Will Self @ Manchester Literature Festival


For a long time now, Will Self has been observing the ways that society has come to be constrained by the technologies that initially promised to free us. His last three novels – Umbrella (2012), Shark (2014) and now Phone (2017) – form a narratively linked trilogy, telling a story about the interplay between minds, madness and technology across the 20th century.

The opening chapter of Phone is set in the Hilton Hotel in Deansgate Manchester, ‘a mere amble’ from central library where Self is in conversation about his latest novel. Zack Busner, the protagonist of Phone, is mid-breakdown at the Buffet, suffering from the early-stages of Dementia, increasingly baffled by a world “where there could be such procedures as anal bleaching”. Busner, now 78, has followed Self throughout his literary progression since his debut novel The Quantity Theory of Insanity (1991). A psychiatrist by trade, Busner is used by Self as a literary tool to represent archetypes of modern society.

Self proclaims to the Manchester Literature Festival crowd that the carrying of Busner across his literary portfolio is an attempt to ‘fuse together disparate narratives to present a more cohesive representation of reality.’ Drawing on the philosophy of Michel Foucault, Self attacks the urge within basic psychiatry to diagnose individuals into mental health categories with objective conditions. Dissecting this urge to provide a categoric diagnosis says more about social conceptions then it does about the subjective state of any individual’s mental health.

The smart phone has arrived at a time in human development where there is a preoccupation with memory loss and a growing fear of social awkwardness. Alzheimer’s seems weirdly implicit in the development of the smart phone, as an instantaneous access to a cloud of information creates a laziness in the processing of any new information. The dopamine hit we get from interacting with the internet is rendering us slaves to our digital devices. The concept of having the whole history of humanity and knowledge in your pocket is satiable in theory, but the reality is that it has lowered the average attention span and made for more boring human interaction. A distinction must be made between information and knowledge, Google provides an ostensibly omniscient source of information but has the capacity to be stifling to human knowledge. Sometimes the process of racking your brain for information can be more productive than an instantaneous internet search.

Self exclaims that the singularity is already under way, so much of life is mediated through the smart phone that it alters the parameters of sociality and privacy. Use of the technology has become an extension of oneself that you barely need to think about using. This is no longer a moral matter, it is just a delusion that we are in control of our use of the technology. The smart phone has become imminent in human being, it enables us to direct our powers. There is fast becoming a confusion in modern society over what constitutes reality, an ontological crisis; things are no longer real until they’ve been mediated by some form of technology. Further technological growth has the capacity to runaway from human control, resulting in unfathomable changes to civilization.

The literary culture is one that is being left behind, reading novels is not an activity that is filtering into the lives of young people. Web-based artforms are progressively taking over the role of literature in young people’s lives. Self argues that the literary culture is becoming more and more precious as it begins to slide away.

Here are the three main points I took away from Will Self’s talk at Manchester Literature Festival:

(i) The internet is a clear barrier to creative writing. Creative writing is thinking in words, not describing the image that google is showing you. When writing a description you lose your poetic prose.

(ii) Wandering off aimlessly is a very subversive thing to do for one’s own personal economy. “No city should be so large that an individual is not able to walk out of it in the morning.” A flâneur is a figure of privilege and leisure, with the time and money to amble around the city at will. He is both stimulated and agitated by the buzz and hum of the city, the crowd; he is both part of and separate from the urban spectacle, both actor and observer.

(iii) A novel is the most impersonal, inclusive, and yet weirdly intimate place you can be.

The only criticism I took away from the evening was Self’s reluctance to break down his trains of thought into dialogue that was more digestible for the audience. Self’s use of language was decadent at times, and made me think of my English Literature at school drilling in George Orwell’s six rules for tight prose.


For more events at the Manchester Literature Festival, see their 2017 events schedule, found at:

Filed under: Written & Spoken Word