By Adam Berbic
Will Self, Grove Atlantic, 2020
In an email exchange after our interview, Will Self tells me that he has ‘become pretty much disgusted with the commodification of writers and their works, and really would like to disengage from the whole interview process.’
It is a sentiment which, in a different way, I had been turning over in my own head in the days and weeks before our conversation. For Will, the problem to overcome is his use-value in the cultural economy; for me, it is his use-value in my own head. You see, addiction is a great commodifier. There is the ruthless economy of the drugs themselves, but the deeper you sink, the more everything else gets subsumed into the same logic: any given person or thing can either help you get drugs, help you be okay with the fact that you’re destroying your life by taking drugs, or else it’s without any value at all. And in the mental economy of addiction, Will Self makes a great help, a great reassurance. A precocious little junkie who got away with it all, who really revelled in the chaos and the cachet of his addiction, and yet who actually managed to do quite well for himself in the end.
Except that no one ever really gets away with it – it’s just that you see what you want to see. There is a certain ‘Will Self myth,’ of the bad boy of British letters, of the Oxbridge smackhead turned accomplished author, journalist and talking head; but in reality, the sentence still turns on the word ‘smackhead,’ on the physical and mental toil of a multi-decade drug addiction. Once again, if you don’t want to see it – if the blinkers of addiction have been pulled in too tight – you won’t.
I first meet Will in November of 2019. He makes an offer: when I get six months clean, he’ll grant me an interview. ‘It’s pragmatism,’ he says, ‘that’s how I got clean off the smack in ’99.’ Against all expectations, this hero figure of sorts has just gone from addiction poster boy to voice of reason. Fine, I think, six months shouldn’t be too hard.
The interview takes place in April of 2021.
The fact is, quitting drugs is hard. (Or, as the adage goes, ‘quitting drugs is easy; in fact, I’ve done it hundreds of times!’) And the Will Self on the other end of the Zoom call in 2021 – as opposed to the Will Self in my head in 2019 – is candid about this, about the work it requires, and about the real, distinctly unromantic nature of addiction. ‘I remember the first time I felt absolutely liberated in drink contexts,’ he shares, ‘being in a bar and bottles not actually calling to me. Big moment. After I’d been sober for some time, I could go to quite boozy events, participate in them, and nobody would ever notice that I wasn’t drinking. That was a real moment of liberation. Almost as good as not having to go through every international border with something shoved up your arse!’
We talk about losing that obsession with drugs, of unlearning the addict’s muscle memory: knowing who sells what where, which alleys to go down, which rough sleepers to talk to. That last point prompts reflection from Will: ‘Oh yeah, I was a big user with homeless people. I used to call it “jumping down the lift shaft.” You know, even despite years of drug problems, you’d be a relatively bourgeois, solid citizen, and then suddenly you’d be off behind a wheelie bin, smoking crack!’
It is especially strange in Oxford. Try to imagine a map of all the university pomp overlaid with a dense grid of scoring spots, squats and sober houses. Despite the proximity of those two worlds, you can’t, because the former is so resolutely opposed to acknowledging the latter: ‘just walk past quickly, if you don’t look at them then they won’t bother you.’ Might that be because the user on the street prompts some uncomfortable truths in the user at high table, some questions about what separates the two? Why do coke in the toilets at Bridge when you could buy crack fifty metres down the road? Of course, because the latter is an extraordinarily self-destructive and degrading experience – but then, so is whatever personal or psychological catastrophe has gotten someone to that point in the first place. That’s always the bottom line. Heroin is an analgesic and cocaine is an anaesthetic: addicts take them to relieve pain. But as easy as it is to reduce street users to street furniture, there’s more to them than just the drugs. ‘I still go and do shit with homeless people’, Will notes, ‘I just don’t use with them. What you should aim to be able to do is “jump down the lift shaft” without the need of an anaesthetic or a pretext to do it.’
We turn to Will’s own time at Oxford in the early ‘80s. As far as the institution goes, he doesn’t mince his words: ‘Everybody who criticises Oxford is absolutely right. It’s a fucking gold card and even a schmuck like me did very well out of it, despite my fucking third-class degree!’ In describing his own time there, I am struck by all the different forms of alienation it involved. For one thing, there is alienation caused by drugs, which were apparently much more niche at Oxford back then. For another, a very twisted sense of self stemming from the fact that, before the shift towards identity, student politics was all about class. ‘If you were on the Left and you came from a middle-class background, you were in a compromised position’, Will explains. ‘And being at Oxford was doubly compromising.’
That idea of ‘jumping down the lift shaft’ comes back to mind, particularly its darker, more desperate edge. On the one hand, you can see through socioeconomic hierarchies, and that comes with a certain pride, but on the other, there is a sense that you cannot ever belong to any of those hierarchies, that any allegiance – whether to high table or the homeless – can only ever be provisional. The commodifying effect of addiction again rears its head here. Entering into any kind of group becomes transactional: its value is defined solely by whether it can provide you with drugs and whether it can prop up your rapidly decomposing self-worth, which is hardly a good recipe for an authentic sense of belonging.
Our discussion turns to Will’s 2019 memoir, simply called Will, which recounts his first stretch of addiction in his teens and twenties. I notice that Will always qualifies the memoir’s protagonist as ‘the “Will” character’, complete with physical air quotes, and discusses him as such: ‘What shocked me about creating him was how I recognised him far more than if I had gone looking for myself in the past’, he says. ‘I am committed enough to the literary arts to believe that the truth doesn’t lie in mere facticity. It lies in being able to connect with an emotional chord.’
As valuable an approach as this is, it does take me back to the idea of the ‘Will Self myth’, to the ostentatiously edgy conception of Will Self that I spent an awfully long time subscribed to. Might this ‘Will character’ then represent Will’s conscious engagement with and formation of his own public image? I hazard the question: ‘without wanting to sound cynical, I suppose the memoir is an act of mythmaking…’
‘I don’t know,’ Will replies, ‘it’s a pretty odd kind of myth!’ He concedes that memoir writing can be rife with pride, even (or especially) when the memoirist is making themselves out to be a terrible person, but then argues: ‘I think Will is quite subtle on that, because the feedback loop is between the character and himself. It’s not me! I wasn’t that bad – I was also doing things like working for Crisis at Christmas and going to Greenham Common peace camp.’ (It also helps, he later adds, that he was quite a shit junkie, ‘one of those weirdly nervous, middle class addicts’ that never even contracted Hep C.) ‘None of that gets into the memoir because that wasn’t how I viewed myself at that point, and what I wanted to convey was the self-hatred of that state. That seemed to me the absolutely worst thing about being a young addict: it’s that moment when you realise, you’re fucked, you are fucked, you’re gonna use. Your self-hatred really takes off at that point.’
But while Will doubts that it is possible to ‘build a myth on self-hatred’, I would disagree. Or, at least, when you yourself are plunged in self-hatred, there can be something perversely appealing about someone who seems to be pulling it off. Once again, you see what you want to see: if you want to read admirable self-fashioning into Will’s destructive solipsism, it’s your prerogative. And I wonder whether Will could or even should have recognised this while he was writing the memoir, given that he had the exact same relationship with William Burroughs, legendary heroin-addicted Beat author, in the infancy of his own addiction.
‘We were the first generation of addicts who read [Burroughs’ semi-fictionalised addiction memoir] Junky and thought, that looks fun!’ Will continues, ‘For years, when I was withdrawing or fucked up, I’d go back to the [Ted] Morgan biography of Burroughs to try and measure myself against him. By the time I was in my second, very negative period of addiction in my thirties, I was able to think, “Well, actually, I’ve published four books.” Burroughs had only published one slim book by my age, and he hadn’t even tried junk when he was thirty! And I hadn’t actually killed my wife!’
Absurd as it is, I recognise this kind of thinking very well: competitive self-destruction, the imaginary race to be the most fucked up. In one sense, the whole ‘mythmaking’ affair is just an outgrowth of this logic, in which – seeing as it’s the only thing you’re good for – self-destruction becomes your sole source of self-worth. But Will argues that the process of mythmaking is not specific to addiction so much as literature. ‘I’m not resistant to the idea that built into every writer’s DNA is an element of self-mythologising. You need to want to self-mythologise to be a writer.’
And, to his credit, one does have the ability to rewrite those myths over time. Will recounts a process of, in his own words, rejecting the Burroughs ‘myth’: ‘When I properly cleaned up, the scales fell from my eyes. The key thing to understand about Burroughs is that he died an addict, physically addicted to methadone.’ And you can read Will – I now choose to do so, at any rate – as a similar kind of rejection: rather than a celebration of self-destruction, it is an implicitly critical account of that very line of thinking. It has a hard-won self-awareness that is lacking in the work of, say, Burroughs or Alex Trocchi. Although perhaps, as Will suggests, even this myth-rejection is part of a wider process: ‘First of all we ape figures, and then we kill them. And both of them are very legitimate things to be involved in if you’re interested in writing.’
The conversation moves to Will’s vertiginous ascent in the late eighties and early nineties. By ’91, he has cleaned up (for the time being – by the time of his second publication, he ‘was back on the gear!’), gotten published, and risen from mere ‘ex-junkie schmuck’ to ‘this weird, almost pre-eminent position’ in the British literary scene in just two or three years. Will recalls: ‘the initial thrill of having a book accepted for publication was never topped. Because that was the guarantee that I could make it a profession… the idea that I could make a living creatively was extraordinary to me.’ It is an extraordinary idea, almost a sacred one which, for Will, extended to the possibility of writing fiction at all: at one point, he describes how penning a novel ‘seemed to me the epitome of achievements’ at university, for a long time even ‘too great an ambition.’
However, the literary scene within which he rose to prominence gets a less glowing review. When I ask about it, his first response is, ‘Well, I was not that impressed, I have to say!’ To me, it was always an interesting moment in time and culture. By all accounts, it had an air of self-conscious glamour and congratulation: Will remembers that the Sunday Times would hold literary dinners in Park Lane hotels, ‘where [Martin] Amis and [Ian] McEwan were the speakers, and you’d have a thousand people who’d pay to come along, everybody in fucking evening dress.’ Another form of mythmaking. Except that this one leaves a bitter taste in your mouth; it feels like just another product of the whole ostentatious affair of nineties culture and society: Britpop, New Labour, the Young British Artists…
Will certainly views the period through more jaded – or, in his words, ‘jaundiced’ – eyes, not least as a result of having spent the previous decade in addiction. Because once you have seen the absurdity of Oxford’s pyramids of privilege being erected on the same ground as Burroughs’ ‘pyramid of junk’, it is very hard to switch that awareness back off, to take as given any kind of claim to sociocultural superiority.
‘I never fucking completely believed in those milieux any more than I believed in the guys sitting under Charing Cross Bridge passing the bottle of Night Train back and forth’, Will explains. ‘If you don’t have any experience of addictive illness when you’re young, then you might be able to suspend disbelief in these kinds of social milieux, but I couldn’t really suspend disbelief any more than I could anything.’ The bitterest irony is that, in Will’s analysis, the story of literature since then has been one of ever-increasing commodification, of the ‘deterioration of any concept of cultural value that stands apart from financial value, and of any literary milieu in which writers and their works aren’t relentlessly commodified.’
It is a reinscription of the logic of addiction on a societal level: where one would before have a private interest in fashioning oneself as an addict, a compulsion to quantify everything in terms of drugs, the compulsion is now to sell oneself as an addict, because drug culture is always going to sell. Will identifies the same trend in other areas, from journalism to universities (‘It’s only in British universities that you see academics describe themselves as “Foucauldians” or “Deleuze and Guattarians” or whatever they want to call themselves!’). And in his eyes, all subsequent literary developments are subsumed under this logic, including the twenty-first century shift towards identity and representation, the entry of identity politics into publishing. Will wishes that intersectionality were understood more in these terms, for in order for marginalised writers to enter the cultural arena as it currently stands, ‘the fact of their own identity becomes commoditised. You are alienated from the reality of who you’re trying to be at the moment of its enactment. Once again, capitalism wins!’
I cannot help but connect Will’s preoccupation with commodification to his experience of addiction, but this raises its own uncomfortable question. Is this interview itself contributing that very process? In the same email in which Will declares his desire to disengage from interviews altogether, he mentions one of the questions I had raised on Zoom, about whether his memoir was ‘burnishing a myth’, fine-tuning a certain public conception of ‘Will Self’. Certainly, that was my intention for this interview in November of 2019: to revel in the chaos of addiction and, as I saw it, the unassailability of a career built cynically atop it.
But your understanding of things changes as you do. And the ‘Will Self myth’ now looks an awful lot less like his doing. If there’s a shiny coin with his face on it, inscribed ‘edgy and successful ex-junkie’, it wasn’t minted by him. One side was stamped by commodification on a sociocultural scale; the other by the commodifying, self-justifying, solipsistic, egotistic logic of addiction unfurling in my own head. In the final analysis, the parallel is undeniable; as Burroughs put it back in 1959, ‘Junk is the ideal product… the ultimate merchandise.’
Why, then, did Will agree to another interview? He tells me after the fact that it was on the grounds of compassion. There’s a word that has only entered my personal vocabulary recently. It is something that you must learn, both to accept and to give, both to others and yourself, in order to prise yourself out of the cycle of addiction. But it is evident to me now that, instead of cynicism and aggrandisement and histrionics, there is a real sincerity and kindness to Will. The only question is – do you want to see it?
ADAM BERBIC reads English and French at St John’s College. GK is still in his thoughts, along with all of the others that didn’t make it.
Art by Alexander Haveron-Jones