Sunday 26 August 2012

Will Self at the Edinburgh Book Festival - a secretly nice guy

Will Self - nice guy
No book review this morning I'm afraid ("awwww"). Instead, my evening with Will Self...
It seems the Edinburgh Book Festival is the place to come out.
Wilbur Smith came out as a modern man.
And then, to a crowd full of people on a Sat evening, Will Self came out as a nice man.
I love that. When you go somewhere expecting one thing and something completely other is delivered. I (like you guys, I’m sure) had a certain image of Will Self, pieced together from his various TV appearances and a handful of attempts to wade through his fiction. The man asking Self the questions at the Edinburgh Book Festival (the impressive Stuart Kelly) put it best when he said many feel Self writes fiction “purely as part of the ongoing art experiment of being Will Self.”
In short, I thought he was pompous.
I was (again, and pleasingly) wrong. Self gave a warm performance, discussing his new book, the Man Booker Prize long listed Umbrella.
He was friendly – he signed books long after the event, thanking each audience member for coming and hoping they enjoy the book.
He was thankful – he spoke on how privileged he was to be doing a job he loved, and how he was very aware how many people aren’t as lucky.
He was modest – he freely admitted he was a London peasant, living a mile and half from where he was born and having “never really gone anywhere much.”
Will self - reading complete with
hand actions
He was passionate about his work – as he read portions of Umbrella to the audience, he did so complete with stage accents, hand gestures, a singing voice. He left his vanity by the door, and he dived into his work in a way I didn’t think he would.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t an entirely different man from the one you think you know. He was fiercely uncompromising, admitting he has no idea what readers of his book will think and that he doesn’t spare a single thought about reader experience when he’s writing.
He also dismissed mainstream fiction (which, by Self’s definition, is pretty much everything) as relying far too heavily on conventional structures that don’t properly reflect the “continuous present” of real experience. He aims to more truly represent the messy nature of existence by showing how people and times and consciousnesses bleed into each other in real life (which, when he explains it, makes way more sense than when I explain it). And he admitted more than once that he is an “ideas driven novelist”, more concerned with exploring ideas than plot.
None of this is a bad thing, of course. It simply shows Self to be a man who believes strongly in what he does, and can’t bring himself to do anything different. Ask me last week, and I’d have said that was intolerant, selfish even (no pun intended). But hearing Self explain his thinking made an admiration grow in me. He can’t bring himself to do anything other than what he does because he doesn’t believe anything else is worthwhile. He’s looked at everything else, realised none of it is enough for him, that most of it simply presents false realities, and so he’s rejected them. He has belief, and he sticks rigidly to it.
The event then opened to questions from the floor. Cue an opening question that was insanely intelligent and observant. Cue a second question that brought in comparisons to Blake and questions of modernity. Then cue an embarrassed silence as no-one wanted to follow that. I wanted to ask about the Booker prize, if it was something Self cares about, why he thinks Umbrella is his first to be long listed, but after those first two questions, it all sounded a bit vacuous. So Self got up and read again instead.
I spoke with him as he signed my copy of Umbrella afterwards. He said he felt the talk was all a bit flat, clearly more sensitive to his audience reaction than he’d perhaps admit. I explained why I thought the audience had been cowed into silence by the first two questioners. It seemed to make him happier.
Then again, he may have simply been being nice.

(A review of Umbrella will be coming to GBR soon...)

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