Decoding Will Self, hipster hate, bad art, and self-publishing

Will-Self-by-Polly-Borland-copyI write in response to Will Self’s New Statesman article: Will Self: The awful cult of the talentless hipster has taken over.

It’s the use of the word “hipster” that sets off the alarm bells.

I’m not sure whether Will Self used the word. Or knows it. (It’s only two syllables long, after all.)

No, it’s likelier given that it only appears in the title and captions that it was added by sub-editors with their little fingers on the ailing pulse of what’s left of culture since the World Wide Web came along democratizing access to publishing tools and somehow implicitly cheapening the wisdom and worth of “talents” like Mr Self.

Nevertheless his article is mean-spirited and selfish with a small “S”.

It’s not supposed to be a serious article. We know this because in the opening scene-setting paragraphs Mr Self establishes his persona for the duration of the piece as that of the Grumpy Old Man whose costume he’s so neatly slipped into since kicking his drugs habit and gradually running out of ways to write about it in a way that’s interesting to anybody else. (For a point of reference, see this New Statesman article and most of his others.)

He’s asking some kids to turn some music down. But then reflecting in a couple of colourful lengthy sentences about how all the rubbish things in the world – like people playing trip-hop while you’re trying to eat a waffle – are actually his generation’s fault for embracing capitalism and counter-culture at the same time. As a premise it needs some fleshing out, but let’s ignore the flimsiness of it; people tend not to question Self much, so he gets away with this sort of triteness routinely.

Of course, everything Self writes is so cloying in tone, with syrupy ironic condescension, that it leaves a critic very little room for manoeuvre anyway. So perhaps it’d be better if, rather than critiquing Self in the style to which he’s presumably at some point been accustomed, I copy-edit his article into the concisest reasonable word-count while simultaneously trying to discern the actual meaning behind the drawling polysyllabic tide of guff emanating from his outbox:


Will Self: I am old
This week Will worries young people might be younger than him.
July 2014: I am in a place. The decor is postmodern. I drink coffee and eat a waffle. Someone plays Massive Attack. It reminds me I used to take drugs. I was young. But now I am old.
I ask them to turn the music down. Because I don’t like being reminded I am old. They won’t. My son apologies. [Editor’s note: to you or them?] I say “Actually it’s my fault” and glaze over as I feel an article coming on. It’s not going to be a good one. So I’ll pitch it to a website.
I am old. Before I was old things were okay. Now they aren’t. Everything is a metaphor for this. (Including my article.)
I remember what year it is. But this doesn’t make me feel young. It makes me feel old. I recall Nathan Barley. That was funny. I wish I’d written it. Walking down Brick Lane makes me feel old. All the colours. I wish I’d written it. Every city has an area that makes me feel old. Dickheads.
[Editor’s note: feels lacking. Insert ironic but completely irrelevant quote from mass murderer here?] All these dickheads make me feel old. Portlandia is good. I wish I’d written that too. The song “Being a Dickhead’s Cool” is good. I wish I’d written that. Perhaps if I wish hard enough, I did write it. (That almost worked with all those Martin Amis books.) Reuben Dangoor, who actually wrote it, has written nothing else. (Where’s his “The Book of Dave”?)
I am old.
The internet makes me feel old. Anyone’s allowed in. Not like my club. It also lets anyone write. Not like my paper. I wish I could grow a beard. I wish I could wear shorts. I am old. My beard is grey. I am old. My legs are pockmarked with needle holes.
Anyone can write now. With the internet. Dickheads. [Editor’s note: really great article, Will. Can you chuck a few longer words in?]


Self aside (and really, one might as well at this point, literally put Will Self aside; or better yet fire him from a canon), the rabid snowballing mistrust for quirky-dressing urban youths termed “hipsters” (or, as Self so unoriginally calls them, “dickheads”) has long been signified in that H-word as spiteful hate speech. Much like that so long employed for poor people, called out famously by journalist Owen Jones; specifically in the word “chav”.

People use these words not descriptively, but prescriptively. And they tell us more about the speaker than the subject.

In some dim distant past the word “hipster” at least was not so loaded with negativity. Now it’s become one of those jokily tossed-around words that’s actually laden with pretty mean thoughts wherever it’s deployed. In this article it’s attached to the sort of people who live in arty areas of cities and commit the terrible crimes of riding bikes and having beards and… you know, enjoying themselves. There was the notion in both cultural artefacts cited in the article (Nathan Barley and that Dickhead song; both from years ago) that for such people creativity was important. But that their right to create was somehow abused by their lack of talent. Bearing in mind talent doesn’t really exist (“blah, blah, but Michelangelo” arguments notwithstanding). Only cultural consensus driven by the elites. So we’re left with the uncomfortable truth that the mean-spiritedness that runs through all of these examples (but especially in the “Hipster”-toting article) is not some truth-bombing wisdom come to save us from bad art. It’s a petulant lashing out by people in positions of power against those who they fear might possibly be able to take some of their cake.

Nathan Barley is funny and well-observed. But really, would you rather be Dan Ashcroft than the eponymous “idiot”? (The docucomedy about the “rise of idiots” predated the ubiquity of “hipster”.) Sure, Barley is presented as quite nasty as well as dim, but so is Ashcroft. They all are. And Nathan Barley is at least happy, and makes other people happy. Barley as a program is the sort of grimy satirical dystopia typical of Brooker’s (and Morris’s) artistic output. But, like Black Mirror or Brass Eye, it’s worth its weight in pixels not because of the wholesome goodness it ushers in in its wake, or the truth it imparts; but because of its originality and subversive approach to artistic execution.

And that Dickhead song was fun and self-aware, and not especially nasty.

Chuffing off puff pieces about how people look funny and don’t meet your requirements for being “creative” and have ideas above their station is just plain nasty. Not to mention lazy. Not to mention dangerous.

W*ll S*lf, if we can pretend for a moment you’d lower yourself to paying attention to someone writing for the fun of it rather than straining out a bit of tortured prose to a deadline for waffle money: I’ve been called a “hipster” just the once in my life. This was on a comment below the first poetry video I uploaded to YouTube. I had dared to express myself artistically without the say-so of a major elite institution (merely a capitalist window into the hideous uncreative world) and thus faced the wrath of the faceless. You probably wouldn’t like it, but then, it’s digital, so you couldn’t waste the earth’s resources by deliberately leaving it on a train halfway through, which is what I had to do, guiltily, to your awful, awful novel.

But what would I know of good art? I am “pretentious hipster scum.” I have a beard. I am young, if you squint.

Uploading videos of one reading one’s self-published poems in a shed is no doubt something awful born of the commodification of the avant garde and well worth spoiling your own enjoyment of a waffle for. Even if it is your own fault it happened. For inventing the internet by ripping off Martin Amis. For taking smack and writing about it endlessly. Even if, no wait, especially if the poem is about the freedom of the creative act unfettered by the influence of moneymen.

(Give me a minute I’ll find a Pol Pot quote to lengthen, but not really define, my argument.)

Funnily enough though, S*lf and I are not worlds apart. (Only generations.) As “pretentious hipster scum” I thought it’d be a good idea to interview myself about all my poems once I’d finished recording them. As a sort of promotional tool; or, more likely, a postmodern prank drawn out far too long to be funny to anyone but me.

S*lf later did exactly the same thing to promote his most recent novel published by Penguin.

The only difference was that I thought of the idea, and did it all myself; W*ll quite obviously had the idea foisted on him by someone else. Probably a young creative type.

I hope they had a fucking enormous beard.

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