Will Self was born in England and attended Oxford University. He has written three short story collections (The Quantity Theory of Insanity, Grey Area, and Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys), a book of two novellas, Cock and Bull, and a third novella, The Sweet Smell of Psychosis. He has also written four novels, My Idea of Fun, Great Apes, How the Dead Live and most recently Dorian: An Imitation. Self was on the list, in the 1993, of Granta‘s best young English novelists under forty, that included: Louis de Bernieres, Tibor Fischer, Esther Freud, Alan Hollinghurst, Kazuo Ishiguro, Al Kennedy, Philip Kerr, Hanif Kureishi, Lawrence Norfolk, Ben Okri, Caryl Phillips, Nicholas Shakespeare and Jeanette Winterson. Will Self is also a journalist who writes a general cultural column for a major London daily. He lives in London with his family and currently is at work on a short story collection and a major novel of ideas. His unofficial website is at http://www.willself.org.uk/index.php.
Robert Birnbaum: Do people still attach the word ‘jolly’ to the phrase “old England”? Is there a jolly old England?
Will Self: No. Jolly has gone. I think where you can mark the real decline of jollity somewhat paradoxically, is to the Blair regime, the Blair government. When they came into office in ’97, on a tide of apparent jollity, a reassertion of social democratic virtues, a kicking out of the previous corrupt conservative regime that had been in place for seventeen years and was riddled with actual pecuniary corruption, that jollity was very quickly perceived publicly as an act of media manipulation. And the focus then turned to the idea that this was a new regime that was predicated in a way that no previous regime had been, not to quite the same extent, on appearance rather than reality. This was a government of spin-doctors. A government of public relations, a government that fixed its policies on the basis of focus groups, that went out and tried to get people’s assent to a policy and then moved that way around it rather than actually being a creative government. [A government] That introduced a great deal of cynicism into the British political sphere. At the same time you had a kind of schizophrenia entering public life over the issue of whether we were an economy and a society that was really taking our model from American neo-liberal economists or whether we still had a serious interest in a united Europe. That’s really been the sawhorse upon which economics and politics in Britain has very painfully fallen on its crotch for the past six years. That tends to undermine any conception of jollity. At the same time all kinds of—things have happened in Britain—like the crack cocaine epidemic has finally reached Britain.
WS: Yeah. Twenty years after it burned a trail through North America the supplies of cocaine to Britain through the West Indies have finally become cheap enough, plentiful enough, for crack cocaine to take route amongst the urban underclass. Where I live in London, Lambreth is kind of the epicenter now of gun crime in London. We’ve had something like thirty or forty gunshot murders in the past year. Now that’s nothing compared to the North American cities. But for jolly old London that is a very severe picture.
RB: Are British police now armed?
WS: They are increasingly armed now. That’s a taboo that is gone, the idea of the jolly bobby, whistling and shifting around in his size twelve boots—if you come to London now and drive around you will see what are called Armed Response Units. What that means is that there is a cache of weapons available and if the police feel that that they need to draw on them in any given circumstance, they can get them.
RB: Rising numbers of gun deaths suggest a gun black market.
WS: Huge black market in guns. As with all small and parochial societies you have to blame somebody and the blame is placed on the Jamaican gangsters. The so-called “Yardies” are responsible for the cocaine trade. The truth of the matter is that there has always been a flourishing black market in guns in Britain. Although we are not an armed society in the sense that North America is, it’s always been there and it’s just got worse.
RB: The Pakistanis must be happy. They aren’t bearing the brunt of anti …(both laugh).
WS: The problem with the Pakistani community or the British Asian community is the worst race rioting in the last ten years has been in the British Asian communities in the North of the country. Very bad riots last year, an election year in a town called Alden, up in Leeds. And that’s really centered around social depravation. What you have there is the actual rise of the British fascists for the first time, serious time, certainly in the last twenty or thirty years. They now hold three council seats, which they haven’t done for…
RB: What is the party called? The British Fascist party?
WS: They are called the British National Party. They amount to pretty much the same thing. In the old days, when Enoch Powell the conservative politician made his famous “Rivers of Blood” speech saying, “If any further immigration was allowed from former colonial possessions Britain would drown in a river of blood.” There is no longer talk on the far right of repatriating people. They accept that’s a fait accompli because you now have second, third, fourth generation black and brown Britons. But there is still a tendency to play up the race question. Of course now, post 9/11, that’s fallen very heavily on what’s called “asylum seekers.” We have a policy in Britain of, you are allowed to apply for political asylum on whatever ground at all, and your case has to be considered. Now in recent weeks a policeman died on a raid on some registered asylum seekers in Manchester who apparently turned out to be al Qaeda operatives. This has really turned up the heat still more on the issue of asylum seekers. Nobody is disputing—either on the right or the left—that a lot of people come in and claim political asylum that are in fact economic migrants. Nobody disputes that fact, but really the kind of axis around the attitude towards tolerance and multiculturalism in our society is now turning, is how we should process and deal with asylum seekers.
RB: The entry into the European Union, what does that do to immigration and asylum seekers?
WS: It does a lot. Coming back to your initial remark on whether it was a jolly country anymore, what you have in Britain and I think outsiders understand intuitively but the British remain obstinately blinkered to, is the European currency union, the Euro zone, is fundamental to any politics in the area. So if we join the currency zone we are looking at a federal Europe. If we are looking at a federal Europe we are no longer looking at a NATO. If we are no longer looking at NATO we are looking at a major decoupling from US foreign policy. If we are looking at a major (laughs) and so on and so forth. Now, that’s the sticking point around all sorts of stuff [around which] revolves, including the asylum-seeking question. At the moment this can be passed back and forth between the European countries. So the French say, “It’s your own damn fault, if you weren’t so liberal about letting these people in to claim asylum, then they wouldn’t come to us knowing they can get through this damn tunnel and claim asylum off you.” And the Germans say that as well. Then the British say, “That’s nonsense. It’s because you lot are so lax about letting them hang around and then get over to us.” Obviously that kind of policy would have to be coordinated at a European level, if there were any move to closer integration.
RB: Against this lovely picture of the sceptered isle, you have published a book which you call an “imitation” of a story published some hundred years ago.
WS: The original The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in Lippincott’s, which was an American monthly magazine.
RB: The entire story?
WS: Yeah. It was published over two issues in 1891, a hundred and twelve years ago. The initial version of the story—it’s a fascinating tale—the story The Picture of Dorian Gray was commissioned at a dinner held by the editor of Lippincott’s, an American guy who was over in London and he had to dinner Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle. At this dinner he commissioned a Sherlock Holmes story and Dorian Gray. It has to stand out as one of the greatest and successful commissioning dinners of all time.
RB: Could it happen today?
WS: One wonders. But Wilde went on to write the story quite quickly and when it appeared in its initial form, it did not have the subplot which becomes the melodramatic motor in the book version. Which is the beautiful young actress Sybil Vane, who Dorian is first entranced by and then rejects because he understands her capacity to imitate beauty is what attracts him, and in reality she is just a boring little girl. And that becomes the whole engine of the denouement of the novel. She kills herself. Her brother seeks revenge, sixteen years later. He tracks down Dorian Gray and tries to kill him and so on and so forth. That wasn’t in the original. So when it appeared, the reviewer said, “It stinks with the odor of moral putrefaction.” What he was talking about was the fact that if you think about it, Sean of the heterosexual love interest, it’s a openly gay novel. And everybody knew it was. Nobody was in any doubt and if you look back over the history of the Aesthetic Movement in the 1880’s of which Wilde was the absolute leader, it was an openly and flamboyantly homosexual movement. Dorian Gray was Wilde’s calling card to say that he was out. That’s what it was. His friends at that point urged him to reign it in because of the adverse attention it was receiving. So when it appeared in book form he introduced this spurious heterosexual love interest.
RB: You’ve taken on something of a challenge…where does Wilde’s story stand in literary history?
WS: I think it stands as high as it ever has. It’s interesting that when you come to do something like this and what I’ve done is to imitate it quite completely, quite shamelessly take all of the basic machinery of the novel. Right down to the characters’ names…
RB: Except for the character Herman…
WS: Except Sybil Vain becomes Herman, a black rent boy, a black gay prostitute, and I’ve shifted the time frame to set it in the shadow of the AIDS epidemic. It begins in 1980 and ends in 1997. But apart from that it’s a sincere imitation. What it serves to point up because people have to become enormously possessive about the original, even though, I may add, usually they haven’t read it since they were either in college or late teens early twenties, because it’s that kind of text that people read at that age. But what it serves to point up is a kind of odd reverence in which it is held. A reverence—I think people don’t understand why they revere the book. It’s astonishingly subversive. Richard Ellman, Wilde’s biographer, called it “the tragedy of Aestheticism.” If you can extend that idea in to the twentieth century it’s really the tragedy of appearance over reality. The tragedy of style over substance. Wilde was this astonishingly contradictory character. He wrote The Soul of Man under Socialism. On the face of it he wrote drawing-room comedies, though if you look much closer they were really deeply subversive plays about the English class system. People don’t think of Dorian Gray as—quite rightly—a moral tale. A moral fable. But they don’t understand quite how deeply it cuts. The Dorian Grays of today are Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. These are the celluloid imagoes who dominate not only Hollywood, not only the international entertainment network, but actually dominate the psyche of people in a very, very powerful way. They are the people whose images do not age. And therefore people take [them] to be as kind of totems of our culture’s values. I think Wilde saw that. He not only saw that, I believe he actually understood that a kind of liberated homosexual culture would be in the vanguard of that movement. That is quite a subversive idea in itself.
RB: Wasn’t there was a movie made of Dorian Gray with Tyrone Power?
WS: I think so.
RB: Perhaps that’s the version of Dorian Gray that has been appropriated?
WS: I do know that it completely negates the homosexual elements of the book. It was made in the 1940’s.
RB: Did I get it right that you began your book originally as a screenplay?
WS: There have been many, many attempts, some successful, though not seen the light of day, to film it again. I was approached by a film producer to adapt it for screen. I looked at it and these ideas of translating the action to a hundred years later, making it an absolutely and overtly homosexual piece of work, about people who are openly gay, to set under the shadow of the Aids epidemic, to use Diana Spencer, the Princess of Wales as the kind of leitmotif for the changing social attitude of the times, all of those ideas came to me very quickly and I started work on the script and immediately found myself writing very slowly. I’ve never really had much truck with writing for screen before. I realized why. As a novelist you are producer, you are director, you are actor. You have the whole thing going. I work with editors but really, I pretty much know what I’ve got on the page is what’s going to appear for the reader. The idea of completing a draft of something and having a producer coming to me and, “Well we like it but…
RB: Lighten it up…
WS: Yeah. It was unthinkable to me. That actually set me paralyzed at the keyboard unable to proceed. I simply couldn’t get going. After nearly four years of working on the movie script, I decided just in order to satisfy the producers who approached me originally and to give him a completed narrative copy of some kind. He could do what ever he wanted with it. I would turn it back into prose fiction. I would renovelize my own screen treatment. Just in order to complete it. And indeed, such was the liberation I felt that I was able to complete the book quite quickly. I guess the script I was working on was a pretty literary script anyway. I never would have thought to rewrite Wilde off my own back. It was an approach from another side.
RB: What if one hasn’t read the original before you reading your imitation; what does one miss if you haven’t read Wilde’s Dorian Gray?
WS: They miss out in this case a whole kind of trigonometry of history. They miss out the ability to take a bearing between the two books. If you regard the books as topographical features and that by surveying them and the angles between the two works, you can somehow get a picture of the ruckled terrain of English social and cultural development in the intervening hundred and twelve years. They miss out on that. I don’t want to overstate my own case.
RB: (laughs) I can’t recall another work of fiction called ‘an imitation.’
WS: I don’t think somebody has done quite that thing. What I was going to go on to say was, in actuality, all of the original is in there in an odd way. I don’t pay a great deal of attention to critics-not because I don’t think that they are doing an interesting and useful job but it’s not actually of use to me—I’ve been in this game for over a decade and I’ve published a number of books and I reached a point a couple of years ago where I looked back honestly, like any other writer you come publication day, no matter what you tell yourself, you rush to look at the reviews and see how the book is going to do. Whether there is some kind of gearing in between what the critical response is and the public response is to be. All that stuff. A couple of years I had a kind of watershed [thought] on this, “Has any single review whether positive or negative changed the way in which you approach your writing?” The answer was no. It has all sorts of effects on a personal and emotional level. When it gets to me on the blank page it’s still the same old game.
RB: Does that include reviews by writers?
WS: Yeah. That being said. Here’s the exception. I was worried with Dorian for all these reasons, not simply an anxiety of influence but a neurosis of influence to have gone that far and actually imitated a complete work. I was anxious because I am ostensibly a heterosexual man and I had written a gay novel in the post politically correct age. In the liberal sphere there is something kind of unacceptable about that. You are not quite allowed to that. So I was worried about getting it right in that sense. There is a writer Neal Bartlett, who is a theater director and a novelist, who had written a book about Wilde and his connection to the modern British gay community called Who Was That Man. It’s a brilliant book about Wilde. He is a gay man who is of the right age to have lived through the period I am writing about and to know it intimately. He reviewed it for the Guardian and I was interested to read what he would say and I was entirely gratified. What he said was, “What Self has shown in this book is that, what he describes as haute queenery,—are completely unchanged in over a hundred years. ” The novel translates into the modern idiom effortlessly in that way. You take these characters, Henry Wooten, Wilde’s typical saturnine Machievelle quipster. Take Basil Hallward, the aesthetic artist. You take Dorian Gray, this vapid and ultimately psychopathic toy boy and you put them into Chelsea in the early 1980’s, in amongst the impedimenta of heroin and cocaine abuse and they look fine and perfectly natural there as they did in a Victorian drawing room.
RB: I recently read Colum McCann‘s Dancer, which touches upon this period of AIDS, Warholian fame clique in Manhattan and what was a matter of interest was that now looking back this need to excise all or any fun out of that era, a retrospective moralizing and denunciation…
WS: I would not quite take that view. No, I think you can say that everybody’s experience is going to be partial. Whether you are having fun is an existential proposition not a universal one, isn’t it? And fun, the very idea of fun, is curiously atemporal.
WS: You know you are having fun when you know what time it is. So almost by definition it’s not gonna be an observation about cultural history to say, “Didn’t we have fun?” It’s gonna be an observation about cultural amnesia.
RB: Didn’t we have fun?
WS: That’s of course a different inquiry. My take on all of this is—and it’s an era I lived through—people say “How do you have the right to write about this?” I was an IV drug user during this period. I had my first HIV test in 1985. I was aware of the spread of AIDS epidemic which was savage in the IV-drug-using community just as much as it was among gay people. Now, I’m not saying, “Now look at me, I’ve suffered too.” I kind of despise that attitude. The truth is I haven’t got the virus and I feel very fortunate about that. The fact of the matter is I was aware of it during this period and I did see what it was doing. My perception was that following the Halloween parade riots and the real outburst of gay liberation at the end of the ’60s and the beginning of the ’70s, one thing is true in life, in the realm of the emotions, events that are consecutive are interpreted causally. You have a row with your lover and they rush out into the street and ten hours later they are killed by a bus and you caused that. I think the perception both outside the gay community and within the gay community, was we gained some level of social acceptability or at any rate we were allowed to be out publicly. We then had a lot of fun and games. We then fell victim in large numbers to a sexually transmitted virus. Our behavior caused that. Now, people of the so-called Moral Majority and on the right were saying that. My perception is that lot of gay people internalized that as well. And felt that as well. I remember talking to people about this at the time. There was a sense no matter how unjustified, of guilt around this behavior because of that ‘law’ of the emotions, if you like. And some people have said this text has a kind of homophobic taint to it. It looks at those ideas. As far as I’m concerned, again, like that point about fun, there is a retrospective desire now because of highly active retroviral treatment—really the evil bloom has been taken or people perceive it as being taken off he AIDS epidemic. The people want to deny it ever happened. They want to kind of forget about it, “Let’s just forget about that stuff.”
RB: In a consumer universe which is coequal with myth there is a retroactive need to posit that you had fun sometime in your life. I’m reading T.C. Boyle’s Drop City which is set in a ’70s commune, a way of life now very much ridiculed if not discredited. I wonder when in the post ’60s, people say they had fun.
WS: Everybody can point to a time when they had fun. The condition of middle age, and it’s one of the things you have to accept in life, is that you tend to locate fun in the past rather than in the future. (laughs) Society move in and out of period so for greater or lesser periods of decadence. It seems all evolved societies are at some point, at some level, decadent. In a literal sense, that they ape the styles and modes of ten years before. It seems to me the post ’60s period has been one of increasing retroactivity in that way. Increasing assumption and quicker recycling of the styles and modes of the past. We see with our own kids now. With the possible exception of the input of Afro-American ghetto music on the mainstream—and even that is kind of dubious to my mind—you can’t really point to a current style or mode that isn’t a retreading of previous one. The idea to guys loosely our age that a four piece two guitar, bass and drums, would still be going now in exactly the same form that it was forty years ago is kind of astonishing, isn’t it? We thought that popular music would evolve quickly, taking as our paradigm the period between Elvis and 1958 and 1968, those ten years which saw an astonishing diversification of styles and modes of popular music—the creation of whole new modes. Since ’68, nothing. Really very little.
RB: Pop music is so fractured. Though I gather big artists are still big from a sales point. Just below that level, it doesn’t seem there are any mid-list musical artists?
WS: They are the people that are most imperiled by net copying. They are also imperiled by what it is that has created this which if you are being deterministic about it is just demographics. There aren’t as many young people. There are a lot more of us and we rule the roost. What happens now is instead of the dissemination being from youth culture up to mainstream culture. What happens now is that if young people come up with anything it’s instantly co-opted, commercialized and mass marketed, adopted by much older people, and in a sense decoupled from any taint of possible cultural revolution or change.
RB: Poor kids.
WS: I think it’s rough for them. I would not really enjoy…I come from the punk generation. Looked at with the parallax of time the punk generation was separated from Haight-Ashbury by twelve years. The E, the ecstasy-filled dance craze has now been going on for eighteen years, with very little change.
RB: They seem to be a permanent subculture.
WS: There will be no return to generationalism with all of the kind of implied dialectics of change unless there is a radical repopulating of the West, a shift in the demographic balance. With an increasingly aging population how could it happen?
RB: I thought people were having children again based on the large increase in ads for baby products.
WS: That’s not a good basis for your empirical study (laughs). The birth rate continues to decline essentially.
RB: I was amused last summer to read a partial transcript of a radio program from England that had you and Richard Littlejohn…
WS: He’s a columnist and it was his first novel if you could call it that. He’s a columnist on Rupert Murdoch’s paper, The Sun. It’s always difficult to explain the British media to an American audience. The Sun is—imagine if the National Enquirer had significant political influence, then you know what the Sun is. It’s a Murdoch-owned paper. After the last election…
RB: So Littlejohn is a columnist from The Sun and has written a novel of which you stated you read two hundred and four pages. And he had the gall on the show to ask you if you were still using drugs. Is that indicative of the style of The Sun?
WS: I had this guy on the run at this point, and he was looking around for any weapon he could use against me, and he thought he could potentially destabilize me if he could pick me up on that. But this guy, to call him conservative is a bit of an understatement. I don’t want to say anything that is potentially libelous because people like him have a long reach. I would say there is at least a congruence between his opinions as expressed in this book and his newspaper column and the British National Party—who are essentially the Fascist party.
RB: He harped on the asylum seekers quite a bit.
WS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. The whole book is predicated on what a terrible scourge the asylum seekers, QED, immigrants, QED, ethnic minorities of any kind are and also very strong homophobic element to it.
RB: I recall you said something rather British instead of “Fuck you.”
WS: (Laughs) I think I was able to say that I was probably the least toxified person in the room. Since I had not only taken any drugs and not taken a drink for some years.
RB: One other thing stood out. He was critical that you had not read his entire book and he argued you couldn’t therefore criticize it. I think your response was “Why? Does it turn into Tolstoi on page two hundred and five?” And then I thought well that was clever, but there have been times when I couldn’t figure a book out until late, until cracked a code of sorts.
WS: This book was very political and this guy is genuinely pernicious and the newspaper sells seven million copies daily. When they switched allegiance from the Conservatives to the Labor Party before the 1997 election it was widely—not least by themselves and in private and certainly by Rupert Murdoch that they had swung the election for Tony Blair and the Labor Party. So this is a media outlet that views itself as a serious political player. If you’re debating one of its lead columnists on a national radio show you want to be prepared. I wanted to get the guy in the jugular. I find his views on ethnic minorities, on asylum seeking, on gay rights totally unacceptable. This is totally unacceptable bigotry. Rampant bigotry. So, of course, I prepared myself. He then was furious because he also had been a sort of shock jock on that station itself. He then furiously went to the managers on the station and said he been set up. He hadn’t been set up in any way. I’d found he was on the program and taken the trouble to research him. That’s all. He couldn’t bear this because he’d lost out in the debate.
RB: Your standing in England is more than that of being a novelist. You have been a columnist though, I believe you lost one position in a some kind of flutter, a few years ago.
WS: Yes. Well, I kept right on after losing my job during the ’97 election for fairly well-publicized events. I shifted to the Times. I went to another Murdoch publication and was there for a year, and then I went to the Independent. I was there for a couple of years. Now I am with the London Evening Standard, which is the daily paper in London, and I write a pretty general column every week. You know a certain section of my public see me as a journalist. I do some television work. Some light TV work, comedy TV work. Probably a larger segment of the population view me as a comedian. And then my wife always says to me, “If you could limit yourself to two careers rather than three or four. Then it would be a lot easier to live with.”
RB: What medium do you have allegiance to?
WS: It is the fiction. It is the fiction.
RB: Why did I have a different impression?
WS: I don’t know. I think it’s because I do quite a lot of other things and perhaps I don’t really…
RB: Some people do other things for the money.
WS: Oh no, no. Obviously it’s my living. It’s what I do for work, but I have always been uneasy…it’s not so rigid in Britain as it is here in the States. Here if you write fiction seriously then that’s what you are known as. In Britain we still have this Grub Street tradition. That is, you are a writer and you write for newspapers, and write for this and you write for that and you write books and what you are is primarily a writer and what kind of writing you do is a matter of convenience or choice. But nonetheless we still have this idea also that if you are a serious novelist you are kind of draped in the flag of the academy to some extent or other, and it carries with a certain kind of—confers a kind of dignity. I have always had a great deal of difficulty in not viewing that as attitudinizing.
RB: I’m shocked.
WS: I have never really wanted to put on the airs and graces …
RB: That would put you in with a goodly number of younger British writers including the wild Scotsmen.
WS: The wild Scotsmen are the wild Scotsmen (laughs). And all power to the wild Scotsmen. I think the Scottish Renaissance in literature in the last twenty years has been phenomenal. Starting with Alasdair Gray and James Kellman and moving on through Irvine Welsh and guys like Alan Warner who has been really amazing. But that’s their shtick.
RB: You don’t want to talk about things British?
WS: Well of course I’m American, I’m a vital new voice in American fiction (both laugh). I have that kind of mid-Atlantic dimension and I don’t think it’s with out accident I don’t do fantastically well here in terms of sale, but I perhaps have a slightly higher profile here than you might have expected for a solely English writer. People here detect a certain American taint in my thinking and they are right.
RB: That’s the reason for your higher profile here?
WS: I don’t know. I’m very comfortable here in the States. I think a lot of English people have that residual “gee-whiz” attitude when they get to America where everything is bigger…
RB: That’s true of Martin Amis too?
WS: Bear in mind Martin has put in a lot of work to his Americanism. He is married to Americans. He spends a great deal of time here. There are affinities between me and other English writers and I wouldn’t deny that. We don’t run as a pack. There’s no kind of-I don’t think there is much sense of community amongst the writers. Not that I am aware of. But I’m not a very clubable guy.
RB: I suppose the only writing community in the US is Manhattan or Brooklyn.
WS: Yeah. They do all seem to be in Brooklyn, don’t they? I was with some of the Brooklyn posse last night. Come a certain time in the evening and they all get up and say we have to get back to Brooklyn.
RB: Is there anything like Dave Eggers and the McSweeney’s coterie in England?
WS: Well, not that I am aware of. Not with that kind of profile. Not with that kind of leading light. What you need for that is someone like Eggers who has, of course, not only been active in the magazine publishing line but has a huge hit book success. The analogy would be with the Scots and with the Rebel Ink phenomenon around Irvine Welsh. But that is a Scots phenomenon not true of England. We have the well-established literary magazines like Granta, but they don’t coalesce around a younger group of writers. They are not exactly mainstream but they are more grown up.
RB: Granta is not mainstream?
WS: I guess it is mainstream.
RB: We might leave to someone else to decide whether they were mainstream ten years ago when you were among the anointed. What were you?
WS: One of the top twenty [novelists] under forty in 1993. They have just brought out the new list which has come in for the predictable slagging.
RB: Well there are two or three writers on the list that don’t have novels.
WS: Sure. Nor did I, actually. I am quite defensive of them. I had a novel ready to be published. The critics that I read on it said actually what they said in ’93, “It’s impossible to imagine this group of writers producing from among their number four or five of the stature of Graham Swift, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie.” Now they say of the poor old 2003 batch, “It’s impossible to imagine three or four of the writers emerging from this to have the stature of Will Self, Hanif Kureshi …” and I can’t remember who the others are. Saying exactly the same thing but using us as the benchmark. I feel for these young people because I think…it’s hell, all that stuff when you are young. You get immune to it like an old hippo as you get older. It just doesn’t bother you.
RB: Yeah, it’s hell. But it obscures the real truth of the publishing world, which is that it is a roulette wheel.
WS: Oh, I don’t think that’s true, all sorts of things go on. The sense in which it’s a roulette wheel, it’s heavily tampered with. It’s tampered with by all sorts of things. The assumptions that people want to put into their identification as a reader with a certain kind of fiction. By factors of class and ethnicity. By currents and swirls and vortices of ephemeral cultural snobberies…
RB: The plurals of all the nouns that you are listing suggest that there are a great deal more variables which seems to me to be less determined than you are suggesting.
WS: What I am trying to say is, there are two scientific literary tests you can say here. You can say, if you produce a book, you find a text of undoubted merit, right, but it is not attached to somebody marketable, would it in fact sell? Or will it be taken up? That’s one kind of test case, isn’t it? The answer is yes and no. Some texts would be able to transcend their handicap and other texts wouldn’t, depending on the particular time and manner and moment in which they were produced. In other words…
RB: That sounds random to me.
WS: It’s not random. What you can infer from that is that certain kinds of writers, I believe, will win quite large literary prizes, will gain quite significant sales who I am absolutely certain their works are of no lasting merit whatsoever. Absolutely certain of that. (laughs) But what I wouldn’t go on to say is that I or anybody else can be absolutely certain about saying who those writers are. The best critics of the generation, when you have a serious critic emerges—what they are really saying, why they are a serious critic is because they believe that he or she has that ability to look, not just five or ten years but fifteen, twenty or thirty years into literary future.
RB: I was asked in an interview to predict what books would be remembered in a hundred years. I simply don’t think like that. That’s quite a responsibility to assume.
WS: I think if you are a serious creator you have to take on that responsibility. Onerous as it might be and, of course, it is onerous because you are wide open to ridicule. Not the least is the book that you back and the writers you back grow progressively out of fashion or indeed achieve no sales whatever or notoriety from the off. The converse is true. When a true genius emerges, you can tell because a confederacy of dunces is arraigned against him, but by the same token you can often tell when a true turkey emerges in the world because there is a confederacy of yea-sayers and cultural pecksniffs arraigned to support them.
WS: There are numerous books. You only have to look at the—this is the kind of thing I would be wary of saying in Britain because I would get pilloried for a kind of arrogance.
RB: We have readers in Britain…
WS: Yeah, yeah. I do hope so (laughs). Say you look at the big literary prizes. Like the Booker Prize. If you analyze the short list over the last twenty years in my view almost none of the significant books of the last twenty years have been on those short lists. Not the books that are going to last. The whole kind of machinery of prizes particularly literary prizes is quite spurious and is aimed at creating a certain kind of buzz for…it’s a marketing, it’s an arm of marketing, the prize.
RB: What about the IMPAC prize?
WS: Right. It’s a big one.
RB: And seems quite honorably selected.
WS: They have a tradition of drawing from outside the usual suspects for their judging panels. That creates a more interesting…my problem with this, Robert, is fundamental. There are two points. What would it be like to win at fiction? How can you win at fiction? It’s an actual philosophical question. What would it be like to win at fiction? The second question is the mechanics of judging. It’s a open secret on the Booker panel that no judge is allowed to push a book on to the short list that he or she in theory doesn’t sincerely believe in with a chance of winning. Now immediately that creates a tendency towards consensus and therefore second and third choice guessing. Immediately any book that is maverick or perceived as not able to summon a quorum in that panel of four or five judges is out.
RB: That is also true for the National Book Awards.
WS: I think it is as well. So immediately you have a dampener on anything that is contentious. In my view, that actually disbars from winning the major literary prizes the books that are likely to last. My suggestion is that books that have genuine longevity are always contentious and kicking against the pricks. Anything that is too in harmony with its time is very unlikely to be timeless. Some will be. But on the whole not.
RB: Not an objection, but we are talking about books written in English and I fear that we have created a virtual co-equivalence of English and world literature which is happily occasionally rendered inconvenient by the Nobel Committee’s recognition of some obscure literary wonder.
WS: Well, that may well be the case but the fact of the matter…
RB: I don’t know that asked you a question.
WS: It’s an observation. The idea being that should be some entity called world literature. While you can point to writers who are not writing in English obviously and ultimately have had enormous impact on the English speaking world. That’s an even longer time line to look at. The truth of the matter is we tend to write about our own navel in the first instance and as English speakers that’s what we are preoccupied with. That’s only right and proper. I don’t think we can castigate ourselves for not…
RB: What is the purpose of this literary forecasting about what will be highly regarded a hundred years hence?
WS: You really get to the existence of the canon at that point and the existence of what the virtue of a literary culture is in that way. And surely the idea of the canon is that there are…it’s really the body of accumulated exegetical, diacritical commentary that is represented by something like the Talmud. The Talmud and its commentary on the Pentateuch is the model for the English canon. The English canon is an accretion of paraphraxis, marginalia, and attachment to literary work in that way that really is the secular gospel of our society. That’s what its virtue is and the ability to see forward and see what will actually gain status in the canon is as a literary person, what I would as the real value of our culture. So it is significant in that way.
RB: So we are shining a light on to the path to the future.
WS: Yeah, in some ways. The idea of trying to understand what might add to that canon in that way is significant. Rather than what can be hyped and marketed as being a big prize winner, is reaffirming what the eternal verities truths and values of the society are in that way.
RB: Well we’ve come this far, care to offer any names?
WS: For that kind of secular canonization? I think of the post war novelists, my particular hobby horses are J.G. Ballard and the Scottish writer Alasdair Gray. Both of whom have made that kind of contribution and are likely to be perceived that way. Martin Amis is a personal friend so I tend to be blinkered on my view on him. The significance of writers like Rushdie or McEwan, I think it’s too early to say. I really genuinely do. My hunch is they are not in. (laughs) That’s my feeling. When you look at American writers, yeah, Bellow, Roth, possibly DeLillo, there are some figures there that will undoubtedly will make the cut. But how they’ll be perceived in fifty or a hundred years time, you don’t know. How, after all, is Trollope perceived now?
RB: I come across people who have discovered or rediscovered Trollope or Dickens and they are thrilled…
WS: There are many ways to skin a cat. Nobody legislates—it’s the great thing about books—the way in which you choose to read a book is your own concern. That’s what’s so good about it, really. It’s a medium that’s less prescriptive than others, in that sense.
RB: The reason I wanted to make a claim for the arbitrariness of being published is because of the stories regularly encountered of writers who have submitted their books to countless publishers before acceptance and then won acclaim and sales…
WS: You have to ask yourself why is it the idea of being a published author so appeals to people now? And it does. It appeals to a whole swathe of the educated class. It seems to be an enormous kind of achievement and…
RB: It’s glamorous…
WS: And it’s glamorous. Now I would suggest that the reality of that is that what people recognize about the status of a published writer who has their won readership is that he or she is their own master or mistress in a very fundamental way. They stand outside of the whole corporate wheel. They are truly self-employed in that way. It isn’t actually the literary content of the enterprise that is really appealing to people. The enormous growth of the creative writing industry here in the States is a real phenomenon, an astonishing phenomenon, that these thousands upon thousand of people will enter post graduate and even now graduate programs in creative writing when objectively the society simply can not support this many published writers. Many of these people end up contributing to the industry themselves by in turn becoming creative writing teachers or taking on some minor position in academia. What is it that draws them like moths to the flame, of this idea?
RB: There are varieties of reasons. I find it interesting that when I ask writers what they tell newly met strangers, many are reticent about saying they are writers.
WS: That’s probably because they not achieving the level of success that they want. You say, “Oh really, what are your books?” They say “Well I’m not actually a published…”
RB: Even writers with published work.
WS: All right, okay. I don’t know. It perplexes me. What I was going to go on to say is that those stories, they are not all together apocryphal about “My manuscript was turned down eighty-seven times and now I’ve gone on to…” I think they are the kind of Promethean myth of the creative writing program. They gain currency because of this enormous group of people who have that kind of ambition and they speak to their urge.
RB: We are probably in agreement, if not the quantification, at least the sense that we are living in degraded times.
RB: What is the point of the literary enterprise against a very noisy pop culture, that seems to drown out …though I take comfort from the quote on the Sigmund Freud Memorial in Vienna, “The voice of reason is small but persistent.”
WS: I don’t know about the voice of reason being small but persistent but I was with Frank Goldman the American writer he was…
RB: Francisco Goldman, the Guatemalan Jewish writer?
WS: Well we are all American when we are in America and it applies to Frank too, actually Robert (both laugh). He was saying that what people outside literature don’t understand about what’s interesting in political writing is that it’s not actually having an opinion that makes a writer able to address a political reality, it’s being interesting in some way about that political reality. That’s what’s the enduring fascination that actually literary fiction can contribute to the temper of the times. It provides an arena in which interests can be generated in that way. The overtly political novel is often a creature of its times and effectively neutered for that reason. But here is a kind of “nothing that is human is strange to me” that’s the voice that can be represented in literary fiction and elaborated in a way that other cultural forums don’t allow the space or the time for. You can’t ask me subjectively to answer that question. I feel my literary work is an avocation. It’s just what I feel called upon to do. Do I get up in the morning and question whether I should write another book? No. Never seriously. I mean I certainly question the value of my work all the time.
RB: The specific book you are working on?
WS: Oh and the body of it. Because, of course…
RB: You ask yourself if what you are doing is important?
WS: My wife said, the other day, I don’t think she intended anything by it, but of course I took it very deeply, “You know, I still think Will’s first book is easily his best. There’s not an ounce of fat on it. Every word…” I am sitting there thinking, “Thirteen years of literary work, nine books, just evaporate into thin air.”
WS: I think, “Oh I needn’t to be bothered with that.” I don’t think she meant it that way. But there is a sense in which you are not in a position to judge that anyway, which of the books is likely to endure. You just have to keep on.
RB: Speaking of which, what’s next for you?
WS: I’m working on my first collection of shorter pieces since ’98. And it’s called Doctor Mucti and Other Tales of Woe. The lead story is about two psychiatrists who are fighting a duel with each other using psychotic patients as weapons. I don’t know where that comes and what I tend to do in my shorter fiction is to write prequels to novels. Or I write sequels to other stories I have written. There is always an interconnection and an interpenetrativeness about the shorter fiction.
RB: That might suggest a total recall of everything you have ever written?
WS: Ah, if I don’t then I am not too worried about it. I remember reading that Nicholson Baker read all of his texts in parallel at the editing stage to insure that no single image recurred. Now that’s the opposite, I think a certain degree of repetition and recursiveness just helps to thicken the whole broth. So I’m not too bothered about that. The things I do recall and I do want to bolt on to other fiction pieces are the things I think are worth recalling. Then I am working on a biggish novel which is concerned in a timely way with the idea of revealed religion. I am very struck by the way that fundamentalists, all of the great monotheism’s fundamentalists believe their holy books are a kind of blueprint for the way that human culture works. So if you talk to a Jewish fundamentalist, Muslim fundamentalist a Christian fundamentalist, they’ll say it’s all in the Bible, it’s all in the Torah, all in the Koran. It’s all there. Genetic engineering is there. The atomic bomb is there. It’s equivocal in the way that all my novels are, part satire, part novel of ideas that what if you had a holy book that a reader of my book will know was totally spurious and yet looks at a society that believes that it is there revealed truth of god. That’s an interesting way of looking at what the enduring significance of the practical mythology of the holy books of the monotheisms. As being in current era with this much-trumpeted clash of civilizations is something uppermost in all our minds and yet we can’t really talk about it. Particularly in secular society we find it very difficult.
Copyright 2003 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing