Register Monday | September 26 | 2022

Will, his self, and “I”

A primer on British author Will Self, twenty-first-century Kafka

With a foot in journalism, a hand in restaurant and architectural reviews, a head that talks for the BBC, a mind that spins existentialist fiction and a notorious personal and professional past in Britain, it's a wonder that Will Self is still a virtual unknown in North America. Perhaps it's because Britain has been the focus of his writing and the locus of his antics. Perhaps it's because existentialism is not a wildly popular philosophy in North America, where black-and-white dichotomies continue to dominate post-modernism's grey territory. Perhaps it's because, as Matt Kavanagh points out in a profile of the author ("Self Examination," Issue 19), Self is a writer first and a celebrity second in North America (the reverse is true in Britain).

No matter the explanation, Self is slowly gaining more space on North American bookshelves; with this summer's North-American release of his fifteenth book, The Book of Dave, he may finally worm his way into coffee-shop chit-chat and wine-and-cheese banter on this side of the pond.

To help readers grasp what makes Will Self tick, Maisonneuve brings you a point-form mini-primer on this twenty-first century Kafka.

• Self began drinking at fourteen and shooting heroin at seventeen, abusing both substances for over twenty years until he quit cold turkey at the age of thirty-eight.

  • He confessed to using heroin in the bathroom of John Major's campaign airplane while covering the Tory candidate's 1997 election campaign for the Observer.
  • He did smoke vast amounts of pot after cutting out alcohol and hard drugs from his daily diet, though, claiming that "a couple of Masai warriors had to pitch bales of the stuff into the basement every day."
  • Over the years, Self has been diagnosed as depressive, hyper-manic, manic-depressive and borderline schizophrenic and reported that a stint on Prozac rendered him temporarily insane.


  • Self's promiscuity was once so well-known that he was referred to as "the rock star of the literati, with his own groupies"-making a subsequent three-and-half-year abstinence stint almost as amazing as his recovery from heroine addiction.

• Acknowledging the fuzziness of boundaries when it comes to identity, Self has taken seriously Cocteau's claim that all artists are hermaphrodites. Regarding his own gender, Self reports, "I am a very girly person trapped inside a large, threatening male body."

  • His book Dorian was initially intended to be a film script based on Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. Self based his exploration of what it means to be a man on interviews with a female-to-male transsexual.
  • Self turned himself into a woman, specifically his mother's daughter, in How the Dead Live, in part to explore his feminine side and in part simply to experience what it's like to be a beautiful woman.

• Yes, he is sufficiently noteworthy to have his own entry on Wikipedia.

  • Regarding his frequent use of uncommon words, Self replies: "To me, a writer saying he doesn't use [a dictionary] is like a mechanic saying he doesn't use a socket set."
  • Self considers Wittgenstein the greatest philosopher of all time. Although French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre may seem like a more obvious influence on his work, one suspects Self has a healthy respect for Wittgenstein's belief that the meaning of life has little to do with enjoying one's self.
  • Self once wrote a 12,000-word novella in six days while on display in a reality-art exhibit.
  • Basing himself on his first-hand knowledge of addiction, Self worked with Amir Amirani to make Addicted to Arms, a documentary that treats Britain's arms-trading habits as a bonafide addiction.