Hello Professor Will Self, and thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions. Most people will know you for your numerous published novels and short stories, your Man Booker Prize shortlisting, and your frequent appearances in the columns and on the screens of many respected, quality media outlets. So the first question on everyone's lips will no doubt be, 'is our social reality constructed by evil trillionaires, or is a pyramidical, hierarchical social structure the natural, logical order of human society?'
Well, Dave – you don’t mind if I call you ‘Dave’ do you? – well, Dave, I think neither of the above: conspiracy theories of all kinds – including your hypothesis about evil trillionaires – are what the credulous resort to in the face of the inexplicable; mostly, in my view, it is cock-ups rather than conspiracies that explain such phenomena as the egregiously unequal distribution of the world’s wealth, cock-ups in the form of sheer chance, or cock-ups like George Osborne being born. As to the current structure of society being any kind of natural order, if we had a time machine we could go back to an earlier, happier, far more egalitarian era… It was called ‘the 1970s’.
You are a highly regarded author and well-established figure of British literature: what are your views on the sales-based success of works such as 'Fifty Shades of Grey'? And is England a majoritively unwell country, in literary terms?
No, we’re not especially unwell in literary terms: books that depend for their success on sex, violence, or the easy action of page turning will probably always be the bestsellers, the problem for our literary culture is that what we might call middle-brow readers no longer feel that they ‘ought’ to read more serious books – the inception of the web and the internet also provides people with so many distractions that they can’t allow themselves to subsist in that state of unknowing ignorance that is essential if you’re going to grapple with understanding a text. My personal feeling is that serious reading will become more of a minority occupation – but of course, historically this was always the case.
In the recent past, we have all been reminded of the inherent imperialism of much of the history of the western world, with the annual celebration of perhaps the most historiographically distorted figure of all time - Christopher Columbus. In light of this, can parents trust in state education to give their children balanced teaching? And can bias historical perspective ever be beneficial for its receiver?
Well, the celebration of Christopher Columbus as the ‘discoverer’ of America is indeed perfectly ridiculous – but no more ridiculous that scores of things that are propagated through our education system and its wider cultural apparatus: the sacred character of British democracy, the wisdom of Elizabeth Windsor, the excellence of the British bobby; the Solomonic character of our legal system… I could go on. Actually, in fairness to us, the British are rather better at confronting their imperial past that some other nations I could mention: France.
We are in an unprecedented epoch of readily available and easily attainable information regarding the inner-workings of the highest stratas of humankind - governments, media, big business, etc - with all of them seemingly intertwined and ultimately self-serving. With this in mind, would you be for or against the idea of a proletariat uprising with an aim to overhaul the elitist monopoly of society? And what would be the foreseeable outcome of such an extreme overhaul?
I’m against violent revolution. Once the gloves come off there’s no telling when they’ll go back on again, and revolutions – like wars in general – are mostly fought by over-adrenalised young men who’d be just as happy racing cars or firing guns into the sky. We do, undoubtedly, need a major realignment in society, and a decoupling of our economy for the corrosive impact of global capital flows – and to achieve this we do indeed need a mass movement: ‘History,’ as Marx rightly observed, ‘is made by the great mass of individuals.’ We must find ways of rousing people to action that don’t depend on rousing them to a state of frenzy… I’m working on it – and so, actually, are a lot of other people: there’s no excuse for apathy.
If you were to bump into the twenty-year-old Will Self, presumably because the premise of 'Back to the Future' had become possible, what advice would you give to yourself? And why?
Give up smoking tobacco. I’ve smoked just about everything that can be smoked in my life; during one of the World Cups when the slogan was: Eat Football, Drink Football, Live Football, I tried smoking football – it was incredibly harsh and leathery… But on balance, the habit that’s been most damaging, and hardest to quit, has been cigarette smoking. My counsel to any young person is: give it up now – it just gets harder as the years go by, and if you do jack it in you’ll have gained at least ten years of life in which to get properly loaded in other more interesting ways.
And finally, given your success as an author of fiction and an academic, what advice would you offer to any budding creative or scholarly writer?
Read. Read a lot. Read and read and read and read – read until writing is coming out of your ears: the only way to understand how prose works (and I mean prose of any kind) is to be thoroughly conversant with all the forms it can take. I’ve spoken to and tried to advise many tyro writers over the years, and what I usually discover after talking to them for a few minutes is that they haven’t read enough to become writers: you need a solid grounding in the canon – and much, much more.