|Will Self: ‘Now that film is being carved up and watched on phones, it no longer needs the novel lying behind it.’ Photograph: Francesco Guidicini|
Will Self: ‘The novel is absolutely doomed’Alex Clark
Sat 17 Mar 2018
The award-winning author, currently writing a memoir of his early years, on reading digitally and why he’s making a list of the female greats
ill Self is the author of 10 novels, five collections of short stories and several works of nonfiction, including The Quantity Theory of Insanity, Dorian and Walking to Hollywood. Phone is the final instalment of the trilogy that began with Umbrellaand Shark and is out now in paperback (Viking, £8.99).
Phone is the last in a 1,500-page trilogy that, loosely, tells the story of psychiatrist Zack Busner, who’s been around in your fiction for a long time. Prominent also are technological advances and the ramifications of conflict. Would it be fair to say there’s a lot going on?
I cover the inception of these new technologies, I cover Alzheimer’s, autism, war, feminism, and what I tend to get back in return is, ooh, you haven’t got any paragraphs! What I want to reflect with this continuous long line is the long line of news threads, the long line of digital type, the long line of advertising that spools its way through the contemporary mind. So the form of the books is meant to represent the impact of new medias in this old form.
The Iraq war also features heavily in Phone. Why was it important to you to include?
I cannot think of a serious literary novelist in this country who’s tackled the Iraq war at all. And I think it’s the biggest stain on our national character of the past 20 years. And I think that collective amnesia about it and refusal to engage with it is playing out in political decisions that are being made right now.
Going back to style for a moment, what did you want yours to achieve in the trilogy?
The novels are notable, of course, for their massive accretion of detail, but it’s a paradox, isn’t it? I mean, I regard myself as a social-realist novelist. I really think this is what life is like now. But it’s what life’s always been like, which is a vast amount of very ephemeral referentia that fill up people’s minds. Fiction far too often presents things as easily accessible that just aren’t.
You say you’re a social realist, but modernism is clearly present in your work. Why do you think it’s so often seen as a difficult or highfalutin way of writing?
I’m not a fool, I can see objectively that not only do readers like to be told what’s going on, but that also, in a sense, you can’t argue with that. I’m not trying to force upon the reading public the idea that this is the way all fiction has to go. I don’t think that. But at the same time, I’m equally resistant to the idea of the kind of writing I’m doing, or Eimear McBride or that guy who wrote Solar Bones [Mike McCormack] or Tom McCarthy – we’re loosely grouped as neo-modernists – that we should be put in a box away from the mainstream of fiction.
You’re not awfully optimistic about the future of the novel, are you?
I think the novel is absolutely doomed to become a marginal cultural form, along with easel painting and the classical symphony. And that’s already happened. I’ve been publishing since 1990, so I’ve seen it happen in my writing lifetime. It’s impossible to think of a novel that’s been a water-cooler moment in England, or in Britain, since Trainspotting, probably.
It’s frequently said that that’s partly because narrative has migrated to box sets. Is there any truth in that?
The relationship between the novel and film in the 20th century was like the relationship between Rome and Greece. Film depended upon the novel, at least in its infancy and youth. The problem is that now that film itself is being Balkanised – carved up, streamed, loaded on to DVDs, watched on people’s phones – it no longer needs its Greece, it no longer needs the novel lying behind it. It’s a disaster for the novel, actually – I think the novel is in freefall.
Now that the trilogy’s done, what are you working on?
A memoir at the moment and that’s a different and interesting kind of writing. It’s very much a Künstlerroman [the story of an artist’s development], because I was so obsessed by it. It’s only about eight years, from when I was 17 to 25, and of course that period for all of us is probably the most exciting in terms of intellectual and cultural development. Somewhat oddly for me, it coincided with heroin addiction.
What’s it been like to look back?
It’s ambivalent. The top line is, I was a deeply unhappy child and young man, deeply unhappy, suicidal a lot of the time. And yet I had an amazing time.
Do you prefer to read on paper or a screen?
I’m completely digital. I barely read on hard copy any more. I was a relatively early adopter of digital reading and I could see that for neophyte readers it would be a disaster, because remembering stuff is more difficult; it’s like painting on water, which is what correcting on computers is like. If you’re teaching you see so many student essays that are a mess syntactically, and it’s because they’ve corrected them on screen. But those of us who are digital immigrants, we carry with us the Gutenberg categories and ways of thinking about it.
When it comes to writing, I take entirely the opposite view. I think writing on computers is a bit of disaster and I’ve written all of my books for the last 16 years on a manual typewriter, a good old Olivetti Lettera 22.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m reviewing a book called How to Change Your Mind, about the new psychedelics. I’m reading Timon of Athens because I’m looking at a possible opera project. For pleasure, I’m rereading Paul Theroux, who I think is a vastly underrated writer.
And what next?
I’m drawing up a list of important women writers, because I’m teaching a course on the importance of literary influence and the books that influenced me as a writer, and one of my students pointed out they’re all by men. Ditto with literature in English from more diverse cultural backgrounds and heritages. I don’t tend to read contemporary fiction much; I think I’m going to take a bit of a furlough from writing fiction in order to look at fiction a bit more.
• Phone by Will Self is published by Viking (£8.99).