Authors: Will Self

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English novelist and short-story writer

Author Works

Long Fiction:

“Cock” and “Bull,” 1992 (2 novellas)

My Idea of Fun: A Cautionary Tale, 1993

Great Apes, 1997

How the Dead Live, 2000

Dorian: An Imitation, 2002

Short Fiction:

The Quantity Theory of Insanity, 1991

Grey Area, and Other Stories, 1994

The Sweet Smell of Psychosis, 1996

Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys, 1998

Nonfiction:

Junk Mail, 1995

Sore Sites, 2000

Perfidious Man, 2000 (with David Gamble)

Feeding Frenzy, 2001

Biography

Included in Granta magazine’s influential “Best of the Young British Novelists” 1993 issue before he had even published his first novel, William Woodard Self would become one of Great Britain’s quirkiest and most high-profile writers. Eschewing the self-effacing demeanor and style of, for example, Kazuo Ishiguro and going well beyond the personal and literary flamboyance of, say, Martin Amis, Self quickly became the “bad boy” of British literature, whose cocaine-fueled lifestyle in London’s trendiest literary circles was consonant with his belief that the artist must have “the courage of his own perversions.” However, the writer, who seems the very personification of cool Britannia and the literary equivalent of shock artists such as Damien Hirst, has been highly critical of the cultural sensibility with which he has been identified, as is evident in his disdain for the sophisticated but facile and merely fashionable nihilism of American filmmaker Quentin Tarantino. It is this seeming paradox that is at the heart of Will Self’s important and distinctive writing.{$I[A]Self, Will}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Self, Will}{$I[tim]1961;Self, Will}

Self grew up in the Hampstead Garden suburb, the kind of eminently safe but deadening North London neighborhood in which much of his fiction is set. His father, a professor of urban planning at the London School of Economics, and his neurotic American Jewish mother divorced when he was nine. Self’s early drug use had blossomed into heroin addiction by the time he completed his degree in philosophy at Oxford. After brief stays in Australia and India, he returned to London, working as a cartoonist before turning to writing. Even as his fame and celebrity grew, the negative aspects of his addictive personality became more pronounced. The low point came in 1997 when, just embarked on a new marriage (to Deborah Orr) and with a child on the way, reports that he had used drugs aboard John Major’s campaign jet led to his being fired by The Observer. Soon after, he gave up drugs and alcohol and settled down to a more domestic life, continuing to write fiction that has kept its satirical and stylistic edge while taking on a greater emotional intensity.

“I don’t write fiction for people to identify with,” Self has said, “and I don’t write a picture of the world they recognize. I write to astonish people.” Astonish the six-foot, five-inch Self has, in fiction that is extravagant, excessive, unruly, and irreverent. He is often criticized for being self-indulgent with his verbal pyrotechnics, but his scabrous, blackly humorous writing is furiously funny, as full of energy and outrage as it is devoid of plot and character development. As a self-professed writer of surrealist fiction, Self specializes in the deadpan delivery of the bizarre and sudden swerves into the fantastic as women grow penises, men vaginas; humans and apes, doctors and patients change places; fantasies become reality while reality becomes a grotesque distortion; and the dead live. The fiction may be idiosyncratic, but it is certainly not unprecedented. Jonathan Swift, Voltaire, François Rabelais, Lewis Carroll, William S. Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson, Woody Allen, Joseph Heller, Oscar Wilde (Self’s “hero”), and especially master of urban apocalypse J. G. Ballard have played their parts in the making of Self’s satiric genius and dark vision. All satire, Self believes, betrays “a certain instability and tension” between mere cleverness and “deep compassion,” between “outright cynicism, anomie and amorality” and “the equal and countervailing pressure towards objective truth, religion, and morality.” In Self’s fiction, this conflict manifests itself in the urge to satirize and thereby reform and in the competing urge to create an art of pure performance that has as much to do with deep-seated psychological insecurities and his self-described and self-destructive personality as with the postmodern times as he grinds his world down to word, spleen, and style.

Self’s dilemma as an English satirist is complicated in the twenty-first century in much the same way that Philip Roth felt that American writers were in 1960 as they struggled “to understand, describe, and then make credible” a reality that stupefies, sickens, infuriates, and finally “embarrasses one’s own meager resources.” Utopian plans to improve the individual and the built environment–the theories of psychiatrists and urban planners in particular–are Self’s most frequent targets. Self’s characters (who either have too little will or too much) struggle to situate themselves in relation to their outsized environment. Feeling “decoupled,” they often gravitate to grotesquely inadequate beliefs and explanatory systems, such as hypercapitalism or fashionable psychological theories.

Self’s short stories–several of them interrelated–focus most intensely on the problems of adjusting to one’s environment and of inhuman “theory in the face of real human distress.” The linked novellas of “Cock” and “Bull” deal comically and grotesquely with gender issues and evidence the author at his most stylistically disciplined and imaginatively outrageous. The Sweet Smell of Psychosis is a wickedly funny send-up of the London literary scene in which Self was a featured player. His first novel, My Idea of Fun, is a much more diffuse and intermittently (if, again, grotesquely) brilliant satire of its time (the late 1980’s and early 1990’s), when, thanks to Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies, “people had begun to feel less ashamed about being greedy” and the lines between fantasy and reality, desire and action, became much less clear. While the effectiveness of My Idea of Fun is mitigated, as satire, by Self’s tendency to digress, that of Great Apes is undermined by Self’s working so doggedly at a single idea over its 404 pages, while putting his literary sources (Franz Kafka’s 1917 story “A Report to an Academy,” Swift’s 1726 novel Gulliver’s Travels, and the 1968 film Planet of the Apes) to little advantage. The largely critical reviews of Great Apes, in which noted psychiatrist (and frequent Self target) Dr. Zack Busner investigates the strange case of fellow chimp Simon Dykes, a famous artist who believes he is a human, were just part of Self’s annus horribilis.

Having been upstaged as the “bad boy of British fiction” by Irvine Welsh shortly before Self lost his position as special campaign reporter for The Observer, and finding little encouragement in reviews of his most recent novella, novel, and story collection, Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys, Self seemed a writer whose meteoric rise had come to a spluttering end as he took the necessary steps to put his personal life in order. If his next novel, How the Dead Live, was a struggle to complete, it was also to be his best to date. Returning to the subject of the lead story of his first book, “The North London Book of the Dead,” Self writes wittily, energetically, and affectingly, about “the awful karmic outcome of having lived”–as his mother did–“a materialist, self-conscious, self-obsessed life.” If How the Dead Live is more focused than any of his earlier long fictions and much more emotionally engaging than any of his work, the reason is that Self found in his mother’s voice the most effective vehicle for venting his own spleen while gaining some distance from it: a way to recapitulate his major concerns as a satirist while coming to terms with many of his personal demons and thereby finding a way to move past them. Ever the observant, acerbic culture critic as well as pyrotechnic fiction writer, Self updates Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) in his fourth novel, Dorian, set in the age of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).

BibliographyHeller, Zoe. “Self-Examination.” Vanity Fair, June, 1993, 125-127, 148-151. A lengthy, interview-based essay introducing Self to an American audience.Lyall, Sarah. “Tale of Recovery from a Bad Boy of Letters.” The New York Times, October 16, 2000, pp. B1, B6. Along with Barber’s interview (below), explains the autobiographical basis of How the Dead Live and Self’s long struggle with his “addictive personality.”Self, Jonathan. Self-Abuse: Love, Loss, and Fatherhood. London: John Murray, 2001. This memoir by Self’s elder brother sheds light on Will Self, his parents, and his fiction (My Idea of Fun and How the Dead Live in particular).Self, Will. “Self Control.” Interview by Lynn Barber. Guardian 11 (June, 2000). An important interview occasioned by the publication of How the Dead Live.
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