Terence Blacker



Colin Wilson: a confession from the snark pool

Yesterday I was challenged to a duel. Someone else told me I was a disgrace. I was described as  - I quote from memory  -  a literary hack lurking in a snark pool. My behaviour, it was said, made what Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand did to Andrew Sachs seem like civilised frivolity.

Just another day on the message-boards, then. Only the most recklessly foolish, or irredeemably insecure, of authors will spend too much time hob-nobbing with the below-the-line community, whether it is in a good mood (rare) or an ugly one.

Write your column and run: it’s the only way.

And I yet I have found myself worrying about the reaction to my latest Independent column. It was about the life of Colin Wilson, author of The Outsider  and many other books, who had died the previous week. Wilson had indeed lived the life of an outsider, disobeying all the basic rules of survival as a freelance writer and yet battling on as a writer, true to himself, for over half a century.

A life spent refusing to do the expected, declining to play the game when it would have been so much easier to join the literary establishment, has a sort of heroism to it, a point I made in the piece. It seemed to me a funny idea to consider the way Colin Wilson had conducted his career and write it up as a master-class for the ambitious young writer in what not to do. And there is, surely we can agree, something quite amusing about someone who talks of himself as a genius while also cheerfully discussing his panty fetishism with passing journalists.

The piece was written in neither a mocking tone nor a disrespectful spirit, but it is fair to say that it was read to be both those things, at least by those who wrote to the message-board. Not only was I not fit to tie Colin Wilson’s shoes as a writer and thinker (true), but I had been unnecessarily frivolous and insensitive at a time when there were those who were still grieving for him. He had a wife and family, someone wrote.

One gets used to getting scragged by readers’ reactions to a column, but it seemed to me that the tone of these comments was different from the usual rants. There was an air of genuine outrage, even personal hurt, to them. I was reminded of the letters and emails I received ten years ago having written a piece after Bob Hope died suggesting that his attitude to writers and comedy was a touch humourless. One email opened with the words, ‘You, sir, are a shit.’

Maybe I am. Perhaps anyone who writes a column for a period of time becomes de-sensitised to the effect of his or her words. Down here in the snark pool, everything in the daily news is potential material, and that includes famous people who have just died. I had always thought that those who have lived in the public eye could be discussed in a grown-up way after their death in a way that would not necessarily be appropriate at their funeral or among their nearest and dearest.

The reaction to the Colin Wilson piece made me wonder whether I am wrong about this, and that perhaps it should be agreed that, with few exceptions (Ronnie Kray, Saddam Hussein, Margaret Thatcher – the list would depend on one’s point of view), there should  be a decent period of time – a month or three months or a year  – before anything barbed, or less than solemn, should be written about someone who has died.

I’n genuinely sorry that my article was thought to be disrespectful to a hard-working and original writer. But I wonder, all the same, whether this twitchiness, this hyper-sensitivity to any perceived offence to the memory of the recently deceased, is a new thing, part of a 21st century sentimentality that is at its most sickly and overpowering around death.

Could it be that we are becoming as peculiar about bereavement as the Victorians were about sex?

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Article Comments

  1. Colin Stanley

    Dear Mr Blacker
    Many of the comments about your article were written by scholars of Wilson’s work…those who have actually read and understood it and appreciate his contribution to modern thought. Last month, for instance, I attended a conference at a London University in which a Professor of Philosophy gave a lecture on Wilson and many of the delegates expressed an admiration for his work.
    To write such an article showed not just disrespect to one of the most original minds of our time but ignorance, on your part, of his work. What other reason could you have had to publish that photograph, with its caption, other than to poke fun and sneer.
    I certainly agree with you about this latter-day superficial outpouring of mock-grief that seems to accompany the death of a celebrity but the reaction to your piece on Wilson was, largely, from people in the know (ie scholars)who were genuinely outraged at its sweeping trivialisation of his work.

  2. Phil

    Thanks for writing this, Mr Blacker. You are correct to be concerned about the reaction to your Indy piece because, far from being some kind of “21st Century sentimentality”, a strong percentage of commenters (all of them, even) were Mr Wilson’s personal friends. Bear in mind there were more who did not comment but were equally upset and angry. Your concern will hopefully ease the reaction.
    Warm Regards, as CW used to say.

  3. CW obituary – from The Independent (and others) | Colin Wilson online

    […] ill-timed attempt at humour backfired at The Indy, causing it’s author a little concern. Here is a refutation of most of the points […]

  4. Archon De Raul

    Surely discussing their panty-fetish is exactly the sort of thing a genius might do?

    I don’t get the inference: a genius cannot by definition have such a peccadillo? Or they can but would never mention it?

    I guess it did not occur to Barber that Wilson might have a sense of humour? Or maybe she just did not do her research. It is impossible to read his books for long without becoming aware of his many sexual proclivities – he is quite nonchalant about it, as are his readers, in fact it does not matter at all and is not remotely significant. Except to Barber and the author of this piece perhaps – I’d quite forgotten it all until it was mentioned in the wake of his death far more than any other ideas he had.

  5. Sandy Robertson

    I don’t think the reactions to the Wilson piece show sickly sentimentality like (say) the whimpering over Princess Diana’s death. I think the outrage was because CW had been getting a good, undeserved, kicking when he was alive, too, and the obituary sniping was a step too far. I note you are far more even-handed here than you were in the original article, where, for example, you accuse him of humourlessness yet criticise him for posing for funny pictures.The hurt from those who knew Colin is undoubtedly because he was one of the most amiable, generous men one could hope to meet.

  6. Tom Cole

    Hi Terence,

    I’m very much on the pro-Colin Wilson team and have seen the message challenging you to a duel, so I know exactly what sort of anger your piece has stirred up.

    I think a big part of the problem is that Fleet Street was not quick to respond to Wilson’s passing, and when it did the obituaries appeared to either be mocking or ignorant of Wilson’s achievements as a writer and thinker.

    Your piece – even if intended as gentle humour – just added to the torrent of what Wilson fans feel is disrespectful coverage of the man’s death.

    For my part, I thought you attacking a Great British Eccentric was a bit hypocritical, given your lauding of Willie Donaldson in your (excellent) biography. After all, it wasn’t only Colin Wilson who made a career of writing about sex, crime and weird things, now was it?

    You also have to understand that Wilson’s work genuinely means a lot to people – his philosophy, which is woven into every one of his books, is one that goes beyond the kind of navel-gazing of the logical positivists and the defeatism of the existentialists. Most people, who have never taken the time to read his work or bothered to think about the ideas Wilson wrote about, simply haven’t grasped what his ‘new existentialism’ was all about.

    And the mainstream media’s consistent failure to grasp the enormity of his work (which, at times, heads into somewhat speculative and even ‘religious’ terrioty) is something that rubs us Wilson fans up the wrong way.

    Look, I can see that there were definite quirks to Wilson’s life & personality. I’ve got my own foibles; so do you. And we fans have heard all this trotted out time and again while he was alive – I think we were hoping for a more respectful look at his work in death.

    The point is that, in spite of public and critical ignorance and apathy, Wilson strove on, never giving up and opening the minds of thousands – if not millions of people.

    Had it not been for Wilson, I’d never have heard of probably 80% of the writers and thinkers his books turned me on to. I wouldn’t be who I am today without Wilson, and the same can be said for many people.

    I think it’s a good thing you’ve written this piece on your blog though, as I certainly feel I better understand why the Indie article was done.

    But the outrage comes from the fact that Wilson’s message and achievements have been totally ignored in the immediate aftermath of his death in favour more nonsense about panties and horsewhips.

    So I’m not sure your question needs be as wide-ranging as all that; you just need to know that you chose a chronically misunderstood public figure with a very small but incredibly loyal and dedicated following to lampoon…

    -Tom Cole

  7. Tom Cole

    (PS, Think about how it made you feel when that odious oik Giles Coren did a piss-poor hatchet job on Willie Donaldson in that piece about the Henry Root…)

  8. Colin Stanley

    Dear Mr Blacker
    My comment on this seems to have disappeared. How strange!

  9. Kit Butler Reply
  10. Kit Butler

    Why don’t you print the messages that have been left here?

  11. Tony Shaw

    No, I don’t really see why there should be a period of respect after death: today at least, the death of a ‘known’ person is a time to access what that person has achieved – or not achieved, as may be the case.

    Having stated that, though, I have to say that I found your article on Wilson a little silly, although it was particularly accurate regarding the fetishism for panties: Lynn Barber’s interview article is hilarious.

    There does seem to be a small and loosely-organised lobby – which believes, against all reason, that Wilson was a genius – and which is interested in having Wilson re-accessed, even instating him in some kind of literary critical canon, which I believe is wholly wrong for the very brief reasons I gave in a comment to the Guardian obituary (mentioning what Stefan Collini has to say about Wilson). He is remembered, overwhelmingly, for the very messy The Outsider, which I recently briefly looked at and easily discovered a number of the mis-quotations Wilson wrote in his book and never bothered to correct: there are a great number of errors in The Outsider, and Wilson was astonishingly cavalier in his approach to noting quotations: this may have been a major cause of the original backlash. The important thing here, I think, is that these errors must not be forgotten. I believe Wilson is seen by some as a kind of champion of anti-academia due to his lack of qualifications, although at the same time they appear to want the academic establishment to recognise him. How, though, can it do so if Wilson writes in such an unscholarly fashion?

    I could go on to speak of Colin Wilson and Oswald Mosley, of his calling Beckett’s wonderful Waiting for Godot ‘fucking shit’, but maybe you get the picture: you’re quite right to suggest that in many respects he was his own enemy. But a serious literary critic? Never.

  12. Terence Blacker

    Apologies. I haven’t visited my site for a while and for some reason I wasn’y told there were comments pending.

  13. Terence Blacker

    Thanks for your interesting comment. As my blog probably indicates, I regret the way it was read and accept that the fact that it was seen as disrespectful and mocking is my fault. On the whole, I admire writers who go their own way and don’t play the tedious little games of the literary establishment and, genuinely, I wanted to make the joke in that direction. I’m less of a fan of Colin Wilson than you are, and that might have influenced the tome of the piece, but you’re right – he deserved a better send-off from the press generally, and my little piece didn’t help. Sometimes, faced with a decision about something to write about at eight o’clock in the morning, you make the wrong decision. Best wishes. Terence