Don’t Just Do Something: Sit There

Will Self, “Will Self on the Literary Novel’s Demise, and Why Naomi Klein Won’t Fix the World” by Nick Doherty. Maclean’s, 16 January 2018

It’s hugely unpopular in our overcharged, hollowed-out humanist democracies, to be quietistic: to think in terms of doing less harm rather than doing more good. People experience that as a counsel of despair, but they’re profoundly wrong to. Indeed, I would argue that if you think about the problems the world is facing, a quietistic movement is the best possible response. Don’t just do something; sit there. Don’t fly Naomi Klein to another country to talk your arse off, which is really about commodifying your own career. Nothing she has done in the past 25 years has led to any reduction in corporate activities, global warming—so what’s she f—–g for? Nothing [laughs]. If she’d spent her time telling people to do less, we might have a more pacific, less febrile world.

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The Great Internal Rumination

Will Self, “Will Self on the Literary Novel’s Demise, and Why Naomi Klein Won’t Fix the World” by Nick Doherty. Maclean’s, 16 January 2018

Years ago, I said [novel-writing] would become a conservatoire form, like easel painting or the symphony, but I didn’t quite understand how all of these kids in creative writing programs, and their constant focus-grouping, would create a new form that’s halfway between hobbyism and literature. It’s an occupation for wealthy Western youth who are marking time. Because there are more writers than readers now, it’s decoupled from any conversation. It’s like a great internal rumination.

Secondhand Avant Garde

Geoff Dyer, “‘Based On a True Story’: The Fine Line Between Fact and Fiction,” The Observer 6 December 2015

The dizziness occasioned by WG Sebald lay in the way that we really didn’t know quite what we were reading. To adapt a line of Clint Eastwood’s from Coogan’s Bluff, we didn’t know what was happening — even as it was happening to us. That mesmeric uncertainty has diminished slightly since the Sebald software has, as it were, been made available for free download by numerous acolytes, but a similar categorical refusal informs Ben Lerner’s 10.04, “a work,” as his narrator puts it, “that, like a poem, is neither fiction nor nonfiction, but a flickering between them”. The flicker is sustained on an epic scale — in a thoroughly domestic sort of way — by Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume My Struggle series. A side-effect or aftershock of Knausgaard’s seismic shakeup was to make us realise how thoroughly bored we had become by plot. Rachel Cusk addressed and exploited this in her wonderfully plotless novel Outline, which was shortlisted for last year’s Goldsmiths prize.

Seeking to reward innovation and experimentation, this prize is a good and timely thing — but it’s unfortunate that it’s limited to fiction. While last year’s Samuel Johnson prize went to Helen Macdonald for her beautifully novel H Is for Hawk, much so-called experimental fiction comes in the tried-and-tested form of the sub-species of historical novel known as modernist. Had they been LPs rather than books, several contenders for last year’s Goldsmiths prize could have joined Will Self’s Shark in that oxymoronic section of Ray’s Jazz Shop: “secondhand avant garde”.

Through a Rather Brief Unity of Time

I was interviewed by Linn Levy for her fine piece on Guy Debord, Situationism, and punk:

Linn Levy, “Debord j’adore,” Edelweiss December 2014: 52-53
Debord1
Debord2

. . . Et le punk? «Faut-il dire que le punk était situationniste?», s’interroge Andrew Gallix, écrivain, professeur à la Sorbonne, punk depuis l’âge de 12 ans et fondateur du premier blog littéraire «3:AM Magazine». «Non. Les idées de Debord ont été l’une des très nombreuses influences de ce mouvement éminemment postmoderne, au même titre que Dada, par exemple, ou le surréalisme. Il faut voir le punk comme un collage, ou comme une installation artistique : une conjonction d’influences diverses qui ont coexisté pendant “une assez courte unité de temps” (pour citer Debord) avant d’éclater en une myriade de mouvements. Entre 1976 et 1979, dans ce pays socialement à la dérive, l’esprit du situationnisme a été en quelque sorte mis en acte par le punk; il est réellement descendu dans la rue. Debord entendait mettre la révolution au service de la poésie, c’est-à-dire transformer la vie en art, et c’est précisément ce que le punk a réalisé. Il est évident que pour Malcolm McLaren, même s’il était avant tout un homme d’affaires, les Pistols étaient une situation au sens debordien.»

Zombie Novels and Undead Art

Will Self, “The Novel is Dead (This Time It’s For Real),” The Guardian 3 May 2014 (Guardian Review p. 2)

… The omnipresent and deadly threat to the novel has been imminent now for a long time — getting on, I would say, for a century — and so it’s become part of culture. During that century, more books of all kinds have been printed and read by far than in the entire preceding half millennium since the invention of movable-type printing. If this was death it had a weird, pullulating way of expressing itself. The saying is that there are no second acts in American lives; the novel, I think, has led a very American sort of life: swaggering, confident, brash even — and ever aware of its world-conquering manifest destiny. But unlike Ernest Hemingway or F Scott Fitzgerald, the novel has also had a second life. The form should have been laid to rest at about the time of Finnegans Wake, but in fact it has continued to stalk the corridors of our minds for a further three-quarters of a century. Many fine novels have been written during this period, but I would contend that these were, taking the long view, zombie novels, instances of an undead art form that yet wouldn’t lie down.

… It would seem better all round to accept the truth, which is that we are still solidly within the modernist era, and that the crisis registered in the novel form in the early 1900s by the inception of new and more powerful media technologies continues apace. The use of montage for transition; the telescoping of fictional characters into their streams of consciousness; the abandonment of the omniscient narrator; the inability to suspend disbelief in the artificialities of plot – these were always latent in the problematic of the novel form, but in the early 20th century, under pressure from other, juvenescent, narrative forms, the novel began to founder.

Everythingitis

Will Self, “The Selfish Gene” by Elizabeth Day, The Observer (“The New Review” section) 5 August 2013: 9

Does he ever get writer’s block?

“No. I get what I call ‘everythingitis’… where I get obsessed with the idea that everything has to be in the book.”

Will Self, “Five Minutes With: Will Self” by Matthew Stadlen, BBC News 2 February 2013

Well the book has to be in some way a kind of synecdoche of the entire world. …You get this creeping feeling that everything has to be in it, so you’re wandering around the streets and you see a plastic comb lying in the gutter and you think, “Have I got plastic combs in the book?” … and then you hear somebody refer to President Mobuto of Zaire and you think, “Is President Mobuto in the book?” and eventually it becomes this affliction called everything-itis.

A Ceaseless Threnody

Will Self, “Falling Short: Seven Writers Reflect on Failure,” The Guardian 22 June 2013

To attempt to write seriously is always, I feel, to fail — the disjunction between my beautifully sonorous, accurate and painfully affecting mental content, and the leaden, halting sentences on the page always seems a dreadful falling short. It is this failure — a ceaseless threnody keening through the writing mind — that dominates my working life, just as an overweening sense of not having loved with enough depth or recklessness or tenderness dominates my personal one. It follows that to continue writing is to accept failure as simply a part of the experience – it’s often said that all political lives end in failure, but all writing ones begin there, endure there, and then collapse into senescent incoherence.

I prize this sense of failure — embrace it even. As a child I loved a John Glashan cartoon that showed a group of meths drinkers lying around on the floor of a squat. “Anyone can be a success,” one of them was saying, “but it takes real guts to be a failure.” Clearly I intuited what was coming. When anyone starts out to do something creative — especially if it seems a little unusual — they seek approval, often from those least inclined to give it. But a creative life cannot be sustained by approval, any more than it can be destroyed by criticism — you learn this as you go on.

. . . No, this is the paradox for me: in failure alone is there any possibility of success. I don’t think I’m alone in this — nor do I think it’s an attitude that only prevails among people whose work is obviously “creative”. On the contrary, it often occurs to me that since what successes I do manage are both experienced and felt entirely in solitude, there must be many others who are the same as me: people for whom life is a process to be experienced, not an object to be coveted. There may be, as Bob Dylan says, no success like failure, but far from failure being no success at all, in its very visceral intensity, it is perhaps the only success there is.