Interview: Will Self

Will Self understands how words make people do things. Here, he discusses his grudging admiration for the ad industry with our very own priestly columnist…

There’s a powerful anti-literary strain in most creative departments. The reasons for it are manifold. Firstly advertising is an industry that prizes talent over education. Whatever ‘it’ is, you can’t get it from reading books, so why bother? Second, copywriters sometimes leave advertising to become novelists, whereas very few novelists are just hoping to make enough cash to do the MA at Watford. This makes those that are left behind a bit touchy. Thirdly, as Dave Trott is so fond of saying, “we are in the business of mass communication”. Since your average consumer doesn’t read books, every time you do you become a little less like her. Less able to communicate with her, so the theory goes.

One-man agency
No, if you read anything but Stieg Larsson, anywhere but on a train, people will mistake you for a planner. This is a shame, I think, because there are certain kinds of literary author we might learn a lot from. 

Will Self is one of them. I take a long lunch from my freelance gig and meet him at Bar Italia. In his Paul Smith shirt, jeans and loafers, he looks every inch the creative director of a boutique ad agency. And in a way this is true. Self is a one-man agency that only sells one product, its own product. His campaigns are ubiquitous, embracing radio, TV and press. And successful: I knew there was a writer called Will Self long before I’d read a word of his work. But this hardly matters, like any great brand you can have an opinion about him even if you’ve never tried the goods.

He orders his coffee black, sits with his back to Frith Street and lights a cigarette held in a plastic filter, a la Hunter S Thompson.

“So young man,” he says, “what do you want to talk to me about?”

Well, firstly I want to ask him about a short story called Prometheus from his last book of fiction, Liver. It’s set in an ad agency, Titan, which he locates somewhere near Brick Lane, in a building equipped with “conversation pits of the kind favoured by imprisoning reality TV shows” and “pods where the creatives [are] coddled by a warm albumen of piped in pop culture”. I feel like I’ve worked there, but what made him want to write about it? “It was obvious a theme [for Liver] was emerging. A modern retelling of the Prometheus story is an obvious feed. I thought, what’s the equivalent of incredible divine inspiration in the modern world? Well it’s kind of advertising in that one line can generate vast amounts of economic activity. There’s something magical about that.”

A killer end-line
Magical, but obviously not alien to him; his description of agency life is confident. In fact advertising is in his blood. His brother ran a DM agency called Self Direct (“Brothers divide everything up. He did money.”) and his uncle worked on Madison Avenue. “He seemed like a very exotic creature indeed,” Self tells me, “very loud clothes, a great agate ring and an Indian head mother of pearl dollar clip. Obsessed by gold, a real wiseacre. My mother deeply disapproved of him, as a sort of wide-boy. He was enormously successful, he died a couple of years ago and his obit was in the New York Times. He created the Pilsbury Dough Boy.”

Although he describes himself as “an old commie” and “a sort of Unabomber of the city”, something like a grudging admiration for the industry persists in his work. “A killer end-line,” says the narrator of Prometheus, “should be like a garrotte applied to any consumer’s faculty for making a rational calculus of price and benefit.” Clearly Self believes in performativity, the power of words to make people do things. Advertising has made a deep impression on both him and, by proxy, his characters. Simon Dykes, borne away by the chimp orderlies in Great Apes finds himself thinking, “Monkeys. Like a fucking PG Tips advert. Monkeys in shorty white coats.”

The novelist and ad man
“But this is the world we live in,” says Self, “The average adult Briton watches four hours of television per day. So any responsible naturalistic novelist who wanted to write about ordinary people in Britain would have to write long scenes which went: ‘They watched Ashes to Ashes. He went and got some Pringles from the cupboard. She farted.’ You never do read that because novels are written by people who read too many novels about people who read too many novels.”

Even if he recognises their importance, Self won’t do ads. He mentions that he was once approached by an agency on behalf of a big car brand. “They wanted a public intellectual, a writer.” He told them to ask Salman Rushdie.

Gingerly I offer a titbit of my own, a pet theory: advertising creatives are the priests of capitalism, mediators between the public and the ideology of the time. “Sure,” he says, “it’s like what Mary Douglas the anthropologist said about money: that it’s only a special­ised form of ritual, so you could argue that advertising is part of a wider ritual. It mediates between value and ideas. Between the individual and the commonality. Yes, that’s just what you are, I mean look how priestly you look.”

I straighten my dog collar and point out some of the things we might have in common, the novelist and the adman. The love of epigrams, the twisting of cliché, the use of animals behaving uncannily – all Self tropes, all things that a copywriter might well have in his book. It’s a notion I can imagine certain writers would bridle at, but Self only nods philosophically, “Well, maybe I am a copywriter that’s gone to the dark side, I don’t know.”

As he cycles off into Soho I consider that our jobs are more similar than they might look. As Dave Trott certainly wouldn’t agree, we are both “manifesting the psychic content of late capitalism”. I just happen to do it for brands. The only difference, it occurs to me, passing a billboard bearing one of my headlines, is I’m probably slightly more widely read.

‘Gordon Comstock’ is a freelance copywriter and blogs at



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