Will Self: On the (Real) Death of the Novel

Will_Self_Author_Writer_Portrait_Photographer_Philip_Grey

“The literary novel as an art work and a narrative art form central to our culture is indeed dying before our eyes,” says Will Self. “Let me refine my terms: I do not mean narrative prose fiction tout court is dying – the kidult boywizardsroman and the soft sadomasochistic porn fantasy are clearly in rude good health. And nor do I mean that serious novels will either cease to be written or read. But what is already no longer the case is the situation that obtained when I was a young man. In the early 1980s, and I would argue throughout the second half of the last century, the literary novel was perceived to be the prince of art forms, the cultural capstone and the apogee of creative endeavour. The capability words have when arranged sequentially to both mimic the free flow of human thought and investigate the physical expressions and interactions of thinking subjects; the way they may be shaped into a believable simulacrum of either the commonsensical world, or any number of invented ones; and the capability of the extended prose form itself, which, unlike any other art form, is able to enact self-analysis, to describe other aesthetic modes and even mimic them. All this led to a general acknowledgment: the novel was the true Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk.

As I said at the outset: I believe the serious novel will continue to be written and read, but it will be an art form on a par with easel painting or classical music: confined to a defined social and demographic group, requiring a degree of subsidy, a subject for historical scholarship rather than public discourse. The current resistance of a lot of the literate public to difficulty in the form is only a subconscious response to having a moribund message pushed at them. As a practising novelist, do I feel depressed about this? No, not particularly, except on those occasions when I breathe in too deeply and choke on my own decadence. I’ve no intention of writing fictions in the form of tweets or text messages – nor do I see my future in computer-games design. My apprenticeship as a novelist has lasted a long time now, and I still cherish hopes of eventually qualifying. Besides, as the possessor of a Gutenberg mind, it is quite impossible for me to foretell what the new dominant narrative art form will be – if, that is, there is to be one at all.”

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The UK, Debt, and Transnational Governmentality

“Debt is the technique most adequate to the production of neoliberalism’s homo economicus” (70).

-Maurizio Lazzarato’s Governing by Debt

“People ‘want’ to stay in the Eurozone for the same reasons shopkeepers ‘want’ to remain under some mobsters’ protection racket. It’s not because of hope, it’s because of fear.”3

-Mihalis Panayiotakis

Maurizio Lazzarato’s contention, in Governing by Debt, is that “contemporary democracy has been circumvented by techniques of transnational governmentality whose active basis lies in finance capital” (2015, 237).  To the increasingly dated argument that democracy still offers a solution—that the voting public are responsible for their own predicament and capable of resolving it—the Brexit crisis offers a timely rebuttal: popular sovereignty simply no longer holds up to the transnational forces unleashed by global creditors—banks, investors, and unelected, supranational bodies like the IMF and the ECB. Though the UK had elected a coalition that promised to end the crippling EU measures under which they’ve suffered, they’ve found themselves with lackluster leaders trapped between further austerity and the prospect of an almost certainly equally devastating “Brexit” from the Eurozone. Wavering in a Twilight Zone between enacting article “50” or just muddling through incompetence and idiot leadership the UK seems to be floundering in a cesspool of racism on the far Right, while those on the Left seem to be quarreling over their own elected Labour party. What next?

Austerity is shredding the social fabric of its member nations. In Greece alone about 1,000 more people lose their jobs every day, and long-term poverty is knocking at the door of a new class of low-paid workers. According to Greece’s Institute of Labour, the average salary in the country is just 74 percent of the European average – and, what’s more, Greeks’ purchasing power has fallen by half since 2010. Many workers now have to live on as little as 4,500 euro per year, while the poverty line is set at 7,100 euro per year.2 I’m not sure of what the figures are in the UK?

Part of the problem is the EU represented the complete divorce of politics and economics, broke down the national sovereignty of nations without giving them any political recourse or redress. How did the leaders of these countries allow themselves to be enslaved in a debt system whose very impersonal and bureaucratic powers of financial capitalism and transnational Law put action, political action beyond reach? The UK wants to disconnect from this illegal and anti-human regime of power but will find itself isolated and constrained by those powers to the point of becoming a sort of new Cuba – isolated and trapped from trade and economic viability.

Europe’s corporate and financial leadership, who seem intent on punishing the nation have no intention of bailing them out of their predicament. What we’re seeing here Lazzarato’s work tells us is that the EU finance capitalism is a deftly orchestrated transnational scam that makes a mockery not only of democracy but of the very principle of national sovereignty on which Western modernity is founded. The UK has no real options and its current leaders no that. Isolated, without trade agreements, without financial backing, etc. the UK will become a an internal war zone over the coming years.

Lazzarato turns to that old fascist thinker Carl Schmitt who once predictably forecast what would happen in such systems where the political economy was divided: the nation-state will henceforth serve as a staging ground for the articulation of competing class interests, its sovereignty and internal cohesion fatally undermined by an “ethics of civil war” (2003, 54) only modestly veiled by the discourse of liberalism and democracy.

The EU economic system of Debt servitude has invented a perpetual debt colony out of everyone of its member states whose obligations could never be discharged; a wholesale expropriation of their public assets, now for sale to the highest bidder; and last but by no means least, an example to hold up to any other nation so bold as to place democracy before the juggernaut of capitalist valorization.  Humiliated and eviscerated, laid waste by a new extreme of financial violence, the remains of a sovereign nation—the cradle of Western democracy, no less—are left on display as a “warning to the others”: defy the banks at your peril. (Lazzarato)

Is the UK going to become an example to the other member states? Will it be sacrificed on the chopping block of economic necessity, a punishment for its defiance? What is next for the EU financial empire? Is the UK to be a scapegoat and example to the other members, left out in the cold of isolation, distant and alone unable to trade or barter with the EU?


  1. Maurizio Lazzarato and Joshua David Jordan. Governing by Debt Semiotext(e) (January 23, 2015)
  2. Cf. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/12/2012121974029736221.html
  3. http://www.resilience.org/stories/2015-08-10/debating-democracy-in-a-european-debt-colony