Will Self on Ballard and Academia

British writer recalls the influence of J. G. Ballard, and admonishes the academic establishment
Will Self at the J. G. Ballard Memorial. Photograph by Rick McGrath.

The Literateur Magazine has published a lengthy interview with British novelist Will Self, who candidly talks about his work, academia, J. G. Ballard and the limitations of writing:
Well, instead of asking about what you think is happening, where do you think you can go as a writer bearing in mind there is no taboo? A lot of fiction centres on the tension between what can be said and what can’t, and new ways of saying things. If there’s no limitation on what you can say, where does fiction go from there?

Will Self: I was terribly interested – well, I wasn’t that interested because it was terribly boring, but you know – when Hillary Mantel won the Booker this year. I like Hillary; she’s a nice woman, not that I know her that well, but I’ve met her a few times. She came out with this old crappy canard, some journo asked her ‘Why do you write these historical novels?’ and she said, ‘Because I’m not a journalist’. They said ‘Is there not anything to write about now?’. And she said, ‘I think you have to let events settle down: I’m not writing journalism here’. But while it’s true that there is a type of fiction which is reportage masquerading as something invented… there is fiction to be written about now and it’s important that it’s written now. If it’s not written now, it’s like when you see a film of The Great Gatsby that was made in the seventies: it looks like the seventies. That’s always going to be the case; there’s always going to be that built-in obsolescent decadence about it. It’s important that writers who can write write about now. Maybe the death of the avant garde is just a punch you’ve got to roll with. Whichever way it falls, you’ve got to accept that. I mean, the book I’m working on at the moment is about film, which I think has died as the dominant narrative medium now. And while it’s something that’s recognised, this new shoot ‘em up video game which came out last week which is the highest grossing entertainment, so it’s kind of recognised as such. So for example, the novel was always pitted against film. Why is that? The novel is its own form, but you have John Dos Passos, writing in the USA back in the 1940s, trying to write a novel like a movie, or even something like Burrough’s Naked Lunch which is like a series of film routines. So the novel in some way measured itself as a narrative form that can grasp the zeitgeist in contradistinction to the film. Now, arguably, the relationship between the novel and the film has been like the relationship between the West and Soviet Communism. It needed it. The novel kind of needed film to say what it was not. We’re not like those fucking Soviets with their awful Gulag, we’re not like movies. So how is the novel going to respond to the pre-eminence of video games (which is, after all, totally unlike either the novel or film, in that the audience grabs control of the role of the writer to a limited extent, operates as a sort of pseudo-creator within the defined parameters of the new environment)? How’s that going to affect the novel? I don’t know, but those are some of the things I’ve been interested in, trying to respond to that and to write something about that relationship between the novel and film and the coming, emergent narrative technology. I think that’s interesting. [...]
On academia:
Moving on, I read that you one said ‘a lifetime of idleness in academia would have really suited me’ which strikes me as rather amusingly backhanded compliment. What value do you think there is (if any) in the academic approach to literature?

Will Self: For whom?

For contemporary and working writers, rather than the classics?

Will Self: Well, I realised by the time I was about seventeen that studying literature was a bad way to go for a creative writer. You study it in the sense that you read and you understand the mechanics of how books work and that is the only education for a writer. But studying it formally and academically, and certainly theoretically, is I think the kiss of death because it starts becoming artifactual rather than art at that level. I did an English S level – this is back in the seventies obviously – and [Jacques Derrida's concept of] deconstruction was just coming in and I started getting acquainted with things like that when I was in my teens, and thought ‘woo, no’ for all sorts of reasons. Partly because critical theory is just a sort of refuge for philosophy rather than being anything in its own right, and particularly with deconstruction. But also because it’s deadly for your perception of literature I think, if you’re a creative writer. Every field now has its spurious professionalism, and in the last ten years we’ve got double the number of university students in this country than there were previously, and double the amount of graduate unemployment [laughs]. But there’s always been this sort of attitude. I remember when I first started publishing, and it occasionally resurfaces, there’s this idea that you can’t be a proper writer if you haven’t got a degree in English Literature. Its like you’re a plumber or something and you haven’t got your Corgi Gas Installation Qualification [laughs].

I find it kind of laughable actually myself. It’s faintly ludicrous. But as regards Lit Crit approaches to my own work, I don’t really have an opinion. The beauty for me of being a writer is that you put it out there and how people choose to approach it is absolutely their own affair. I’m stunned by the number of young people who…well, not that many, but the few and increasing numbers who approach me when they have a thesis to do on my work and say ‘Will I help them with their thesis?’ I always write back and say, ‘Look, you’re the critic. There’s the work. Your job is to actually respond to it, not get me to help you respond to it.’
On J. G. Ballard:
Throughout your work you’re very open about your influences and the traditions you’re writing in. Are you aware of writing in a tradition, or making a contribution to one, or is it where you’d be writing naturally if you didn’t read and enjoy other books?

Will Self: I don’t know, am I any more up-front about it that anybody else?

I’d say, for example, in the essay at the front of Psycho Too you’re writing directly in homage to J. G. Ballard, and we’ve already discussed the Ballardian feel of Dubai. I’m sure other writers talk about their influences in interviews, but not everybody might foreground it so boldly in their work.

Will Self: He is the only one though. There isn’t anybody else. When I got rid of Burroughs about ten years ago, I wrote a long essay on him that sort of pushed him away. I summed up and apotheosised the extent to which I was influenced by him and moved beyond it and by extension the whole beat thing, and by extension really around that time I accepted the death of the avant garde. For writers like me, if there are writers like me…yeah, writers like me. It’s this label of ‘cult fiction’ or you know, it’s what the avant garde used to be isn’t it? I think anybody smart realises there can’t be anything like the avant garde any more because there isn’t any taboo to be broken. So how can you have an avant garde? You can write anything you want. The avant garde of necessity represented the people who were prepared to write down the things that people commonly thought but were unable to express because of all sorts of taboos. It no longer exists any more and hasn’t since, it’s hard to say, probably since 1980. It’s an arbitrary point, OK? So then it becomes cult fiction which is like the identity politics of literature, it’s like having sections of a bookshop like ‘troubled lives’, ‘feminism’. So I think I kind of moved away from that association. I suppose I did feel as I set out to write, actually, even in the late 80s, that while there was a discourse within which you could say the things I wanted to say it wasn’t coextensive with what people thought of literary fiction still. And that still seems to be the case. I think a lot of literary fiction, what is perceived as being the significant contemporary literary fiction still seems incredibly recondite. Well, not recondite. Incredibly reactionary to me. It’s like Modernism never happened a lot of the time, isn’t it? They’ll write three-decker kind of Victorian novels, A. S. Byatt or Ian McEwan. They seem very recherch√© to me and also what’s permissible within them still seems very toned down. That being said, there’s still no avant garde. It’s not about taboos. So do I feel influenced. Well, I feel influenced by everything I’ve ever read. Which is a lot, as you’d imagine. It’s interesting. It’s nice being middle aged. It’s quite exciting, because you get to re-read stuff that was very formative in your late teens early twenties. Increasingly, I write introductions and things like that. I look at texts again, and that’s interesting because then you see what the ambit of that influence is. Do I feel I’m contributing to anything? I just don’t know, I don’t know. I get very pessimistic about this because of this salad bar. I think when the avant-garde existed you could feel you’d done a good job just by writing the word fuck. You know, there seems to be so much literature, to me. Doesn’t there seem an awful lot published to you? [Read the article]

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