There’s a big difference between reading a story you’ve written and performing it. I’ve learned this the hard way these last 12 months by taking part in a number of spoken word events, including telling true stories live.
From my experiences as an audience member at countless author readings, writers are often guilty of reading head down, and fail to modulate their voice or make any eye contact with their audience.
I’ve watched lots of authors read at various festivals down the years. One author and one reading stands out – a performance by Will Self.
It was 1994. He’d gone stellar after publishing Quantity Theory of Insanity, followed by Cock and Bull, and My Idea of Fun. He was touring his new book, Grey Area. My copy was the artful, spiral bound edition the publisher had clearly spent a fortune producing, and I also had a dog-eared copy of Cock and Bull for him to sign.
He performed his short story Scale at Waterstones in Leeds, and what amazed me was that he did it from memory – no notes, no autocue that I could see, even acting out sections of the story. I was a student among a packed crowd and I was rapt.
It was a blistering performance and I followed his every written word for several years afterwards. In 1997, he famously made headlines when he was sacked by the Observer for taking heroin on John Major’s election campaign plane. It was just the surreal sort of event that one of his fictional characters could have been guilty of.
His spectacular debut, Quantity Theory of Insanity, a book of short stories about drugs, sex, violence, mental health and the trials of urban living, seemed to strike a chord. The wit and wordiness was reminiscent of Martin Amis, and there were rumours that it was him all along, writing under the alias of Self – afterall, John Self is the hero of Amis’s superb Money, and could an author clearly addicted to clever word play really be called Will Self?
Somewhere along the way I fell out of love with Self and his work. He admits he struggles with plot and character. Elaborate imagery, clever ideas, and a nihilistic world view are his strengths. To my mind his best book to date was How the Dead Live, which expanded on a story from Quantity Theory where the dead just move to live in another part of London.
At worst his fiction is unstructured, overblown and is designed to be read with a thesaurus. At best he’s a clever satirist who doesn’t write fiction for people to identify with, but to astonish people.
Umbrella in 2012 was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, and saw the return of Zack Busner (again from Quantity Theory) and got lots of rave reviews, but I couldn’t face 400 pages of stream of consciousness narrative. Shark in 2014 got even higher praise. Maybe I’ll get to them one day.
Many still know Self best as a TV-show panellist – the weird one who did a few seasons on Have I Got News for You – and more oddly Shooting Stars with Vic and Bob that prompted my brother to decide I look and talk like him, and that is a thing of high amusement for him.
Of course, as a journalist too he’s prolific and highly regarded, and I’ll still always pick up a newspaper or buy a magazine that carries his work. For me there’s no better example of the best and worst of him than in Port magazine.
I bought the much-lauded launch issue in Spring 2011, which carried a pretty remarkable Self short story, a re-visiting of Nabokov’s Lolita with an even darker twist, titled At the Adelphi.
And he was the cover star for the fifth anniversary issue of the magazine in Spring 2016, with Will Self interviewing Will Self – the journalist poking fun at the novelist’s ego. It’s either genius or naval gazing, I’m not sure. There’s a teaser video here.
As a writer still very much a novice learning the trade, I’ll continue to look to Will Self for how not to rest on laurels. He remains a case study in how to reinvent yourself as a scribe and stay relevant and avoid slipping out of the public consciousness.
And my fascination stems from his live reading of that short story Scale all those years ago when I learned lessons I’d call on more than 20 years later.