Will Self: copywriter from the dark side

In this edited version of Gordon Comstock’s interview with Will Self, which appears in the current issue of CR, the novelist discusses his grudging admiration for the ad industry, a subject matter that often crops up in his fiction

Illustration by Samuel Rogers,

In this edited version of Gordon Comstock’s interview with Will Self, which appears in the current issue of CR, the novelist discusses his grudging admiration for the ad industry, a subject matter that often crops up in his fiction…

There’s a powerful anti-literary strain in most creative departments, writes Gordon Comstock. 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,” he says. “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.”

. . .

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.”

. . .

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.”

. . .

This is an edited extract of Gordon Comstock’s two-page interview with Will Self that appears in the August issue of CR, out now. CR subscribers can read the interview in full, here

Gordon Comstock is a freelance copywriter and blogs at notvoodoo.blogspot.com. More details on Will Self’s latest book, Liver, are available at the penguin.co.uk website. See also Self’s blog at will-self.com.

Illustration by Samuel Rogers, samuelesquire.blogspot.com.

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