05.24.12

The Will Self Book Club: How the Writer Became a God

For some bookish fans merely joining a writer’s club isn’t enough, they create a whole religion around their work as in the case of the Will Self Club. Henry Krempels goes inside their secretive rituals to understand why Will Self gets so much devotion.

Recalling her last Initiation, The Sovereign Grand Quiddity Inspector General of the Will Self Club sits in a cold room in The Russell Hotel, London, her hands clutching a cup of pomegranate tea. “We make sure there are lots of images of Will. I think it’s important to infuse his consciousness into our consciousness and evoke his energy.”

Sam Mills, as she is known to those outside this exclusive circle, has just completed her new novel The Quiddity of Will Self, which is the fictionalization of the real-life Will Self Club (WSC). On her left is historian, author, and public intellectual Kate Williams, under her guise as The Master of Psychogeography. The two of them, along with journalist Dylan Evans (The Sublime Prince of The Great Apes) hold primary positions, with 13 other members all also named after Self’s work.

Founded about two years ago, the WSC meets at least twice a year to discuss, recite extracts from, and “transcend” the works of the British writer Will Self, whose back catalog of literature was described in The New York Times as an “antic, satiric and often hilarious stable of what-if stories.” Poring over texts like How the Dead Live, My Idea of Fun, and Cock and Bull, the WSC is searching for “new ways to approach religion and religious experience.”

The idea was born out Mills’s own practice of reading intensely: “One starts to somehow evoke the energy and the time of the author.” Then by using Self’s work as a spiritual springboard she strives to attain an elevated state of consciousness.

Like many cults, the WSC are constantly recruiting fresh faces that will be ordained as “Neophytes,” through a process of initiation. On one occasion, Mills recalls the author James Higgerson hearing Self speak to him “while he lay in the coffin.” Another time they opened the ceremony with, “5ml Barrell” by Bomb The Bass, a song that features Self’s deep voice above a monotonous bass line. Every ceremony sees the participants donning long, black cloaks and reading from his work.

The rituals were researched on a visit to Mount Fuji but, according to the Inspector General, the details must remain a mystery. “There are certain things we can’t say because you need to be in a state of innocence to achieve the sublime. That’s the whole point,” says Mills. “But no one has been murdered yet,” she jokes. If initiation is anything like it is described in the novel, it is a glut of absinthe, nudity, and chanting, eventually climaxing in a Lynchian-style group orgy.

The interesting thing about the WSC is not just that it is spearheaded by highly respected figures—journalists, novelists, and historians who frequently make appearances on BBC programs–but everyone involved is also a writer. These figures at the forefront of cultural analysis spend at least two days of every year communally deifying another writer.

Kate Williams is such an example. Widely lauded for her new novel The Pleasures of Men, Williams, “a great Bible reader,” cites Mills’s enthusiasm as her reason for joining: “I think she has a unique and original way of looking at things,” she says. “There are quite a lot of literary salons these days and they can be very similar. This is her type of literary salon.”

The historical context of spirituality is also of interest to Williams, who believes this is “the ultimate book group.” She summons examples of the deification of literary figures like Dr. Johnson and Wordsworth but it is the fans “of Austen and Dickens, who believe they can feel the spirit within them,” she says. “It’s about possession of the author, but this is slightly different ... This is about transcendence.”

“There are certain things we can’t say because you need to be in a state of innocence to achieve the sublime. That’s the whole point,” says Mills. “But no-one has been murdered yet,” she jokes.

Although the "Masters" hold Self in high regard, it is clearly “spirituality” that has promoted the writer to the realms of Deity. “He’s not the favorite author of everyone. Kate has her literary idols as well, but she appreciates Will,” admits Mills, before adding, “but as a writer he breaks boundaries, genre, and language and that’s what we’re trying to do; transcend language.”

Self has often been praised for submerging his reader in a world that temporarily alters their perception. But far from endorsing this kind of thing, his novel The Book of Dave, satirizes the assumption that people should follow something just because it is written in a book. “We’re not planning on making our Ten Commandments out of him and it probably isn’t wise, you can’t extract that from his writing,” counters Mills. “Art has become a substitute for Religion, and that’s the big philosophical question we’re exploring.”

Other Extreme Fan Groups

1. The Don DeLillo Society

Set up to “encourage the scholarly study of and general interest in the work of Don DeLillo” the society maintains an academic focus on DeLillo’s work.

2. Hemingway Days Festival, Key West.

An annual festival which includes an ode to the Running of the Bulls, a Look-Alike contest, and a short story competition judged by Hemingway’s granddaughter.

3. Dickens Camp, University of California, Santa Cruz.

A weeklong camp that sees students, teachers, and scholars discuss the work of Charles Dickens. Every year the participants read one of his books, sleep in dormitories, eat in a communal cafeteria, but above all, talk Dickens.

4. The Johnson Society of London

This society was set up in 1928, to celebrate the work of Samuel Johnson. “Johnsonians” come from all over the world to attend regular meetings and subscribe to their own publication, The New Rambler.

5. Bloomsday

Since 1954, fans of James Joyce have annually celebrated the work of their favorite author with a marathon reading of Ulysses. Called Bloomsday after the book’s protagonist Leopold Bloom, the reading usually takes place in an Irish pub and is accompanied with a famous Irish alcohol.