Will Self

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Will Self
Self in 2013
Self in 2013
BornWilliam Woodard Self
(1961-09-26) 26 September 1961 (age 62)[1]
London, England
OccupationNovelist, journalist
EducationUniversity College School, Hampstead
Christ's College, Finchley
Alma materExeter College, Oxford
Notable worksThe Book of Dave
Notable awardsGeoffrey Faber Memorial Prize
Aga Khan Prize for Fiction
Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize
Kate Chancellor
(m. 1989; div. 1997)
(m. 1997; div. 2018)
RelativesSir Henry Self (grandfather)
Peter Self (father)
Jonathan Self (brother)

William Woodard Self (born 26 September 1961) is an English writer, journalist, political commentator and broadcaster.[3][4][5] He has written 11 novels, five collections of shorter fiction, three novellas and nine collections of non-fiction writing. Self is currently Professor of Modern Thought at Brunel University London, where he teaches psychogeography.[6]

His 2002 novel Dorian, an Imitation was longlisted for the Booker Prize, and his 2012 novel Umbrella was shortlisted.[7] His fiction is known for being satirical, grotesque and fantastical, and is predominantly set within his home city of London. His writing often explores mental illness, drug abuse and psychiatry.

Self is a regular contributor to publications including The Guardian, Harper's Magazine, The New York Times and the London Review of Books. He currently writes columns for the New Statesman and The New European. He has been a columnist for the Observer, The Times, and the Evening Standard. His columns for Building Design on the built environment, and for the Independent Magazine on the psychology of place brought him to prominence as a thinker concerned with the politics of urbanism.

Self is a regular contributor to British television, initially as a guest on comic panel shows such as Have I Got News for You. In 2002, Self replaced Mark Lamarr on the BBC comedy panel show Shooting Stars [8][9] for two series, but was himself replaced by comedian Jack Dee when the programme returned in 2008.[9] He has since appeared on current affairs programmes such as Newsnight and Question Time. Self is a contributor to the BBC Radio 4 programme A Point of View,[10] to which he contributes radio essays delivered in his familiar "lugubrious tones".[11] In 2013, Self took part in discussions about becoming the inaugural BBC Radio 4 Writer-in-Residence,[11] but later withdrew.[12]

Early life[edit]

Self was born in Charing Cross Hospital[13] and brought up in north London, between the suburbs of East Finchley and Hampstead Garden Suburb.[14] His parents were Peter John Otter Self, Professor of Public Administration at the London School of Economics, and Elaine Rosenbloom, from Queens, New York, who worked as a publisher's assistant.[15][16][17] His paternal grandfather was Sir Albert Henry Self. Self spent a year living in Ithaca in upstate New York.[14]

Self's parents separated when he was nine, and divorced when he was 18.[18] Despite the intellectual encouragement given by his parents, he was an emotionally confused and self-destructive child, harming himself with cigarette ends and knives before beginning to experiment with drugs.[19]

Self was a voracious reader from a young age. When he was 10, he developed an interest in works of science fiction such as Frank Herbert's Dune and the works of J. G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick.[20][21] Into his teenage years, Self claimed to have been "overawed by the canon", which stifled his ability to express himself. Self's use of drugs increased in step with his prolific reading. He started smoking cannabis at the age of 12, progressing by way of amphetamines, cocaine and LSD to heroin, which he started injecting at 18.[22] Self struggled with mental health issues during this period, and aged 20 became a hospital outpatient.[23]

Self attended University College School, an independent school for boys in Hampstead.[24] He later attended Christ's College, Finchley, from where he went to Exeter College, Oxford, reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics and graduated with a third class degree.[22] At Oxford, he was editor of and frequent contributor to an underground left-wing student newspaper called Red Herring/Oxford Strumpet, copies of which are archived in the Bodleian Library.[25]


Self at a 2002 book signing

After graduating from Oxford, Self worked for the Greater London Council, including as a road sweeper, while residing in Brixton.[26] He pursued a career as a cartoonist for the New Statesman and other publications and as a stand-up comedian.[26] He moved to Gloucester Road around 1985. In 1986 he entered a treatment centre in Weston-super-Mare, where he claimed that his heroin addiction was cured.[22] In 1989, "through a series of accidents", he "blagged" his way into running a small publishing company.[27][28]

The publication of his short story collection The Quantity Theory of Insanity brought him to public attention in 1991. Self was hailed as an original new talent by Salman Rushdie, Doris Lessing, Beryl Bainbridge, A. S. Byatt and Bill Buford.[22] In 1993, he was nominated by Granta magazine as one of the 20 "Best Young British Novelists".[29] Conversely, Self's second book, My Idea of Fun, was "mauled" by the critics.[30]

Self joined the Observer as a columnist in 1995.[1] He gained negative publicity in 1997 when he was sent to cover the election campaign of John Major and was caught by a rival journalist using heroin on the Prime Minister's jet; he was fired as a result.[31] At the time, he argued "I'm a hack who gets hired because I do drugs".[32] He joined the Times as a columnist in 1997.[1] In 1999 he left the Times to join the Independent on Sunday,[1] which he left in 2002 for the Evening Standard.[1]

He has made many appearances on British television, especially as a panellist on Have I Got News for You and as a regular on Shooting Stars. Since 2008 Self has appeared five times on Question Time. He stopped appearing in Have I Got News for You, stating the show had become a pseudo-panel show. Between 2003 and 2006, he was a regular contributor to the BBC2 television series Grumpy Old Men.[33]

Since 2009, Self has written two alternating fortnightly columns for the New Statesman. The Madness of Crowds explores social phenomena and group behaviour, and in Real Meals he reviews high street food outlets. For a May 2014 article in The Guardian, he wrote: "the literary novel as an art work and a narrative art form central to our culture is indeed dying before our eyes", explaining in a July 2014 article that his royalty income had decreased "dramatically" over the previous decade. The July article followed the release of a study of the earnings of British authors that was commissioned by the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society.[34]

Self is a professor of Modern Thought at Brunel University London. He was appointed in 2012.[35]

Literary style[edit]

Self in 2007

Self has given his reason for writing as follows: "I don't write fiction for people to identify with and I don't write a picture of the world they can recognise. I write to astonish people."[36] "What excites me is to disturb the reader's fundamental assumptions. I want to make them feel that certain categories within which they are used to perceiving the world are unstable."[37]

When he was ten, he developed an interest in works of science fiction such as Frank Herbert's Dune and those of J. G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick.[20][21] Self admires the work of J. G. Ballard, Alasdair Gray and Martin Amis.[38][39] He has said that he previously admired William Burroughs but went off him.[40][41] He has cited influences such as Jonathan Swift, Franz Kafka,[42] Lewis Carroll[43] and Joseph Heller[44] as formative influences on his writing style.[39] Other influences on his fiction include Hunter S. Thompson.[45] Self credits Céline's book Journey to the End of the Night with inspiring him to write fiction.[46]

Zack Busner is a recurring character in Self's fiction, appearing in the short story collections The Quantity Theory of Insanity, Grey Area and Dr. Mukti and Other Tales of Woe, as well as in the novels Great Apes, The Book of Dave, Umbrella and Shark. Busner is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst practising in London and is prone to self-promotion at the expense of his patients. He is often the antagonist of the stories he appears in, although not always with villainous intent.

Among Self's admirers was the American critic Harold Bloom.[47] Journalist Stuart Maconie has described him as "that rarity in modern cultural life, a genuine intellectual with a bracing command of words and ideas who is also droll, likeable and culturally savvy."[48]

Political views[edit]

In the 2015 UK general election Self voted Labour in a general election for the first time since 1997. In May 2015, he wrote in The Guardian: "No, I'm no longer a socialist if to be one is to believe that a socialist utopia is attainable by some collective feat of will – but I remain a socialist, if 'socialism' is to be understood as an antipathy to vested interests and privileges neither deserved nor earned, and a strong desire for a genuinely egalitarian society."[49] In March 2017, he wrote in the New Statesman: "Nowadays I think in terms of compassionate pragmatism: I'll leave socialism to Žižek and the other bloviators."[50]

In July 2015 Self endorsed Jeremy Corbyn's campaign in the Labour Party leadership election.[51] He said during a Channel 4 News interview that Corbyn represents a useful ideological divide within Labour, and could lead to the formation of a schism in the party.[52]

Self is a republican.[53]

Personal life[edit]

Self's mother died in 1988.[27] He was married from 1989 to 1997 to Kate Chancellor. They have two children, a son, Alexis, and a daughter, Madeleine. They lived together in a terraced house just off the Portobello Road.[54] In 1997, Self married journalist Deborah Orr, with whom he has sons Ivan and Luther. In 2017, Orr and Self separated, and Self was living in a rented flat in Stockwell.[2] Orr died on 19 October 2019.

Self has stated that he has abstained from drugs, except for caffeine and nicotine, since 1998. In 2024 he wrote: "I gave up smoking – and indeed, consuming nicotine in any way, shape or form – almost six years ago”.[55][56] In the same column he revealed that he had been diagnosed with myelofibrosis. It is a progression of the blood disease polycythaemia vera with which he was diagnosed in 2011.[57][58]

He sent his younger children to private schools after they experienced bullying at state schools in Lambeth.[59]

He has described himself as a psychogeographer and modern flâneur, and has written about walks he has taken.[60] In December 2006, he walked 26 miles (42 kilometres) from his home in South London to Heathrow Airport. Upon arriving at Kennedy Airport he walked 20 miles (32 kilometres) from there to Manhattan.[55] In August 2013, Self wrote of his anger following an incident in which he was stopped and questioned by police in Yorkshire while out walking with his 11-year-old son, on suspicion of being a paedophile. The police were alerted by a security guard at Bishop Burton College. He had asked the security guard for permission to cross the school grounds.[61]

In September 2018 Self was accused of "mental cruelty" by Orr in relation to their divorce, in a series of posts on Twitter.[62]

Self has discussed his Jewish heritage, by way of his mother, and its impact on his identity.[63][64][65] In 2006, Self 'resigned' as a Jew as a protest against the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.[66] In 2018 he stated in an interview with the BBC that he had rethought his position, due to the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Britain.[67]

Self is 6 feet 5 inches (196 cm) tall,[68] collects vintage typewriters[69] and smokes a pipe.[70] His brother is the author and journalist Jonathan Self.[71]

Self became a vegetarian in 2019.[72]


In 2016, the British Library acquired Self's archive; the collection is a hybrid archive of paper and born-digital material.[73] The Papers of Will Self are divided into two parts: family papers and personal and literary papers. The papers can be accessed through the British Library catalogue.[74]




Short story collections[edit]


Self has also compiled several books of work from his newspaper and magazine columns which mix interviews with counter-culture figures, restaurant reviews and literary criticism.


  • The Minor Character – Self's short story was turned into a short film on Sky Arts which starred David Tennant as "Will".


  1. ^ a b c d e "Will Self, Esq Authorised Biography – Debrett's People of Today, Will Self, Esq Profile".
  2. ^ a b Appleyard, Bryan (21 May 2017). "Calling the modern world to account". The Sunday Times. Retrieved 8 July 2017. (subscription required)
  3. ^ Thorne, Matt (11 August 2012). "Umbrella, By Will Self". The Independent. London.
  4. ^ Dowell, Ben (18 January 2013). "Will Self in talks to become Radio 4 writer-in-residence". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 18 January 2013.
  5. ^ Hamilton, Ben. "A Merry Dance: Will Self Takes on Modernism". Los Angeles Review of Books.
  6. ^ "Professor Will Self".
  7. ^ "Will Self".
  8. ^ Self, Will (2 January 2009). "Shooting Stars".
  9. ^ a b Dowell, Ben (3 April 2009). "Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer line up new series of Shooting Stars". The Guardian. Retrieved 19 March 2018.
  10. ^ Self, Will (February 2017). "A Point of View". Retrieved 19 March 2018.
  11. ^ a b Dowell, Ben. "Will Self in talks to become Radio 4 writer-in-residence". The Guardian. Retrieved 19 March 2018.
  12. ^ Dowell, Ben. "Will Self backs out of talks to be Radio 4's writer-in-residence". Archived from the original on 19 March 2018. Retrieved 19 March 2018.
  13. ^ Guardian Staff (18 September 2018). "'Would that all journeys were on foot': writers on the joy of walking". The Guardian – via www.theguardian.com.
  14. ^ a b Charney, Noah (9 January 2013). "Will Self: How I Write". The Daily Beast. Retrieved 9 January 2013.
  15. ^ M. Hunter Hayes Understanding Will Self, p.7
  16. ^ Kinson, Sarah (9 May 2007). "Books, Culture, Will Self (Author)". The Guardian. London.
  17. ^ M. Hunter Hayes (2007). Understanding Will Self. University of South Carolina Press. p. 7. ISBN 978-1-57003-675-0.
  18. ^ Self, Will (15 June 2008). "Biography (Books genre), Books, Culture". The Guardian. London.
  19. ^ "Living Will". Archived from the original on 28 September 2007. Retrieved 5 July 2007.
  20. ^ a b Self, Will (14 November 2009). "My hero JG Ballard by Will Self". The Guardian.
  21. ^ a b Barker, Nicola; Moorcock, Michael; Roberts, and Adam (27 August 2017). "The Philip K Dick book I love most…". The Observer.
  22. ^ a b c d Finney, Brian (2001). "Will Self's Transgressive Fictions". Postmodern Culture. 11 (3). doi:10.1353/pmc.2001.0015. ISSN 1053-1920. S2CID 144272638.
  23. ^ John Freedman (11 April 2014). "Will Self". Interview Magazine.
  24. ^ Have I Got News For You?, Series 13 episode 1
  25. ^ "Search result showing location of Oxford Strumpet in Bodleian Library". Bodleian Library. Retrieved 9 February 2021.
  26. ^ a b "You ask the questions: Will Self". The Independent. London. 6 June 2001.[dead link]
  27. ^ a b Jacques Testard (9 August 2012). "Larger Than Life: An Interview With Will Self". The Paris Review.
  28. ^ "The Book of Jobs". prospectmagazine.co.uk.
  29. ^ Specialist Speakers Profile. "Will Self". specialistspeakers.com.
  30. ^ No 242: Will Self The Guardian (1959–2003) London 16 September 1993: A3.
  31. ^ Wroe, Nicholas (2 June 2001). "Addicted to transmogrification". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 9 February 2007.
  32. ^ "Will Self (Author), Books, Culture". The Guardian. London. 22 July 2008.
  33. ^ "Why are we so grumpy?". 5 January 2005 – via news.bbc.co.uk.
  34. ^ Alison Flood (8 July 2014). "Authors' incomes collapse to 'abject' levels". The Guardian. Retrieved 12 July 2014.
  35. ^ Brunel University. "Will Self". brunel.ac.uk.
  36. ^ M. Hunter Hayes Understanding Will Self, p.1
  37. ^ Finney, Brian (May 2001). "Will Self's Transgressive Fictions". Postmodern Culture. 11 (3). doi:10.1353/pmc.2001.0015. S2CID 144272638.
  38. ^ M, Chris (12 January 2006). "Alasdair Gray: An Introduction". Will Self.
  39. ^ a b McCrum, Robert (29 September 2002). "Interview: Will Self". The Observer.
  40. ^ Guardian Staff (22 July 2008). "Will Self". The Guardian.
  41. ^ "Opening up and inside out". The Economist. 6 September 2012.
  42. ^ "Kafka's Wound". Archived from the original on 11 August 2019. Retrieved 1 September 2019.
  43. ^ "Curiouser and curiouser". The Independent. 11 August 2001.
  44. ^ Self, Will (17 August 2018). "Will Self: 'I read as many as 50 books at once'". The Guardian.
  45. ^ Taylor, Kate (21 February 2005). "'Truth is weirder than any fiction I've seen ... '". The Guardian.
  46. ^ Will Self (10 September 2006). "Céline's Dark Journey". The New York Times. Retrieved 17 July 2010.
  47. ^ Bloom, Harold (2002). Genius : a mosaic of one hundred exemplary creative minds. New York: Warner Books. p. 648. ISBN 0-446-69129-1. There are a few affinities, except perhaps with the admirable Antonia Byatt, in the generation after: novelists I also now admire, like Will Self, Peter Ackroyd, and John Banville.
  48. ^ Stuart Maconie. "My People". Radio Times 2–8 February 2013, p.125
  49. ^ Self, Will (1 May 2015). "Will Self: Oscar Wilde, champagne socialism and why I'm voting Labour". The Guardian. Retrieved 10 May 2018.
  50. ^ Self, Will (1 May 2015). "Will Self: I was no fan of New Labour – but Brexit requires original thinking Corbyn can't provide". New Statesman. Retrieved 10 May 2018.
  51. ^ Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: "Jeremy Corbyn: Will Self and John McTernan debate". Channel 4 News. 30 July 2015. Retrieved 15 July 2017.
  52. ^ Vinter, Robyn; Cockburn, Harry (7 January 2016). "All these celebrity Jeremy Corbyn fans might surprise you". London Loves Business. Archived from the original on 2 May 2018. Retrieved 1 May 2018.
  53. ^ Self, Will. "Why the monarchy must go".
  54. ^ Martin, Sandrea (7 June 1994). "A certain sense of Self". The Globe and Mail (Canada).
  55. ^ a b McGrath, Charles (7 December 2006). "Will Self's slow walk into downtown New York". The New York Times.
  56. ^ Self, Will (2 January 2024). "Multicultural Man: Oh, and I have cancer". The New European. Retrieved 28 January 2024.
  57. ^ "Will Self: The trouble with my blood". TheGuardian.com. 21 October 2011.
  58. ^ "When Polycythemia Vera Turns Into Another Cancer". Retrieved 28 January 2024.
  59. ^ "I'm a diehard Leftie but my son is going to private school". 14 October 2008.
  60. ^ Azad, Bharat (12 November 2007). "Books". The Guardian. London.
  61. ^ Tom Foot (18 August 2013). "Questioned for taking a country walk with his son?: Even Will Self couldn't make it up Dismayed author blames fear of paedophiles for warping attitudes". The Independent. London. Retrieved 19 August 2013.
  62. ^ "Will Self accused of cruelty in divorce row with Deborah Orr". The Times. Retrieved 24 August 2019.
  63. ^ "Will Self". Interview Magazine. 3 November 2014.
  64. ^ Self, Will (14 April 2017). "Call me British, American, Jewish, Londoner – just don't call me patriotic | Will Self". The Guardian – via www.theguardian.com.
  65. ^ "Will Self: Who are you to call me Jewish?". www.newstatesman.com. Archived from the original on 1 September 2019. Retrieved 1 September 2019.
  66. ^ Self, Will (6 November 2014). "How I Stopped Being a Jew by Shlomo Sand and Unchosen: The Memoirs of a Philo-Semite by Julie Burchill – review". The Guardian.
  67. ^ "BBC Radio 4 - A Point of View, A New Anti-Semitism". BBC.
  68. ^ The Calgary Herald (Alberta) 23 July 2006 Sunday Final Edition Meaning of Masculinity: It's the subject of almost everything Will Self writes
  69. ^ "Diary". London Review of Books. 5 March 2015. Retrieved 26 February 2015.
  70. ^ "Will Self". Tatler. Archived from the original on 8 July 2012. Retrieved 22 June 2012.
  71. ^ Mullan, John (15 June 2007). "Guardian book club: Will Self". The Guardian. London.
  72. ^ "Will Self's fantasy dinner party — a vegetarian feast served by Margaret Thatcher". Financial Times. 22 January 2022. Retrieved 18 February 2023.
  73. ^ "Will Self's archive acquired by the British Library - English and Drama blog". blogs.bl.uk. Retrieved 13 May 2020.
  74. ^ The Papers of Will Self, archives and manuscripts catalogue, the British Library. Retrieved 13 May 2020

External links[edit]