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Will Self

William Woodard Self (born 26 September 1961) is an English author, journalist, political commentator and television personality.

Self is the author of eleven novels, five collections of shorter fiction, three novellas, and five collections of non-fiction writing. His work has been translated into 22 languages; his 2002 novel Dorian, an Imitation was longlisted for the Booker Prize, and his novel Umbrella was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. His fiction is known for being satirical, grotesque, and fantastical, and is predominantly set within his home city of London. His writing often explores mental illness, drug abuse and psychiatry.

Self is a regular contributor to publications including The Guardian, Harper's, The New York Times and the London Review of Books. He currently writes a column for the New Statesman, and over the years he has been a columnist for the Observer, The Times, and the Evening Standard. His columns for Building Design on the built environment, and for the Independent Magazine on the psychology of place brought him to prominence as a thinker concerned with the politics of urbanism.

Self is a regular contributor on British television, initially as a guest on comic panel shows such as Have I Got News for You. In 2002, Self replaced Mark Lamarr on the anarchic BBC comedy panel show Shooting Stars for two series, but was himself replaced by comedian Jack Dee when the programme returned in 2008. He has since appeared on current affairs programmes such as Newsnight and Question Time. Self is also a frequent contributor to the BBC Radio 4 programme A Point of View, to which he contributes radio essays delivered in his familiar "lugubrious tones". In 2013, Self was in talks to become the inaugural BBC Radio 4 Writer-in-Residence, but later backed out of the talks.

Early life

Self was born at Charing Cross hospital in London and brought up in north London, between the suburbs of East Finchley and Hampstead Garden Suburb. His parents were Peter John Otter Self, Professor of Public Administration at the London School of Economics, and Elaine Rosenbloom, from Queens, New York, who worked as a publisher's assistant. His paternal grandfather, Sir Albert Henry Self, with working class origins in Fulham, was a high-ranking civil servant and President of the Modern Churchmen's Union, who was also deputy chairman of the British Electricity Authority and Chairman of the Electricity Council. He is also descended from the 19th century educationalist Nathaniel Woodard, hence his middle name. As a child, Self spent a year living in Ithaca in upstate New York.

Self's parents separated when he was nine, and divorced when he was 18. Despite the intellectual encouragement given by his parents, he was an emotionally confused and self-destructive child, harming himself with cigarette ends and knives before getting into drugs.

Self was a voracious reader from a young age. When he was ten, he developed an interest in works of science fiction such as Frank Herbert's Dune and those of J. G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick. Into his teenage years, Self claimed to have been "overawed by the canon", stifling his ability to express himself. Nevertheless, Self's dabbling with drugs grew in step with his prolific reading. Self started smoking marijuana at the age of 12, graduating through amphetamines, cocaine, and LSD to heroin, which he started injecting at 18. Self struggled with mental health issues during this period, and at the age of 20 became a hospital outpatient.

Self attended University College School, an independent school for boys in Hampstead. He later attended Christ's College, Finchley, from where he went to Exeter College at the University of Oxford, reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics, graduating with a third class degree. He claims to have only attended two lectures. At Oxford he became editor of and frequent contributor to an underground left-wing student newspaper called Red Herring/Oxford Strumpet, copies of which are archived in the Bodleian Library. His reasons for reading PPE rather than English literature were discussed by Self in an interview with The Guardian newspaper:

I [had] a pretty thorough grounding in the canon, but I certainly didn't want to be involved with criticism. Even then it seemed inimical to what it was to be a writer, which is what I really wanted to be.

Of Self's background Nick Rennison has written that he:

is sometimes presented as a bad-boy outsider, writing, like the Americans William S Burroughs and Hubert Selby Jr, about sex, drugs and violence in a very direct way. Yet he is not some class warrior storming the citadels of the literary establishment from the outside, but an Oxford educated, middle-class metropolitan who, despite his protestations to the contrary in interviews, is about as much at the heart of the establishment as you can get, a place he has occupied almost from the start of his career.


After graduating from Oxford, Self worked for the Greater London Council, including a period as a road sweeper, while living in Brixton. He then pursued a career as a cartoonist for the New Statesman and other publications and as a stand-up comedian. He moved to Gloucester Road around 1985. In 1986 he entered a treatment centre in Weston-super-Mare, where he claimed that his heroin addiction was cured. In 1989, "through a series of accidents", he "blagged" his way into running a small publishing company.

The publication of his short story collection The Quantity Theory of Insanity brought him to public attention in 1991. Self was hailed as an original new talent by Salman Rushdie, Doris Lessing, Beryl Bainbridge, A. S. Byatt, and Bill Buford. In 1993 he was nominated by Granta magazine as one of the 20 "Best Young British Novelists". Conversely, Self's second book, My Idea of Fun, was "mauled" by the critics.

Self joined the Observer as a columnist in 1995. He gained negative publicity in 1997 when he was sent to cover the election campaign of John Major and was caught by a rival journalist using heroin on the Prime Minister's jet, and was fired as a result. At the time, he argued "I'm a hack who gets hired because I do drugs". He joined the Times as a columnist in 1997. In 1999 he left Times to join the Independent on Sunday, which he left in 2002 for the Evening Standard.

He has made many appearances on British television, especially as a panellist on Have I Got News for You and as a regular on Shooting Stars. Since 2008 Self has appeared five times on Question Time. He stopped appearing in Have I Got News for You, stating the show had become a pseudo-panel show. 2003-2006 he was a regular contributor to the BBC2 television series Grumpy Old Men. In 2007 he appeared in the Comedy Lab episode 'Satisfied Fool', engaging in philosophical discussion with Karl Pilkington.

Since 2009, Self has written two alternating fortnightly columns for the New Statesman. The Madness of Crowds explores social phenomena and group behaviour, and in Real Meals he reviews high street food outlets.

In 2012, Self was appointed Professor of Contemporary Thought at Brunel University. In July 2012, Self received his first Man Booker Prize longlist nomination for Umbrella, which The Daily Telegraph described as "possibly Self's most ambitious novel to date". The book was later placed on the prize shortlist.

For a May 2014 article in The Guardian, Self wrote: "the literary novel as an art work and a narrative art form central to our culture is indeed dying before our eyes", explaining in a July 2014 article that his royalty income had decreased "dramatically" over the previous decade. The July article followed the release of a study of the earnings of British authors that was commissioned by the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society.

In January 2015, Self began a 50 km walking tour of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN near Geneva for BBC Radio 4, invited by physicist Akram Khan to "feel the wonder" of particle physics.

He featured in the 2016 documentary The Future of Work and Death

Literary style

According to M. Hunter Hayes, Self has given his reason for writing as follows: "I don't write fiction for people to identify with and I don't write a picture of the world they can recognise. I write to astonish people." "What excites me is to disturb the reader's fundamental assumptions. I want to make them feel that certain categories within which they are used to perceiving the world are unstable."

The influences on his fiction mentioned most frequently include J. G. Ballard whom he considers "a great mentor", William Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson. He has cited influences such as Jonathan Swift, Alasdair Gray, Franz Kafka, Lewis Carroll, Joseph Heller and Louis-Ferdinand Céline as formative influences on his writing style.

Zack Busner is a recurring character in Self's fiction, appearing in the short story collections The Quantity Theory of Insanity, Grey Area and Dr. Mukti and Other Tales of Woe, as well as in the novels Great Apes, The Book of Dave, Umbrella and Shark. Busner is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst practising in London, and is prone to self-promotion at the expense of his patients. He is often the antagonist of the stories he appears in, although not always with villainous intent.

Among Self's admirers is the American critic Harold Bloom. Journalist Stuart Maconie has described him as "that rarity in modern cultural life, a genuine intellectual with a bracing command of words and ideas who is also droll, likeable and culturally savvy."

Political views

In the 2015 UK general election Self voted Labour in a general election for the first time since 1997. In May 2015, he wrote in The Guardian: "No, I'm no longer a socialist if to be one is to believe that a socialist utopia is attainable by some collective feat of will – but I remain a socialist, if 'socialism' is to be understood as an antipathy to vested interests and privileges neither deserved nor earned, and a strong desire for a genuinely egalitarian society." In March 2017, he wrote in the New Statesman: "Nowadays I think in terms of compassionate pragmatism: I'll leave socialism to Žižek and the other bloviators."

In July 2015 Self endorsed Jeremy Corbyn's campaign in the Labour Party leadership election. He said during a Channel 4 News interview that Corbyn represents a useful ideological divide within Labour, and could lead to the formation of a schism in the party.

Personal life

Self's mother died in 1988. He was married from 1989 to 1997 to Kate Chancellor. They have two children, a son Alexis and a daughter Madeleine. They lived together in a terraced house just off the Portobello Road. In 1997, Self married journalist Deborah Orr, with whom he has sons Ivan and Luther. In 2017, Orr and Self separated, and Self was living in a rented flat in Stockwell. Self has stated that he has abstained from drugs, except for caffeine and nicotine, since 1998. He sent his children to private schools, owing to his children's being bullied at state schools in Lambeth.

He has described himself as a psychogeographer and modern flâneur and has written about walks he has taken. In December 2006, he walked 26 miles from his home in South London to Heathrow Airport. Upon arriving at Kennedy Airport he walked 20 miles from there to Manhattan. In August 2013, Self wrote of his anger following an incident in which he was stopped and questioned by police in Yorkshire while out walking with his 11 year old son, on suspicion of being a paedophile. The police were alerted by a security guard at Bishop Burton College. He had asked the security guard for permission to cross the school grounds.

Self is 6' 5" tall, collects vintage typewriters and smokes a pipe. His brother is the author and journalist Jonathan Self.


  • 1991: Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize for The Quantity Theory of Insanity
  • 1998: Aga Khan Prize for Fiction from The Paris Review for Tough Tough Toys for Tough Tough Boys
  • 2008: Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction for "The Butt"
  • Self has been shortlisted three times for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award: in 2002 for Dorian, in 2004 for "Dr Mukti" in Dr Mukti and other tales of woe and in 2006 for The Book of Dave.



  • Cock and Bull (1992)
  • My Idea of Fun (1993)
  • The Sweet Smell of Psychosis (illustrated novella) (1996)
  • Great Apes (1997)
  • How the Dead Live (2000)
  • Dorian, an Imitation (2002)
  • The Book of Dave (2006)
  • The Butt (2008)
  • Walking to Hollywood (2010)
  • Umbrella (2012)
  • Shark (2014)
  • Phone (2017)

Short story collections

  • The Quantity Theory of Insanity (1991)
  • Grey Area (1994)
  • Design Faults in the Volvo 760 Turbo (1998)
  • Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys (1998)
  • Dr. Mukti and Other Tales of Woe (2004)
  • Liver: A Fictional Organ with a Surface Anatomy of Four Lobes (2008)
  • The Undivided Self: Selected Stories (2010)


Self has also compiled several books of work from his newspaper and magazine columns which mix interviews with counter-culture figures, restaurant reviews and literary criticism.

  • Junk Mail (1996)
  • Perfidious Man (2000) photography by David M. Gamble
  • Sore Sites (2000)
  • Feeding Frenzy (2001)
  • Psychogeography (2007)
  • Psycho Too (2009)
  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Prawn Cracker (2012)


  • The Minor Character – Self's short story was turned into a short film on Sky Arts which starred David Tennant as "Will".


External links

  • Official website
  • Will Self discography at Discogs
  • Will Self on IMDb
  • Will Self at British Council: Literature
  • Will Self article on why he writes in The Guardian
  • "The Principle", short fiction by Will Self
  • Will Self profile from the New Statesman
  • Will Self author page at Guardian Books
  • Will Self short interview at the BBC
  • Will Self audio interview at Salon

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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