Will Self And Me

So, I came upon this interview with Will Self in Epigram (Bristol University’s Independent Student Newspaper) via a Twitter mention a couple of days ago. I have been marveling. Endlessly. I am terrified of Will Self. He is so fierce, it made me feel weak just to type his name in that sentence. And his picture is staring at me now. His eyes are so direct. His whole presentation is so bold. Fearless. Unapologetic. Not to mention his vocabulary.

I thought I would do a running commentary of what went through my mind while I read this article. Of course, it is mortifying on one level: my ignorance is vast and now right here for your amusement. On another level, it is liberating and a relief. There is always more to learn, more to know. It is only when I think I’ve heard it all or have that creeping feeling that words are empty wrappers and none of us will ever connect or understand one another in the slightest that I am truly depressed.

As I am wont to do, I have put my comments directly into the text and highlighted them. I am MM. The Interviewer is FP. And Will Self is WS. Enjoy!


Title: Will Self
MM: even his name is aggressive…Will! Self! Self Will! Monosyllabic. Final.

Title: interview:
MM: Wow! This student from Bristol got to meet Will Self*

Title: ‘The Olympics Suck’
MM: I don’t know if I think the Olympics suck or not, but I bet Will Self will make it sound fantastically obvious.

Author: Faye Planer (FP)
MM: Lucky student from Bristol who got to meet Will Self *

January 30th, 2012
MM: Why did I not see this until like six days after! (As if the student newspaper of Bristol would be at the top of my to-do pile).

MM: Holy fuck. Just look at him. Even his dog is looking at me like he knows I don’t really know what ontogeny means. Is that shirt meant to look like that or it it the result of a bleach accident? That’s what my black t-shirt looked like when I splattered bleach on it. Why did I throw that out? It looks pretty cool. Hmmm, Will Self has a big hand. And I like the way he is holding that dog…I wonder if it’s a pure-bred Jack Russell…it’s kind of cute…I wonder if Will Self is cute with his dog…British people tend to be cute with their animals…should Abigail (the heroine of my third novel) have a dog? It might soften her a little bit…she’s coming across as a bit of a hard-ass.

Faye Planer probes
MM: Odd choice of words…sounds like an alien medical inspection

…the nation’s angriest wit
MM: Now that Christopher Hitchens is dead and probably Hitchens would seem milquetoast by comparison anyway and maybe Hitchens wasn’t even British anymore…did Hitchens ever become an American citizen, I wonder.

…on his views of the upcoming Olympics, and on what on earth ‘psychogeography’ is all about.
MM: Oh, a new word! Psychogeography. Probably something to do with how fucked up people are by where they live or something. Thinks briefly of Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper.

FP: I hear that you are unenthusiastic about the prospect of the Olympics this summer. In your eyes, what is the greatest folly of this whole affair?

WS: Rather unenthusiastic is putting it waaaaay mildly…

MM: Are Faye and Will sitting in a cafe in Bristol when he says “waaaaaay” like that? It sounds sort of Valley Girl-ish.

WS: I think the Olympics suck dogshit through a straw.

MM: YAY! There’s the Will I love. Dogshit through a straw. Must remember to use that (to myself only, of course) when thinking of that book I forced myself to read while I was on the cruise with my mom over Christmas…because that book sucked dogshit through a straw. I hate myself a little for not being able to say what I think on my own blog about a book I read that I thought sucked dogshit through a straw…(re-reads last week’s post about not being properly prepared to ignore what other people think of me)…some people loved that dogshit book and who am I to rain on their diarrhea-swilling parade?

WS: People believe they encourage da yoof…

MM: Momentary fond memory of the first time I saw Ali G in the late 90’s when he interviewed Professor Sue Lees, and I clung to my husband’s arm and laughed so hard I cried as Ali asked Prof. Lees if she thought all girls should try feminism at least once (Video here: http://youtu.be/pyRfJDcNdb0)

WS: to take up running, jumping and fainting in coils…

MM: Makes note to look fainting in coils

WS: – but this is nonsense. They’re a boondoggle…

MM: Why do I always misuse boondoggle? It sounds like it should be a fun junket…a boon, with a dog along for company. Like a trip you win to go to Hawaii for a week. Avoid future use of word boondoggle.

WS: …for politicians and financiers, a further corruption of an already corrupt self-appointed international coterie of Olympian cunts…

MM: DAMN IT!!! Why does Will Self get to say cunts out loud and I don’t? I love to call people cunts.

WS: …an excuse for ‘elite’ athletes to fuck each other, …

MM: I wonder if he means that literally…do Olympic athletes shag like minks?

WS: snarf steroids…

MM: Is snarf still slang or is it in the OED now?

WS: and pick up sponsorship deals, and a senseless hitching of infrastructural investment…

MM: I like this use of the word hitching.

WS: if there’s any reality to this anyway – to a useless loss-trailing expenditure on starchitectural bollix…

MM: Have to look up starchitectural…and I thought bollix was bollocks.

WS: The stadia themselves are a folly.

MM: I don’t think he means this like the Temple of Apollo at Stourhead.

WS: The new Westfield is a temple to moribund consumerism – in ten years time they’ll all be cracked and spalled;

MM: Have to look up spalled.

WS: a Hitlerian mass of post-pomo nonsense.

MM: Must try to use post-pomo in a sentence…why wouldn’t that just be po-po-mo?

FP: If the Olympics did not exist, would it be necessary to invent them?

MM: I think Faye is trying to be cheeky here…I don’t think she is in a coffee shop with Will Self. I think she is on the phone in Bristol. And Will Self is somewhere dank and abandoned in a fug of smoke and ideas.

WS: They didn’t exist for thousands of years. The modern Olympics is a fatuous exercise…

MM: Try to use ‘fatuous’ today.

WS: in internationalism through limbering up and then running down to entropy…

MM: Great use of the athletic metaphor (or would that be synecdoche?) only to arrive at chaos.

WS: The modern Olympics have always been a political football – nothing more and nothing less – endlessly traduced…

MM: Have never used the word traduced. At least I know what it means.

WS: and manipulated by the regimes…

MM: Are all governments regimes? Probably yes.

WS: that ‘host’ them.

MM: How did he indicate that the word host was to be put into quotation marks? Was that to suggest that they are like a host-body with a contagion? Or just the idea of a regime hosting a cocktail party? Whichever is more damning, I suspect.

WS: This one is no different, presenting a fine opportunity for the British security state apparatus and its private security firm hangers-on…

MM: Love that.

WS: to deploy…

MM: I love martial language.

WS: the mass-suppression and urban paranoiac technologies…

MM: Love.

WS: in the service of export earning.

MM: Repeats to self softly: Export. Earning.

WS: Some peace,  some freedom.

MM: A little bit of Rita’s all I need.

FP: Assuming we will always have the Olympics, could you suggest a better way of doing them?

WS: Why assume that?

MM: Yeah, Faye, why? I imagine myself scraping my metal chair legs across the unfinished concrete floor and moving closer to Will Self in the dim basement where he and I are taking Faye’s call.

WS: If you want to run and jump, go do it in a field for free.

MM: Fuck yeah.

WS: If you want to run and jump with a Kenyan or a Croatian, go out and find one – there are plenty around my way – and go and run and jump together in a field.

MM: I don’ think there are many Kenyans or Croatians around my way…why do I live in Florida?

WS: Costs nothing.

MM: True enough.

WS: You may even make a few bob by charging people to watch you.

MM: Wait. But isn’t that what the Olympic hosts are trying to do? But since it’s the individual and not the security state apparatus, we’re good with it. Got it.

FP: You walked around the Olympic site a few years ago. What were your observations? Have you been back since?

WS: I didn’t see much of it – there wasn’t much of it to see. I joined Sinclair…

MM: Hope they tell me who Sinclair is later in the article.

WS: for part of his circumambulation…

MM: Does Will Self really say circumambulation in a random sentence? Does he also say postprandial and diaphoresis?

WS: of Hackney for his book.

MM: Okay. So Sinclair must be writing a book about the Olympics. Or Hackney.

WS: I can’t remember a lot about the walk at all, except that Iain…

MM: And Sinclair’s first name is Iain.

WS: held forth a lot – but that’s OK, he’s good at holding forth.

MM: I also like people who are good at holding forth.

WS: He and I agree on most things Olympic and consensus is a big barrier to keen observation…

MM: Oh my, if that isn’t the truth. So much easier to just all share the same opinion than it is to really look at something afresh.

WS: – ask Lordy-Lordy Coe and Tessa Jowls.

MM: For some reason those names made me think of Gertrude Jekyll. They must be poncy Olympic organizers. I might name a future fictional butler Jowls.

WS: I haven’t been back – it’s not my manor, thank God.

MM: ‘It’s not my manor’? Is that like ‘I don’t have a dog in this fight’ or more ‘not in my back yard’?

FP: Could you explain the principles of pyschogeography and do you think it’s something that can only be applied to urban spaces?

WS: Ooh, big question.

MM: Is Will Self making fun of Faye?

WS: I take my lead on matters psycho-geo…

MM: Is this hipstellectual talk? “Yo, Psycho-geo! Po-po-po-mo psycho-geo, yo!”

WS: from the Situationist fons et origo.

MM: Definitely going to need to get the dictionary out on this one. No clue about the Situationist, but I like the sound of it. Can sort of deduce that fons et origo are something to do with font and origin…beginnings…and not with Happy Days and/or Iris. Am so relieved my 12-year-old has taken a shine to latin. She will have such a better grasp of language than I ever will. I wonder where she will go to high school?

WS: It’s part of the tearing down of the Society of the Spectacle…

MM: Ooooh, I like the sound of the tearing down of the Society of the Spectacle. The Super Bowl confused me.

WS: mandated by late capitalism; unstructured dérives…

MM: Back to the dictionary.

WS: or drifts across the urban landscape cut across the predetermined routes of commercial necessity which were best defined by a graffito I once saw on a supermarket wall outside Yate in Somerset: ‘Work, Consume, Die’.

MM: Now, that is something I can totally get my mind around. (Tries not to think to hard about how true that is. Momentarily hates all humanity.)

WS: What I think of as ‘the man-machine matrix’ wants you trammelled on EasyJet…
MM: Oh my god! Remember that time we took EasyJet to Nice and what a fucking nightmare it was? I had totally forgotten about that.

WS: watching a six-inch screen implanted in the back of another human’s head,…

MM: Borg. Borg. Borg.

WS: wants you stuck in a car coughing out lead particulates, wants you staring at a VDU,…

MM: Dictionary. Probably British for monitor.

WS: doesn’t want you on foot, transgressing.

MM: Oh, how I want to be on foot, transgressing. Get me back to New York or London. I want to wander in strange patterns along streets where I have neither purpose nor destination. Thinks momentarily of Ford Madox Ford.

FP: I went to a talk you gave about J.G. Ballard. What do you think he would have to say about the Olympic transformation of the east end of London?

MM: Have never read J.G. Ballard. I did see Crash and Empire of the Sun. (Makes note to read J.G. Ballard).

WS: He’d probably have loved it! He loved modernity, he loved big things – he was ambivalent of course, but it gave him a sort of visceral thrill that he connected to his wonderstruck childhood in Shanghai…

MM: Thinks of Shibumi.

WS: which at that time – the 1930s – was one of the most technologically advanced cities in the world.

MM: Was Will Self personally acquainted with J.G. Ballard? Hmmm. I want to be given visceral thrills, too.
FP: ‘Really, one may say that the whole Olympic process was a pasteurisation of the city… the microbes disappeared and from a hygienic point of view maybe that was positive, but really what happened is that the variety was destroyed in the process…’

MM: I was in Barcelona in 1999 and I thought it was varied.

FP: Manuel Vázquez Montalbán said this about the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Do you believe that London is being pasteurised too?

WS: No, I’m quite confident that London is too big and too anarchic to be seriously pasteurised by the games.

MM: Whew. I always want London to feel on the edge of falling away.

WS: It’s so big, so filthy, so nasty that it could probably eat twenty Olympiads for breakfast and spit out the Ferroconcrete bones.

MM: Dictionary. Ferroconcrete. Probably Brit for rebar.

FP: Iain Sinclair believes that cities aspire to be like an airport departure lounge. How do you envisage cities of the future?

MM: I think I will be reading some of this Sinclair person. It’s not just cities. I think most of America is an airport departure lounge already.

WS: Declining in the West, certainly. With no industry and an ageing population – except for Gastarbeiter –

MM: Dictionary. Visiting workers. Interesting. Reminds me of husband’s Swiss boss who always put the emphasis on awkward syllables. He pronounced foreigners like fuh-RAY-nerz.

WS: the cities will decline into monumental care homes rather than departure lounges.

MM: Oh. Please, no.

WS: No one will want to go anywhere because their private health insurance provider – which is what the Government will become –

MM: No. No. No.

WS: will make them stay here. The colours will be muted pastel, the building will be soft and foamy, the food will be puréed.

MM: Florida. Florida. Florida.

FP: You are the ringmaster: what sport would you make Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP enter in the Olympics?

MM: I think I have heard of this Hunt fellow. Sounds like Fay and Will Self are about to have a bit of fun at his expense.

WS: Something equestrian – he could be the show pony.

MM: Um. Dirty mind thinks of pony play.

FP: What would be your sport of choice?

WS: Riding him – hard.

MM: Hey! I ended my last blog with the word hard. Still thinking about pony play, with Will Self using a little crop on the Right Honorable Rump of Jeremy Hunt MP. I wonder if they were at Oxford together. Maybe Will and Jeremy have a secret past. Wanders off.

The original interview (sans MM) is here:

How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love the Romance Novel

This week, Manhattan will be descended upon by over 2000 romance writers. Quirky ones with glasses, sexy ones in perilously high heels, academic ones also attending the Third Annual International Conference on Popular Romance Studies. Most are members of Romance Writers of America (RWA), the organization that represents the interests and goals of the nation’s romantic novelists. We meet annually in different cities around the U.S., last year Orlando, next year Los Angeles, but something about this RWA, in the middle of New York City, calls to my mind the 1913 Armory Show.

The Modern Art Exhibition that brought Matisse, Duchamp, and Picasso to American eyes for the first time still resonates. What is “real” art? Who decides? Like those three disruptive pioneers, I feel a giddy sense of percolating change. Among romance writers, there is a healthy skepticism aimed at those who see themselves as “real” writers. I got my smack down at last year’s RWA conference when I thought I’d impress a fellow romance writer with the news that I used to work at The New Yorker. She replied, “Ooooh! Look at you all fancy!”

How are the mighty fallen!

About three years ago, a well-read friend handed me a small paper bag—it wasn’t brown, but still—that contained a couple of her favorite romance novels. I thought, What the hell is she giving me these for? I read Nabokov and Lionel Shriver, Hitchens and Amis. Both Amises. Jhumpa Lahiri was my intern. I majored in British Literature at a respected university. Austen, the Brontes, Vita Sackville-West: These were my people.

In the bag were Whitney, My Love by Judith McNaught and The Duke and I by Julia Quinn. Quinn went to Harvard, I rationalized. At the time, I thought her books were representative of a minor sub-genre of a larger foolish genre: historical romance novels, a subset of the romance novel category. I finished both in a matter of days, and headed to the library—after all, who would pay money for these books?—to get another dose of guaranteed pleasures, so unlike real life, so undemanding. I then devoured every historical novel by Judith McNaught, and pursued Julia Quinn with the same ardor. Unfortunately my local library does not have a lot of Julia Quinn. But it turns out that Quinn is shelved next to Quick.

The mother lode.

I started reading one Amanda Quick every night. Quick has written over a hundred romance novels under three different names, one for each sub-genre: historical, contemporary, and futuristic paranormal. Her historical books have titles like Ravished, Desire, and Mischief. This went on first for weeks and then months. I was immersed. I started reading “real” books about 19th-century England, such as the fabulous biography Lady John Russell, and a lengthy tome about Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston. I became re-acquainted with entailments and royal forms of address, fichus and squabs. Arguing with my snippy inner snob, I convinced myself that I was simply reading Jane Austen with sex.

I would never want to read a contemporary romance, I thought. Historically accurate romps? OK. Some tawdry approximation of reality? Not OK. I was an intellectual.

I had unwittingly joined the likes of Philippa Gregory who propounded a similar line of literary elitism in her introduction to the 2004 edition of Anya Seton’sKatherine. Here Gregory (she of the incest, bondage, and more gratuitous sex than most) posited that romance fiction, as opposed to her brand of more elevated historical fiction, “has no authentic interest in different times and cultures.” Gregory went on to malign the romantic tropes and stereotypes, “cardboard characters come ready-made; they are not forged by their particular experiences, their history, or their society, and nothing interrupts them as they work their way through the story toward a happy ending.” She declared that, “A good historical novel is always conscious of our shared humanity.” (The implication being that romance novels are not.) That’s when I started underlining. And laughing. What is more representative of shared humanity than a story that relies on the most basic and potent of human currencies: sexuality?

Eventually I ran out of Amanda Quick’s historical novels and, like an addict who runs out of quality cocaine and settles for speed, I delved into one of her contemporary novels, penned under her real name, Jayne Ann Krentz. Turns out happy endings in imaginary cliff-top inns outside of Seattle are just as emotionally satisfying as those involving viscounts and Napoleonic privateers.

As the library ran out of McNaught, Quinn, Quick, and Krentz, I started reading—and buying—books by the writers who had blurbed the books I had already read. Friends of friends, as it were. People like Eloisa James, Teresa Medeiros, Christina Dodd, and Lisa Kleypas; ex-pat Brits like Miranda Neville and Janet Mullany; sexy feminists like Pam Rosenthal, Carrie Lofty, and Zoe Archer.

How was it possible that these authors (WOMEN) had sold millions (MILLIONS) of books and I had never heard of them? News of the stunning sales figures, material evidence of the powerful rise of the genre, has started to crop up in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal and on blogs like Sarah Wendell’s Smart Bitches Trashy Books. The story runs along the lines of a $1.3 billion market share, and 75 million readers, academic conferences in small European cities and lively feminist blogs that defend the rights of women to speak and write joyfully and explicitly about love and sex. (They speak quite eloquently to my inner snob.)

I love that talk—the analysis, the dissection of meaning, the profit margins—I am comfortable with detached academic observation. But when I crack open a new romance novel (yes, I am a spine-cracker) I have learned to dispense with academic analysis lest I forfeit the immediacy and urgency that characterizes a particularly good one.

And the good ones are all alike in this respect: I am transported. Mission accomplished. Often I cannot even remember the names of the characters two days after finishing. I rarely underline. Philippa Gregory implies that this type of fleeting joy is “suitable only for women readers who wanted entertainment without intellectual challenge.” Her point is valid on one level and utterly misleading on another. In a well-told romance, a reader is certainly entertained, but also challenged. If “intellectual challenge” is defined strictly as thinking about thoughts, then these books are not always “intellectual”. If on the other hand intellectual challenge allows for other forms of thinking such as about the motivating nature of desire, greed, lust, and power, then they are. What makes these books great and controversial is the fact that they elicit an immediate, visceral response.

And then they are over.

Which leads me to the subject of pornography. Please refer to the above-mentioned authors’ web pages and blogs for spirited discussions on the differences between romance, erotica, and porn. There is plenty of porn on the shelf, and I have read my share. But this is not it. Romance novel sex tends to be overwhelmingly metaphorical: angry sex, make-up sex, submissive sex, mistaken identity sex, consummation sex, ambitious sex, tentative sex, healing sex.

Some romance readers contend it is the compelling pace of the narrative that draws them in—sometimes a slow burn, sometimes a frantic sprint, Anna Karenina versus The Woman in White—and they say that at times they even skip right past the sex scenes. Um. I do not skip the sex scenes. For me, these books present an ideal world and, to my mind at least, an ideal world includes lots of happy ending sex.

These novels provide all the usual mortal coil stuff, but in a more palatable form. Sexy. Heroic. These are not characters, they are heroines and heroes. And they deliver. Romance novels are provocative without being provoking. While I love them both in their own way, Ian McEwan demands things of me whereas Victoria Dahl satisfies my demands. That is the intellectual challenge I suppose Ms. Gregory suggests I am shirking, but why must my multifarious tastes necessitate the denigration of the entire genre? In other arts, the esoteric and the ephemeral have happily coexisted for decades. If I express an interest in Giotto and yarn bombing, Bach and Lady Gaga, I am well-rounded. But if I read Thomas Mann and Harlequin…I must be slipping.

Contemporary romance is often dismissed as bread and circus. For many critics, its very mass appeal disqualifies it as art. Recently, after confessing that I was trying my hand at writing my own romance novels, a literary friend asked me, smiling but with a quizzical expression, “Okay…but what do you write when you write from the gut?” I must have looked as confused as I felt. Every wrung-out word is from the gut, especially when I am trying to write a scene about a really good blow job without sounding like an anatomy teacher or a pornographer. Writing sex exacerbates creative paranoia: the exposure, the choices, the inadequacy, the judgment. It is not a hall pass from “real” writing. But it is fun.

Reading and writing contemporary romance novels has become my subversive act. And a joyful one. When asked about his bicycle wheel, which may or may not have been created with artistic intent, Duchamp replied, “I enjoyed looking at it, just as I enjoy looking at the flames dancing in the fireplace.” I think readers enjoy reading romance novels in the same way, for its own sake. RWA provides cheerful statistics about the real lives of romance readers. They tend to be happy. For the intellectual, happiness appears unintelligent. Blind. Thoughtless. I disagree. I am on a quest to hit people (women, really) over the head with how much I disagree. Many smart women are trapped in a dialectical prison: intelligence must be grim or at the very least ironic. Anyone who is joyful must be living in a state of ignorance. Brainwashed. Touched. Not true. I follow the news, I weep for injustice (far more than I did a few years ago). Maybe that is the reason I avoided romance novels for so many years: it was easier to think than to feel. Too late now. I am a feeling machine, all thanks to the unexpected romance novel.

So, when I venture into Times Square this week and see my favorite romance writers milling about the place, I will thank them. Just as Duchamp, Picasso, and Matisse encouraged viewers to question the notion of real art, these authors have encouraged me to redefine what constitutes a real book. Because, let’s face it, that kind of liberation doesn’t happen every day and I am keenly grateful (as is my husband, but that’s another story).