Will Self, Harry Potter, Literary Snobbery, and Architectural Salvage

Unqualified Analysis / Wednesday, August 22nd, 2018

Give me a nerdy cultural moment any day. Especially if it has to do with Harry Potter.

The other day I read a post by a fellow blogger in which he discussed writer Will Self’s interview in the Guardian. Along with Self bragging that he read up to 50 books at a time (massive eye roll), among them Michel Houellebecq’s Submission and Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals (mine eyes have rolled out of my head), he had a few (gasp) snobby things to say about Harry Potter.

“All that bullshit about how the Harry Potter books were going to turn a generation of otherwise uninterested boys into literary mavens – we could’ve done without that. The truth is that the books ushered in the dumb kidult era we’re currently having to endure, with illiteracy rates significantly on the rise for the first time in a century!”

Yep, so Oxford-educated super middle-class white guy blames illiteracy on Harry fucking Potter. Like Harry Potter’s accessibility made a generation of kids say, “No, I won’t read boring old Steinbeck. Maybe before I’d discovered that books are fun I would have. But now, instead, I’ll opt for illiteracy!”

How obtuse and cruel. Adolescents aren’t illiterate because HP turned their brains to jelly. They’re illiterate due to a heartbreaking confluence of poverty and social forces. Though it’s possible Will was just trollin’, it’s pretty disappointing to use your Guardian-level influence to mock the vast socioeconomic forces that lead to adult literacy.

It’s not lost on me that he was stirring shit. And that a lot of people on the internet had never heard of him and wouldn’t have given him a first and especially not a second thought if he hadn’t claimed he read 50 books at a time and called everyone in my generation (u caught me, I’m a millennial and I’m obv miffed) a kidult.

So he got what he wanted! My twitchy little fingers and my filled-with-fluff millennial brain took me all over the internet, the true home of my stupid generation. I read all the Wikipedia articles on him! I read his interviews! There may have been some reddit-searching though I’m pretty sure that’s not highbrow! I tried to read his longer essays but my jellybrain could not handle all his verbal acrobatics!

I did eventually settle on reading one of his short stories, “Architectural Salvage,” because no matter how much of a tizzy I’m in I still genuinely love, like, expanding my literary horizons or whatever.

So in an abrupt pivot from complaining to explaining, let’s talk about “Architectural Salvage” and why Will Self thinks he’s better than JK Rowling. As a disclaimer, I’m not doing this to be mean. I don’t do things to be mean. It’s genuinely curious to me that this writer expresses so much scorn for Harry Potter. I want to know what he thinks great literature is, and what better way than be reading his work?

What did I think about “Architectural Salvage”?

Ah shit. As cranky as I am, I still found this to a sort of fascinating short story. In like a very emotionally stunted sort of way. Had I not been on a mission to understand what makes literature literary, I probably would not have finished it. That’s not to say it’s bad or poorly written. It was just a real bummer and not in a magnificent way like a Cormac McCarthy novel.

Have I been ruined by the fact that Harry Potter actually made me experience emotions other than a bland ennui? And now I like expect the feels from literature and when I don’t get them I feel mildly betrayed or like someone’s been jerking me around for their own depraved enjoyment? Maybe.

The Plot

“Architectural Salvage” is about a lady, Jane. She’s a teacher. Her husband died years ago. She has two adult children.  She goes to a party and mocks the people around her who are getting older. When she returns home, a woman – newly released from a nearby psychiatric ward – is sitting on her stoop.

The woman, referred to as Poor Thing, announces that she’s an escaped emissary from the future set to warn people that machines take over the world. In the last paragraph, we get to see from Poor Thing’s point of view: she thinks Jane is already part of the machine.

Highbrow lit makes you think. Really hard. Too hard.

The most striking aspect of the story, the aspect (besides pure spite) that kept me going, was the use of random italics throughout the text at key moments. I even listened to Self’s audio recording of the story for clues. His voice got a little lower and softer sounding in the italics section, so I figured he was going for…lady voice? I don’t know.

The italicized sections reflect (I think) Jane’s actual thoughts rather than the narration of her thoughts. She seems to see everything in sort of elevated stuffy language and tired cliches: “a shadow of her shadow,” “A trick of the light,” “my cosy bower,” the “cold light of day.” The rest of the writing is unique and doesn’t fall prey to cliches and worn phrases.

All this gimmick really revealed about character was that Jane is in a mental or intellectual rut of sorts. I feel like it wasn’t really a necessary device because it’s made clear through the rest of the narrative, but I definitely see the appeal.

I found this gimmick more annoying than useful up until the end, when I realized another possible and preferable interpretation. So the Poor Thing thinks that Jane is actually already commandeered by the “machine,” right? Maybe we’re meant to interpret the italics as programming from the shadowy Machine that controls our lives? Or maybe our habit of narrating the world around us to shape our perceptions suitably is…something. Something. Ugh. Idk. I’m tired of thinking about it. My jellybrain hurts.

Real literature uses really big words

What else, what else? Well, I learned some words. These words are very relevant, easy to use, and really just flow naturally into everyday conversation:

Ruches – A gathered ruffle or pleat of fabric used for trimming or decorating garments. v. ruched, ruch·ing, ruch·es.

Entablature -a horizontal, continuous lintel on a classical building supported by columns or a wall, comprising the architrave, frieze, and cornice.

Verdigris -a bright bluish-green encrustation or patina formed on copper or brass by atmospheric oxidation, consisting of basic copper carbonate.

There were more. But you get the idea.

I guess real literature is not perfect…

  • Pet peeve: Jane describing another female character by her breasts. (“Her massive breasts swelled as she tootled on her champagne flute…”)  This provokes a longgg sighhhh moment for me every time. Cis male writers frequently try to write from a female perspective and just wind up describing boobs. C’mon guys, you’re better than this.
  • Stulted dialogue. But I’m always willing to forgive things like that when there’s this theme of a machine orchestrating everything. I mean, machines can’t write good dialogue, right? It all fits! Here’s an example of some dialogue:

“Of course, the Machine has long since upgraded itself to the point where we’re surplus to its requirements, but it keeps us alive nonetheless. We’re not quite sure why, but one hypothesis is that it views us as one of the Earth’s original features, so maintains us for decoration, even as it radically redesigns the entire planet.”

That’s like exactly how people speak, amiright?

Why I’ll stick with Harry Potter

There’s a lot to like in “Architectural Salvage.” It’s a clever concept. Parts of it are compelling. But million-dollah words aren’t enough to capture my fancy.  Literary gimmicks are exhausting and just make me feel stupid (though it’s possible I am, in fact, just stupid). I prefer literature that opens me up to the world instead of forcing me to backtrack a thousand times trying to figure out what sort of clever thing the author is cleverly doing now. Like many readers, I gravitate to stories that make me feel things, not stories that make me second-guess my analytical prowess.

As someone who spent their college years in an English Literature program, I can comfortably say I’ve been exposed to my share my literary snobbery. I used to visibly flinch whenever a boy at a cool party brought up David Foster Wallace when I just wanted to talk about the Red Wedding. I’m giving old Will Self a bit of a hard time, but he really hasn’t said anything new or exceptional. It’s a boring trope: intellectual university types hate Harry Potter.

You know that I love Harry Potter. I can safely say that I’ll take J.K. Rowling’s realistic and funny dialogue, accessible language, and straightforward storytelling any day. But that’s just what I would say, right? Because I’m programmed by the machine? Or maybe I’m just an intellectually lazy kidult who’s too daft to even give this blog post a proper conclusion?

Jellybrain out.

13 Replies to “Will Self, Harry Potter, Literary Snobbery, and Architectural Salvage”

  1. Pop-Fiction vs Literature, like Hollywood vs documentaries. I like them both, but I’d never group them. It’s the expectations that set them apart. That may have been what your critic failed to take into account. And it did sound like bait.

    1. Yeah, I think you’re right. I honestly hesitated in writing the post at all since it seemed like he was engaging in some troll tactics but…it was too ridiculous a statement for me to ignore. Pop fiction doesn’t undermine literature so why do literary types seek to discredit genre fiction?

      1. If the man was genuine, I’d posit jealousy. However, nothing any of us ever write will ever be as popular as Rowling’s creation. Which, would be like being jealous of Bill Gates, or paper for its love of ink. Name dropping was probably his motive.

  2. “Her massive breasts swelled as she tootled on her champagne flute…”

    Eyes rolling cartwheels.

    ‘I’ve been exposed to my share my literary snobbery. I used to visibly flinch whenever a boy at a cool party brought up David Foster Wallace when I just wanted to talk about the Red Wedding.’

    DFW fanboys are a weird lot. I mean I like Infinite Jest, sure – why do some people have to be so weird about it?

    1. I’m not sure. Honestly, I think DFW’s essays are really incredible, and they’ve blown my mind on more than one occasion. Really, there’s nothing wrong with DFW; there’s just this certain aggressive subset of his readers that are out to shame the rest of us. DFW’s stuff is sometimes really hard to comprehend (speaking for myself here) so I think maybe its inherent “difficulty” gets it caught up in all sorts of elitism?

  3. I read one of Will Self’s books a long time ago – Great Apes I think – and decided not to bother again. He takes one conceit and works it to death for the length of an entire novel. Plus he gives a bad name to snobs.

    1. Yes – that’s how I felt about all the italics in “Architectural Salvage.” I understood that he was trying to do a THING, but it wound up being very distracting and taking away from the story.

    1. I completely agree! I mean, I’ve even gone out of my way to read her other books, like A Casual Vacancy. And the series she wrote under the Robert Galbraith pen name. I feel like she brings so much of her unique sense of humor and her gorgeous descriptions into her writing. Not to mention, her characters are always incredible. I can’t imagine hating on her!

    1. I agree. Self’s reckless, classist BS about illiteracy really got to me. And I think literary snobbery in general is so, so harmful and alienating.

      Also, I like to think I’m down with acronyms but I had to Google (well, urban dictionary) PITA. Which now seems really obvious.
      Thanks for your comment!

        1. Completely agree. And that’s very thoughtful of you! I don’t personally mind swearing but my WordPress settings seem to – I’ve had lovely comments accidentally sent to trash due to *language*.

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