Will Self on homosexuality
Will Self isn’t your average straight white male writer. Time Out meets a man proud to be in touch with his homosexual side
The last time Will Self talked to Time Out, he’d just published the book he’d written in collaboration with photographer David Gamble, ‘Perfidious Man’, and was bemoaning the fact that Craig the carpenter from ‘Big Brother’ was being lauded as a gay icon while he wasn’t. Since then he’s published his ‘shameless reworking’ of Wilde, ‘Dorian’, not to mention ‘The Book of Dave’ and his latest, ‘The Butt’.
‘Dorian’ received some hostile reactions from gay critics (‘How dare a straight man touch our gay saint?’ etc) but really they were missing the point. Gay or straight, Self has always been a peculiarly queer writer. He describes himself as ‘the only gay writer in Britain who’s a practising heterosexual’. One of his first books, ‘Cock and Bull’ told the twin tales of a woman who grows a penis and rapes her husband and a man who grows a vagina and is seduced by his male doctor. It doesn’t get much queerer than that, but Self certainly has.
Are you over your jealousy of Craig the carpenter and his status as a gay icon?‘Ah, but where is he now? And of course that was before “Dorian” was published. [Laughs] Which also failed to make me a gay icon!’
Why was that?‘There were some very savage reviews from older gay men who felt that I had no right to trespass on that territory. But from what I understand, it was quite popular with some sections of the gay community, particularly younger readers who enjoyed the fact that it was a gay novel written by a heterosexual man. But in all honesty, I don’t think anybody was fooled. Except possibly me.’
Fooled in what way?‘It was a very interesting experience, writing that book. It was one of the most interesting experiences of my literary life, in that I really became quite gay writing it. Because I was writing gay characters and thinking through gay characters, I began to have gay erotic dreams. I began to find men much more attractive. I’ve never been uncomfortable with that component of my nature that is homosexual. I had a very happy and fulfilled homosexual period in my development, which I think a lot of heterosexual men have.’
But not a lot of heterosexual men talk about it. You seem quite comfortable talking about it, which is rare.‘But I was very happy with it at the time. I’ve never been unhappy with it, even if now my main attraction happens to be towards women. But such is my dogmatism that when I was writing “Dorian” and having these very strong gay feelings I began to think everyone must be gay. The funniest thing about this delusion – which I do realise now was a delusion – was that I then became convinced that “Dorian” was going to be an enormous success. James Joyce said that Oscar Wilde’s crime was that “The Picture of Dorian Gray” should have been an overtly gay novel. So that’s what I did and it didn’t do well. Compared to my previous books, it actually did quite badly. Initially, at least, paperback sales were about half of what I’d normally expect. So then it finally dawned on me. Everyone isn’t gay!’
Joking aside, how important is it for heterosexuals like yourself to talk about these feelings?'I think in a homophobic society, it really is incumbent upon the majority to liberalise, and part of that liberalisation means acknowledging the homosexual component in many people who might not identify themselves as gay. But I also realise that some people are really gay, and some people really aren’t. That’s just the way it is. But I do still enjoy “Dorian”. Of all my books, it’s the one I feel the most affection for. It does take me back to that part of my life. Even if I’m not actively homosexual, it’s fun to pick up on it again. I think the enjoyment of certain aspects of gay culture by heterosexual men is one of the great developments of recent times. Personally, I’m really comfortable with that. But I have to be really honest about this, and say that I’m also quite comfortable with what you might call my homophobia. Because I don’t resist the idea that I can be attracted to men, I also don’t resist the idea that I can find some aspects of gay culture pretty appalling. There are aspects of gay culture that really jar with me.’
As indeed they do with a lot of gay people.‘Absolutely. Actually, I’ve just written another gay novella. You see, I wouldn’t let it lie! An interviewer from Gay Times came and said: “I fucking hate ‘The Wizard of Oz’! I can’t bear Judy Garland, and one of the reasons I like your book is because it speaks to a different kind of gay man.” ’
So what’s the new book about?‘It’s called “Liver”, and there’s a novella in there called “Foie Humain” which is set in a thinly veiled version of The Colony Room club in Soho, and takes place between the ’60s and the ’90s. So it covers the Francis Bacon high gay bohemia of that period, but in a very jaundiced, strange way. It actually ends with the lead character speaking polari. It says of him that he speaks English as if polari was his first language. So it’s very steeped in that culture of the underground gay community, which I was sort of exposed to in my teens. I had a friend at Oxford who was a barman at The Colony Room in the ’70s. I saw all those people at the tail end of that period. For a naive 17-year-old, it was incredibly shocking.’
That underground gay culture has more or less gone now. What are we left with apart from shops selling designer pants?‘I think it’s wrong to target gay people in particular. It’s not just gay culture. It’s culture. The problem today is that difference is defined by products and by consumer decisions and no longer by political identifications. But it’s swings and roundabouts. The gains have been enormous. 'They really have. Even in the ten years or so that you and I have been having these conversations, the changes have been extraordinary. The last wedding I went to was at Camden registry office. We were waiting to go in and these four or five young men came in. They looked to me like very successful, restrained, cool East End hard men – well-cut suits, sharp haircuts. I never gave it a single thought. Then the registrar came and called their names and they went in and two of them got married. My gaydar seriously let me down on that occasion. But I actually think that is kind of incredible. Not that they were gay men who didn’t look particularly gay, though that was certainly true. But that there was a confidence about them, and a swagger, and that was really heartening to see.’Will Self will be reading from ‘Dorian’ and signing copies of his books at Polari on July 8.
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