You can listen to an edited version of a recent Guardian Live talk between Will Self and John Gray here.
Read Will Self writing about the meaning of skyscrapers for Guardian Review here.
Today marks 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall “but its psychic effects are still in strong evidence, both at the collective and the individual level”. Read about Will Self’s walk along a 50km section of the route in the Guardian here.
Will Self has written an obituary of his friend Claire Walsh, editor, researcher and publicist and JG Ballard’s long-term partner, who died last week.
‘Let’s think about reading – about what it’s like to read. And after we’ve thought about reading for a while, let’s consider writing – and what it means to write. There are many ways of reading: we scan, we dip, we skip and we speed through texts we know to be intrinsically dull, searching out the nuggets of information we desire as a bent-backed prospector pans for gold. In contradistinction: we are lost, abandoned, absorbed – tossed from wave to wave of language as we relapse into the wordsea. All serious readers of serious literature have had this experience: time, space, and all the workaday contingencies of their identity – sex, age, class, heritage – are forgotten; the mind cleaves to the page, matching it point-for-point; the mind is the text, and in the act of reading it is you who are revealed to the impersonal writer, quite as much as her imaginings and inventions are rendered unto you. In the course of my literary career I’ve read various accounts of the reading process – ones that analyse it phenomenologically, neurologically and psychologically; ones that site it in a given social or cultural context – but none has captured the peculiar quiddity of reading as I experience it. In particular, no forensic or analytic account of reading can do justice to the strange interplay between levels of reality we apprehend when we read deeply. We don’t picture a woman in a red dress when we decipher the marks that mean “she wore a red dress” – and, by extension, we do not hold within our mind’s eye the floor plan of Mansfield Park or the street map of Dublin when we read the novels of Jane Austen and James Joyce, respectively.
‘Yet, somehow, we know these places. The clearest possible example of the strange telepathy implicit in deep reading that I’ve arrived at is one that every reader I’ve ever explained it to understands intuitively: when we read a description of a place we get whether or not the writer truly knows that place, even if we have no familiarity with it ourselves. In a world made up of printed codices, and all the worlds they in turn describe, the reader strives to see in them, see through them, and to discern the connections between them. When she experiences difficulties with a text – the meaning is obscure, the syntax confused and the allusions unknown to her – she either struggles until she comprehends, or, if she is utterly stumped, she consults another book. This way of going about the business of reading is so well-established and so completely inhabited by those of us who have grown up with what Marshall McLuhan termed “Gutenberg minds”, that we barely give it any thought. By extension, we are scarcely able to apprehend what it might be like to not have to read deeply at all; if, indeed, it were possible to gain all the required information necessary to understand a passage simply by skimming it, and, where an obscurity is highlighted, clicking on this to follow a hypertext link. There has been a lot of research on digital as against analogue reading, and the results are decidedly mixed. On the one hand, sceptics and Cassandras point to the fracturing of attention and the attenuation of memory they see lying behind the screen; they also point out that the kind of reading I’ve described above becomes impossible once text is displayed on an internet-enabled device – unless, that is, readers are self-disciplined enough to not use the web.’
Read the rest of Will Self’s Guardian Review article on the future of deep, serious reading – and writing – here.
At the Guardian website here via Penguin.
‘Far be it from me to come over all Freudian, but there has to be latent significance in the manifestation of a group of men boring through the ground inside a giant, phallic-shaped machine with a woman’s name. And not just one group of men: we’re talking eight, for eight phallic-shaped machines, all of which bear women’s names.
‘True, to be fair to the Crossrail project, there are women working these big drilling dicks as well – the evening before I visited the Crossrail site in east London I watched the The Fifteen Billion Pound Railway on BBC2, and the senior engineer working on the particularly tricky job of tunnelling under the Thames was a woman, as was her deputy. However, for now, I suspect these are the exceptions that prove the rule: the grands projets of the built environment have a tendency to be pushed forward by a distinctively masculine combination of grandiosity, obsessive single-mindedness and either brute or mechanical strength.
‘And, as projects go, they don’t get much grander than Crossrail. I’m not going to bore into you with the statistics here – God knows they’ve been dinned into you enough already; really as noisy background justification for the fact that the vast amount of that £15bn comes out of London taxpayers’ pockets. What exactly are we getting for our buck? Why, big, phallic-shaped machines banging into Mother Earth, that’s what.
‘Oh, and if you’re not happy with my psychoanalytic take on it, why not hearken to what Terry Morgan, the Crossrail chairman, sold to me as the benefit of the new railway while I was taking my trousers off in front of him. (Purely, I might add, in order that I could put some high-vis ones on before we went down his hole together.) According to Terry – a bluff, genial, highly likable fellow, who’s spent the greater part of his career in the arms industry – once Crossrail is up and running, it will cut journey times from Reading to the City by 30 whole minutes; not only that, but the harassed commuters won’t have to change trains, they can just sit there playing Angry Birds, or reading the FT the entire time.’
Read the rest of Will’s piece for Guardian Cities here.
‘A couple of years ago, when I was in the closing stages of working on my last novel, Umbrella, I began casting around for a new subject for the next one. I greatly admire WG Sebald’s The Emigrants, which tells the stories of six refugees from the Nazis without heavy-handedly describing the mechanics of the persecution that the regime visited on Jews, gay people and the politically suspect. Following this pattern, I conceived of writing a novel about some of the more interesting characters I had known during my two decades in the netherworld of drug addiction. I would fictionalise their stories, of course, but more importantly, I would never mention, or otherwise allude to, the reasons why these people lost jobs, experienced relationship-breakdown, moved abroad, and went to hospital or jail. Their addiction would remain a strange sort of absence, deforming the course of their lives but never emerging into the full light of day. My working rubric for the novel was “Jaws without the shark”.
‘I began by interviewing the woman with whom I’d begun using heroin in the late 1970s – she has, thankfully, long since cleaned up from the drug, and has a sharp and incisive angle on the soft, psychic underbelly that insulated her from the sordid realities of her active addiction. At the same time, I read Peter Benchley’s Jaws and watched Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of the novel. I’m not altogether sure why I did this, beyond a background suspicion that I might find something usable in this material. In the event, what struck me hard was a discrepancy between the film’s script (which Benchley himself worked on), and the text of the novel.
‘In the film, an important scene takes place when Quint, the Ahab-like, obsessive shark-hunter, and Hooper, the cuddly marine biologist and shark expert, face off in the lurching cabin of Quint’s fishing boat, the Orca. Intent on out-machismoing each other, the two engage in an unusual duel that consists of comparing their shark-inflicted scars. Quint reveals that he was a sailor on board the USS Indianapolis when it was sunk by a Japanese submarine in the last days of the second world war in the Pacific. Hooper knows all about the Indianapolis: the 900-odd shipwrecked survivors, cast adrift in the ocean between Guam and Leyte as they floated on inadequate life rafts, or paddled through the heaving swell in water-logged life jackets, were the victims of the worst shark attack ever recorded. Due to some communications snafu it took three days for rescuers to arrive, and by then there were 321 survivors – one of whom was Quint.’
Read the rest of Will’s account of how and why he wrote his new novel, Shark (published by Penguin), at the Guardian here.