Will Self, Fire and Ire

This is what I said to Will Self about his comments on Open Book: where he spoke about the threat to libraries – BBC (1:07 to 10:44:) – http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00zlbl3/Open_Book_20_03_2011/

Dear Mr Self,

I was astonished by what you said about libraries as it seemed that you do not really have an understanding of the role of libraries or what they do. I am the Chair of a group called Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries, a group which has been working hard to save our libraries from draconian 43% cuts.

I invite you to come and visit some of our libraries and some of our thousands of supporters and users of these libraries. Our libraries are heavily used, are a lifeline for many and the centre of community cohesion. Despite your claim that events do not happen in libraries, hundreds of them are held in our libraries each year, from the hugely popular summer reading challenge which 11,129 of our children took part in, to housebound clubs for the elderly, to numerous and varied cultural events.

You said that the internet should be excluded from libraries. It is hugely worrying that you are advocating such an approach. 4/10 in Glos don’t have the internet. libraries play a crucial role in bridging the digital divide. Information is information no matter the format + to exclude people from it because you think libraries should be about paper is astonishing. You said that the authors who are speaking up for libraries are being sentimental…I have to say I think that it is you who is stuck in the past!

These authors are speaking for libraries as they have a public profile and are in a position to voice the concerns and anger of those, like me, who are not being listened to by our elected representatives who are destroying our public libraries. I was extremely grateful when Joanna Trollope wrote a piece in support of us in the Guardian. It raised our profile and put pressure on a council who are not listening to us and who are making very ill-thought out, disproportionate and damaging cuts. Unlike you, Joanna Trollope is invited to do events in libraries a lot and has been very supportive of our libraries in Gloucestershire. Her piece was far from sentimental but she had listened to us and knows what libraries mean to ordinary people – unlike you it seems.

3 million visits were made to libraries in this county last year – which is far from insignificant. In times of economic crisis + high unemployment libraries are now more important than ever.

With friends like you libraries do not need enemies! I wish you had more regard for the people who rely on libraries when you made such ill-informed and damaging comments. I invite you to come and visit us in the hope you may change you mind.

On Mon, Mar 21, 2011 at 8:22 PM, Will Self wrote:

Dear Ms Anderson What exactly do you object to? That I said libraries didn’t hold enough events? Perhaps I was referring to my own local libraries – not all of them. That I said libraries should eschew the internet? You hardly answer the point I made, which is that the internet can be inimical to the concentration needed to read seriously. That I said that some of the authors prominent in the campaign received a hefty public subsidy through the Public Lending Right? This is merely a statement of fact. You should concentrate your fire – and ire – on the legislators, not me.

Yours &c. Will Self

I wrote

Mr Self,

I made it very clear what I object to. You, a public figure, undermining on the radio, the work of people trying to save important services, based on personal observations masquerading as generalisable fact.

You fail to answer any of the points that I made.

Our invite stands



I did start to compose a lengthy response to Mr Self but ultimately thought there was little point. He should listen on iPlayer to what he said rather than what he seems to think he said. The “legislators” he tells me to concentrate my “fire and ire on” are exactly the people who are not listening to me, hence high profile authors being welcome to step in….which was exactly the point I was making and one of the several points that he completely misses. Oh well, I tried.


17 responses to this post.

  1. Open Book: Mariella Frostrup speaks to Will Self about the threat to libraries – BBC (1:07 to 10:44:) – http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00zlbl3/Open_Book_20_03_2011/

    I wrote yesterday that “Will Self repeatedly attacked libraries, did not understand people who use them and comes across as a wealthy anti-library rich technophile who sees them, at best, as museums”.

    From his comment above, he also does not seem to realise libraries are large enough (in the main) to have separate computer sections and reading areas.

    To claim that authors are protecting libraries due to PLR is the worst kind of negative-thinking – surely authors want people to buy books? Also, what’s wrong with authors supporting a motor for literacy?

    Will Self should never have represented himself as pro-library – you can hear Mariella desperately trying to get him to say positive things about them.


    • I dunno, Frostrup kept agreeing with him. I thought she was terrible. Didn’t she even agree with him when he said that the argument that libraries need to be saved for our children was ridiculous at one point?


      • Well, perhaps I am being too nice to Mariella there. OK then, they’re both awful. What a blooming bad missed opportunity this radio interview was… unless someone wanted to put the boot into libraries of course?

  2. Hi
    I also wrote to Open Book. I said that there are many passionate young people running public libs (altho there remains a strata of ‘jobsworths’); internet in libs is almost old hat & libs were at forefront of getting people online / digital info, etc; my main concerns as journalist in the profession are e-book lending and alternative governance; librarian role has come such a long way from custodian of books; after all the lads that started Google went to library school… Or something like that.


    • Hi Debby,
      Thanks for your comment. There are “jobsworths” to be found in most places of work. It was disappointing to hear him use this as a lazy generalisation about librarians as a whole though. It was one of the many clear indications he knew not what he was talking about – I am not surprised he is rarely invited to library events! He said the “librarians he had talked to” I’d be interested to know who, if anyone, this was.


  3. Hello Johanna,
    Well done you and Debby, bearding Will Self. He normally uses words in a precise way but this time, as you say, it was a pretty lazy and pointless comment.


  4. […] to this Blog item : https://johannaboanderson.wordpress.com/2011/03/21/will-self/ […]


  5. The PLR thing is just strange I cannot understand his problem.


    The maximum PLR payment is currently all of £6,600 – a sum received by 230 authors in 2011.

    The way Will Self was speaking you would think the people concerned were scooping in millions!

    Luckily for him Will Self has several revenue streams from journalism / media work.


    • I totally agree Alan. Mr Self is either not very well informed or is intentionally talking nonsense. Another thing I have been pondering is what IS “serious reading”? He sounds like Gove.


  6. I found Will Self’s comments quirky, self-regarding and casually iconoclastic- rather like Self himself. He doesn’t seem to register that libraries are popular with over three hundred million visits a year. Nor does he register that the best libraries are a vital resource combining the extremely vital paper book and newer reading technologies. Where libraries are underused it tends to be not because of the inevitable march of technology but because of poor leadership from elected representatives: reduced opening hours, poor book stock, shabby buildings, reduced staffing, all of which are in the pipeline for the future, piling mistake upon mistake. We can have the kind of libraries of the future Self hints at but only on the condition that we keep the libraries of the present open!


  7. Posted by Andrew Givan on March 23, 2011 at 6:20 pm

    Thanks for the link to this Johanna, I would have tuned in on Sunday if I’d known he was on, as Will Self is always good for a listen and he is one of my favourite writers. In his defence he did say he uses libraries with his kids but you are right to say that he did a poor job of sticking up for them – when the media does put a spotlight on libraries we could do with a better champion. I saw him recently say that he doesn’t think there should be internet in libraries so this wasn’t a great surprise – I don’t think he has thought this one through – but he does make a serious point about a cultural change in how people are reading due to new technologies and other distractions which we should all be having. It probably doesn’t help that at the same time as internet was being introduced we have seen a kind of dumming down of the collections in some libraries due to librarian jobs being cut and other so called efficiencies like supplier led book selection – focussing on the populist titles and disregarding the best literature – someu people are seeing a causal relationship between the internet and a poorer service when the true story is more how alan gibbons describes. Anyway just to show that Will Self can be a better advocate for libraries than this check out this article in the Herald: http://www.heraldscotland.com/arts-ents/book-features/will-self-libraries-are-for-literature-not-lattes-1.928110


    • Thanks Andrew, I think that there are serious points to be made about cultural change and how people are reading due to new technologies but Self fails to make any here. “the internet can be inimical to the concentration needed to read seriously” What is “reading seriously”? I read things “seriously” via the internet as much, if not more, than I do paper material. His comments are far too simplistic, unrealistic and ill-thought out in my opinion. It was a wasted opportunity.


  8. […] also possible that he is seriously ill-informed; he did later confess to one angry librarian that “perhaps I was referring to my own local libraries – not all of them.” But he does raise some cogent points about core issues: ebooks and the question of what role there […]


  9. Posted by Sara on March 28, 2011 at 10:30 pm

    “Self regarding and casually iconoclastic” – spot on and so politely put!
    Surely “the past” is most of what makes up the present. It seems to be a stock weapon of modern con artists to dismiss anything valued, respected or useful as “nostalgia” “sentimentalism” etc etc. Recently, the era of regulated banking was refered to as “not wanting to return to some bowler hatted vision of the past”

    Libraries shouldnt have to defend themselves – Like many public services, they are one of the treasures of our culture. They are valuable in ways that can’t be quantified – for that time one found a book while browsing that wasnt looked for. Take that possibility away and what kind of country are we going to be living in?
    Libraries, like other public services might not be perfect, but until we have a government civilized enough value them, they are better than nothing. Because these discussions, biased to an imposed framework of whether services are relevant or wether its hanging on to the past and so on, is a bullshit wordspeak formula for deconstruction by popular consent. Its propaganda? clever salesman talk. Its the kind of talk, together with the chance of saving/making money, which fooled most of the people into thinking privatization of water, railways etc was a good idea when it was obviously and patently ridiculous.

    I can’t help feeling that the battle is half lost when we dignify this perversity by even opening our mouths. What to do? Direct action to cut through this manipulative bullshit.


    • Hi Sara,
      If we don’t open our mouths we have no control? influence? of the narrative. We have been quiet too long I think which is exactly why people like Mr Self are invited on to radio shows to talk about libraries and why we are having to fight so hard to defend them now,


  10. Posted by Sara on March 29, 2011 at 12:44 pm

    Thanks Johanna
    I’m not advocating silence, more a taking control of the narrative. People havent been silent for too long, rather that the government and most of the media set the agenda. What you call silence, I call having let ourselves slide into a culture where people having to justify Rights, Services, reapply for their jobs etc- one is instantly on the back foot by having accepted those perameters.
    What I meant is that engaging in argument Whether libraries are relevant, nostalgic etc and trying to defend on the agressor’s (so to speak)terms, leads you down a road where, with the help of spin etc, libraries will be proved in some way to be part of the jolly old England which is regrettably no longer relevant or affordable.

    How about WE are the narrative! Libraries, like the health service belong to US, the electorate. The government are our servants which we pay for, elected to govern, not hoodwink.

    Trouble is, for many years now in public life theres been a sneaking respect for the slimiest politician, the cleverest spin merchant, the bully. It s not just this government, its been going on since the early eighties.

    We are all behind libraries 100%, everyone, even those who don’t use them There has not been any popular people’s uprising against them. The government want to close them,probably for many nefarious reasons, but foremost because absolutely everything is expendable in the name of the banks clawing back “their” money. So lets not be hoodwinked into justifying libraries to people who don’t care. Rather lets fight for all our rights. This is supposed to be a democracy. What we’re finding out is that its a play house democracy run by the banking system. Direct Action!


    • “we are all behind libraries 100% everyone” I disagree. I also think it IS important to engage in the argument about whether they are relevant or not as that is the constant theme in the mainstream media and public discourse and will continue to be so if it is not challenged. How will defending them “lead down the road to proving they are no longer relevant?”
      I have worked really hard in Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries and in the founding of Voices for the Library as I felt we were not the narrative (for the reasons you give) and there was no alternative to the voices of celebrities and self styled consultants with their own agendas. We have a long way to go but people are starting to listen. I will go where ever that narrative is.

      What do you propose with this “Direct Action”?
      Discourse and action are not exclusive.


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