Will Self and the uncharted book
One of the cardinal rules of engagement on the internet is timeliness; all things have a short window of interest allocated to them before the internet moves on to other matters. Now, this peculiar quality of the internet age deserves to have an article dedicated to it, though I hasten to admit that this is not that article. I only mention this peculiarity because in the week or more since I first made some notes about writing this blog, I am sure the internet has moved on and I am now addressing an empty hall. If it isn’t trending, it isn’t happening. It doesn’t matter that an issue or subject is still germane to our lives, nor that it remains unresolved or even inadequately discussed; once those moments of interest have passed, it’s off the radar. Andy Warhol was wrong about many things (Art foremost among them) but he was eerily prescient in his claim that, in the future, everyone would have 15 minutes of fame. He should have added that even burning questions would have their their own 15 minutes before we flit to another flame.
To get to the point, then, this blog was prompted by an interview in the Observer (Will Self: ‘I don’t write for readers’) the week before last about the English author, Will Self. Actually, there were two items on Mr Self, one in the Guardian, and the aforementioned one in the Observer, two days apart. Now, for those of us writers whose only mention in any newspaper is when we comment using our real names, this might seem quite an enviable amount of publicity, a point made by one or two in their comments below the articles. Given that Mr Self has a new book being released and his publishers are just doing what they are paid to do – promote it – the two articles seem to add up to a modest amount, hardly enough to constitute an orgy of exposure; or, a rather disappointing orgy for which the only two people turning up happen to be husband and wife.
It wasn’t the article alone that interested me; it was also the comments appearing under it. While I thought the title of the article was a slightly unimaginative, it did state the case simply and succinctly. So simply, in fact, that many readers obviously didn’t bother reading any more and, armed with such a careful and thorough study of Will Self’s point, proceeded to take issue, somehow interpreting the statement as an expression of disdain for readers. They felt snubbed and weren’t afraid to say so.
At the risk of reducing Will’s point from simplicity to imbecility, what he said was pretty straightforward: the motivation to write, and the way and how he writes, come from within him, and not from what he thinks readers desire. This seems to be a perfectly acceptable and reasonable position but it ruffled the feathers of a number of people, who seem to have felt that Mr Self had slighted them.
Added to these indignant souls were a number who just took the opportunity to state publicly that they didn’t like Will’s books, anyway – even if they hadn’t read any of them. I can’t help but have a sneaking suspicion that the two camps are related.
Don’t get me wrong: it wasn’t open season on Mr Self. There were a great many comments which championed his honesty and his work. They understood that many books are not a commodity, brought to market after careful research about what the market wants. They push the limits of the writer and the boundaries of the readers.
As a process, it’s quite straightforward: a person wants to say something and finds the best way for them to say it is by writing it. Having done so, the person offers it to the public who then decide whether it pleases them or not. It is not offered with a guarantee of any kind by the writer. Indeed, there are no guarantees given on either side. Those who read cannot guarantee they will like it or that they will think kindly of the writer for having wirtten it.
Naturally, every writer writes to be read. That is a long way, though, from being the same as writing for the reader.
There are, of course, writers who do write for readers, who have a formula for writing that they have learned will please, if not all readers, then at least a definable set of them. There are so-called conventions to be followed, formulas for character, plot and style. In a contrast to Will Self’s approach, for example, the Guardian last week carried a brief recipe from YA writer Moira Young on the way to write a proper heroine. Such books – written for the ease and expectations of the reader – offer their own reward but it is not the reward of surprise or difference or unexplored territory. It is reading with sat nav, aided by familiar signposts and terrain, guiding you to a comfortable destination.
We need writers who are willing to take us into uncharted territory. They are not snubbing us; rather, they are paying us quite a compliment, trusting to our personal compasses and not the market’s. Besides, for readers to be upset because Will Self claims not to write for them makes no more sense than for a Will to be upset at every person who doesn’t read his books or, having read them, doesn’t like what was written.