Are we really so dreadful, Mr Self?

I think Eleanor Morgan has missed the point here, though it’s more likely that, being of a different generation, she sees a different point. Will Self and I, on the other hand, were born within two years of each other, into urban middle-class families, with one Jewish parent. Our fathers were both academics – indeed, they had offices on the same departmental corridor, and knew each other, in the distant, cordial way of preoccupied men of ideas. It is highly probable that the Self children ( Selves?) and my sibling group attended the same LSE children’s Christmas parties, year after year throughout the 60s and 70s. We were both at Oxbridge, at about the same time, where we were both undistinguished academically. But he had grown up a privately-educated Londoner, while I was a state-school provincial. His parents divorced, mine didn’t. My 1980s rebellion was and remains more political than his, and, I believe, more profound, although I took far fewer drugs.

But I like to think that what he and I have in common gives us a connection, despite what we manifestly don’t share. I’ve read that humans are sympathetic to the suffering of mammals – dogs, horses, baby seals – who share a some characteristics with us, though not enough to ever be mistaken for one of us. We are less sympathetic to the sufferings of birds and reptiles and other complete aliens . . . And positively hostile to those of our own species who might conceivably, in a bad light, even if only momentarily, be confused with us. So we reject benefit scroungers, the poor, the mentally ill, even, perhaps especially, if we were ever one of those things ourselves, and reserve our charity for suitably appealing aliens, animals, and other more comfortably distant forms of life.

Which is a roundabout justification for my irritation with Will Self, and his, hypothetically, with me. I suspect he despises hipsters, and other self-deluded “creatives”, mainly because we have just a little too much in common with himself. For he and I are of course both Writers. What?! I hear him snort. Another deluded middle-aged crone dares refer to her talentless self in the same sentence as Moi?! Another scrounging hipster convinced her career is about to take off?! Pass the puke bucket, please!

I did meet the man once, as an adult, at a writers’ workshop about ten years ago. He was dynamic, entertaining, and barely troubled to conceal his opinion of our modest ambitions, which it was certainly not his brief to encourage. Instead, he read from his own work in progress, of which we were suitably appreciative. We were a bunch of nice, mainly middle-aged, mostly middle-class ladies. But we were by definition untalented, not even pretty, and it was unlikely any of us had ever done heroin, so honestly, what was the point of us at all?

By definition, not all writers can be successful. Every successful writer requires a vast backdrop of readers, many of whom will be attempting to write themselves. For every writer or artist who Makes It there must be thousands who don’t, some, even the majority, of whom do nonetheless become quite proficient at their task. Maybe we teach writing or literature; maybe we just bring up our children and read to them. But either way, the fortunate Successful would not be where they are without us. Yes, a little humility would be appropriate.

For while I don’t dispute, on the whole, that the Successful are talented, I do dispute that they are the only talented, and that success always falls directly and proportionately according to Talent. I think in many cases, one great work early on in a career often sustains the mediocre rest of it, including contingent journalism, while much better work by unknown artists remains ignored simply because they didn’t manage that stunning youthful breakthrough. The industry likes talented newcomers especially (only?) if they are photogenic. As youngsters, they can then carry on producing indefinitely every few years, and never mind the diminishing quality; the readers probably won’t, so long as the decline is not too drastic. I’m not really complaining. We are all too busy to read as much as we would like, so have to short-circuit to familiar names and proven records rather than experiment constantly with complete unknowns. But I’ve long got over my youthful desire to read every single thing by a particular author, just because I discovered one great book. On the contrary, unless further recommendations are irresistible, I tend to assume, that’s it, I’ve done the best of him or her. I’ll give someone else a chance now.

I’ve never read Will Self’s fiction, apart from that one extract he graced us with, from, I think, The Book of Dave. Oh, I know I should have, I know he’s pretty ace. But you know, there’s so much else around, so little time, and for one reason or another Will Self has never risen beyond the middle of my must-read-next list. Anyway, he told us himself he barely ever bothers with modern fiction. He read all the classics in his youth, despite not doing an English degree, which is I suppose pretty cool. I’d never have got much beyond Thomas Hardy and Middlemarch if it weren’t for mine; but maybe that’s private school for you.

But back to me. I was never a hipster (I had no idea what a hipster was). I spent most of the 1990s living and working abroad. I understand from Self’s article, and following up his references, that hipsters are basically male (beards, low-cut T-shirts with no mention of cleavage; note; Self is usually talking about blokes unless he makes explicit to the contrary.) But I am a writer, with a vocation, which remains unaffected by the fact that I’m as unsuccessful as it is possible to be. I still think that writing is what I do best, even if only in comparison to the rubbish I am at everything else.

But I’m being disingenuous, of course. I write because I can, because between motherhood and housework, other caring and admin responsibilities I still have the occasional hour and the financial liberty to spend it at this desk. Not nearly as often as I would like, not nearly as often as Self does, I’m willing to bet, but still, now and again. I count myself privileged for that. I have no illusions about ever Making It. I just get on with it, because it’s what I do. Pathetic, eh? Maybe; but you know what? I simply couldn’t care. Get over yourself, Will Self.


About marytuda

An accidental first time mum in her fifties reflects on all things maternal from position of perpetual outsider and prolonged state of shock. An urban odessy through parenthood plus from one who thought she'd never go there.
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2 Responses to Are we really so dreadful, Mr Self?

  1. martin says:

    I really like this piece. I think that your comments about success and reputation (e.g. the big early success is the locomotive pulling the so-so achievements that come after) are very accurate. And I also agree on the “invisible army” of people writing that is somehow a kind of support system for the few people who make the big-time (or middle-sized time) — and I’d argue that can be just as valid for academic writing too, speaking as one whose book covered costs for U of Mass Press but hasn’t sold more than 400 copies or so over five years. Everyone is negotiating their way along a wire connecting talent, time, luck, connections, editors’ moods, accidental relevance etc etc. Actually, something about that — the notion that the successful should respect the unsuccessful because the latter support — strikes me as an interesting premise for a (hopefully successful) story.

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