of us make. How does he do it? While our sentences are squeezed out with murderous slowness, like blood from a vein, tap tap tap, Self rattles it off just like that. He springs from his bed and flies to the keyboard, his first witticism of the day already dancing from his fingertips. While we mope about the room fine-tuning our intro, he’s already completing his first commission. We quibble and mince. He scribbles and prints.
And he’s doing this every day of his life, at least when he’s not performing on TV. It’s his career as a game-show wag that fuels his unstoppable ascendancy. Although officially I detest Will Self out of solidarity with my fellow hacks, I secretly rather enjoy him on telly. Unlike other literary grandees, he’s game for more or less anything. It’s hard to imagine, say, Doris Lessing showing up alongside Melinda Messenger on Shooting Stars, or Julian Barnes being quizzed by Paul Merton on Room 101. ‘So, Julian, why do you want to have Vitaly Vishinky’s sculpture of Bellerophon at the Gare du Nord consigned to oblivion?’ No. That wouldn’t work. But Self moves effortlessly between these disparate entertainments. He can lark around on parlour games or dispute morality with panels of experts. His nearest rival, at least on the highbrow shows, is Martin Amis. But Amis has a disappointing presence, especially if the debate is live and an element of improvisation is required. He perches on his high chair, with his feet off the ground, giving furtive answers a nd imparting an air of sanctity and suspicion, like a Catholic cardinal being quizzed about a cover-up. But Self is entirely at home in the studio. He has an easy eloquence and, more importantly, an absolute mastery of image.
His career looks more and more like a piece of performance art. Will Self the writer is only tolerably gifted, but Will Self ‘the writer’ is a matchless creation. He has the look, he has the leathers, he has the sucked-in cheeks and the javelin stare. He conforms perfectly to our collective idea of the mad, tortured genius. Dostoevsky doesn’t do chatshows any more, but here’s the next best thing. And like it or not, a successful author these days is advised to attend carefully to his qualities as ‘a writer’. That’s why I’m dieting fiercely right now, and reading the dictionary every night in bed. My frame narrows, my vocabulary expands and I’ve acquired one or two distressed leather jackets. I may even be tempted to essay a pipe. Assay, I mean. So pretty soon I hope to irrupt across the TV schedules, a gracile figure with viridian eyes, cachinnating and introjecting at every opportunity. No need to write any more, just be ‘a writer’. And ain’t that the troof?