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August 14, 2006

Colin Wilson

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Here's a great tale: the electrifying rise and almost instant fall of the British writer Colin ("The Outsider") Wilson. Acclaimed as a brilliant talent while still in his early 20s, he became rich and famous very fast. But he was critically eviscerated within a couple of years and has been ignored (and/or treated like an embarassment) ever since. I've never read a word of Wilson's myself, but The Wife, who has, says that Wilson can be a lot of fun to read, in a wild-eyed/autodidact kind of way.

Talk about a bulletproof ego! Despite the blows he has taken, Wilson has gone on to publish more than 100 books. "I suspect that I am probably the greatest writer of the 20th century," he says. "In 500 years time, they'll say, 'Wilson was a genius', because I'm a turning-point in intellectual history."



posted by Michael at August 14, 2006


Here's some online essays by Colin Wilson.

I remain a fan. Litcrit goes out of style every ten years or so. Often it is fun to read out-of-style criticism because it makes you challenge current expectations of what a review/criticism ought to do.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on August 15, 2006 1:36 AM

I think most successful artists need enormous egos, a lot of creating art is basically blowing soap bubbles out of pure imagination, and you need a tremendous conviction that *you are special* to keep up the effort of doing it through the inevitable rejection. The value of someone like Wilson is that he lets us see the pure ego amplified to the point of ridiculousness, without much success or talent to shield it. You see one ingredient in the artistic stew rendered raw, and it's pretty funny.

By the way, the quote in the article from the NY Times book review ("Wilson walked into literature like a man into his room") is a pure rip-off of something Trotsky said about Celine. Trotsky was right about Celine though.

Posted by: MQ on August 15, 2006 2:32 AM

Robert -- Thanks, I'll have to give him a try. How can he *not* be fascinating?

MQ -- That's pretty much the case The Wife makes for Wilson as well! Trotsky liked Celine? That's wild, especially given what a reactionary Celine was.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 15, 2006 8:16 AM

"In 500 years time, they'll say, 'Wilson was a genius', because I'm a turning-point in intellectual history."

I am curious, of any of the super-geniuses that we have seen (i.e. Einstein, Newton, Shakespeare, Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Mozart, Bach, etc.), did any make these kind of statements?

I know that Mozart was confident, as was Beethoven. Newton had some unusual thoughts about himself, but did any make statemtents like this before they were regarded as great?

Posted by: Ian Lewis on August 15, 2006 9:00 AM

Colin Wilson has been frozen out by the literary establishment because his interests led him away from the kind of books accepted by the Times Literary Supplement and into unorthodox realms.

For more than 30 years Wilson has explored psychical research and the paranormal. I've found most of his work in the field both informative and readable. No matter how "far out" the subject, he states the facts and claims and subjects them to his own analysis. Although he has come to acknowledge the reality of paranormal phenomena because of the overwhelming evidence, he can be bracingly skeptical about particular claims.

It's true that he has a publishing conveyor belt and tends to recycle material, but that is no problem when you pick up any one or two of his books. Michael, I know you are interested in spirituality, and while psychic phenomena aren't necessarily spiritual, they do show that there are dimensions that the ordinary senses can't perceive but are no less real for that. I think you would find Colin Wilson a good guide to the mysterious regions that lie hidden all around us.

Posted by: Rick Darby on August 15, 2006 9:11 AM

Very interesting. Had never heard of Wilson.

Posted by: jult52 on August 15, 2006 9:16 AM

I've been reading his fiction for years. Very entertaining stuff.

Posted by: Rick Coencas on August 15, 2006 9:25 AM

It's really astonishing that someone at The Times would use the Trotsky quote (re: Celine) in reference to Wilson and not give credit to Trotsky. It's one of those quotes that even many of the semi-educated (like me) are vaguely familiar with. Just one more instance of the disgrace The Times has become.

Posted by: ricpic on August 15, 2006 10:33 AM

When I went off to college at age 16, I was at first powerfully impressed by "The Outsider," probably because of the elitism expressed by Wilson. After doing a little reading in more serious authors, it occurred to me there was nothing there in Wilson's case. What is really interesting is how Wilson revealed the British creme-de-la-creme of literary criticism had no sense at all. They were soon deservedly embarrassed and humiliated by Wilson's craziness. The lesson for me was an important one: intellectuals can be laughably stupid, including especially celebrated intellectuals.

Posted by: Thucydides on August 15, 2006 12:11 PM

Colin Wilson. I'd quite forgotten him. But, as the linked article indicated, he was hot stuff back in '56.

I was a Junior in high school at the time and feeling my pseudo-intellectual oats. We got word of him via Time magazine which had an article about him along with a photo of long-haired (for the time), bespectacled, black-turtleneck-wearing Wilson.

I'm fuzzy on this, but at one point I either bought a copy of The Outsider or else checked it out from the library. Never read much of it because I didn't really understand the issues and wasn't as familiar with the people he cited as I should have been.

I had the same problem 15 years later when John Rawls' A Theory of Justice hit the big time.

Two conclusions can be drawn. First, I'm just not capable of digesting long works about Philosophy. Second, when the Critical Establishment goes into laudatory herd-mode, there's a very good chance they're full of it.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on August 15, 2006 12:23 PM

I read "The Outsider," but I have almost no memory of its contents. (It was set aside for me by this guy, Claude Saxon, who worked in a bookstore right next to the college I was attending. He had seen that I liked your typical adolescent stuff -- Beats, Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, Sartre etc., and thought I would enjoy Wilson's work.) Despite having no real memory or opinion of Wilson's work, I've kept "The Outsider" on my bookshelves as a relic of my youthful literary enthusiasms.

Speaking of literary bravado -- writers convinced (prematurely) of their own greatness -- hasn't William Vollmann proclaimed that his name should be uttered in the same breath as Faulkner and Shakespeare?

Posted by: James on August 15, 2006 4:53 PM

I find William Vollman amazingly boring and self-involved given how lurid his topics are, but boy can he write...and write...and write. Lots of pages.

Trotsky was a surprisingly good and thoughtful literary critic. For instance, he couldn't stand socialist realism. A really brilliant man, although he of course underestimated Stalin. Note that this does not necessarily mean his beliefs were "right" or moral.

Not only did he admire Celine greatly, he also predicted that Celine would turn toward facism, because of the darkness of his underlying vision.

BTW, ricpic, the quote was from 1956, so the NY Times today has little to do with it.

Posted by: MQ on August 15, 2006 5:31 PM

Shakespeare, for one, had some notion of how long his work might endure, at least if we judge by a trope in one of his sonnets. He promises the beloved one to whom the sonnet is addressed that she (he?) will live in memory 500 years. I think that Lincoln was similarly self-aware, though, save for his temperance address which he gave in his late 20's, he was very discrete about it. Indeed, part of his genius was psychological in that he never aroused envy in others: people might love him, pity him, hate him, but no one ever wished they were in his shoes.

Posted by: Lea Luke on August 15, 2006 10:30 PM

I started to read a remaindered copy of Wilson's biography of Wilhelm Reich over ten years ago, but it seemed very flat-footed in execution and didn't generate any excitement about the subject. Several years ago I read some kind of autobiography Wilson wrote. I can't remember much about it except that he values what he terms "peak experiences" an awful lot. He hasn't produced one for me so far, that's for sure.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on August 16, 2006 12:25 AM

All of the comments here talk about Colin Wilson as though he were no more than a litterateur who was briefly fashionable and then failed to repeat his initial success. But the importance of his work is not measured by The Outsider or whatever minor fiction he has turned out since.

As you can see from this list of his books at, he has largely devoted himself to writing about the paranormal in the past 30 years. And, in my estimation, he has done so with erudition, insight, and intelligence. If you think the subject is rubbish or it doesn't interest you, that's your right. But don't judge him on the basis of irrelevant or marginal writing he's done.

As for the quoted boasting, maybe he is egotistical, but that's an ad hominem argument in connection with his published works. Incidentally, although I haven't met Wilson, I have a friend in London who knows him well and with whom I've talked about him, and never got the impression that Wilson goes around telling everyone how wonderful he is. It's just possible that the interviewer misquoted him.

Posted by: Rick Darby on August 16, 2006 12:37 PM

When I was in college, I was browsing around the used bookstore with a friend. I came across a copy of Wilson's The Space Vampires and pointed out the title in amusement. My friend said that despite the lurid title, it wasn't a bad book. So I bought a copy, and he turned out to be right.

Posted by: Cedric Morrison on August 16, 2006 4:08 PM

I had a Wilson phase in my early 20s and read quite a bit of his stuff. I haven't returned to his writing, but I have noticed the way that he's been sidelined for decades by the literary establishment. When he surfaces on British TV, once in a blue moon, he seems strangely old-fashioned and cheerfully gauche in his TV manner, exactly like someone who has lived apart from the London media world and all its frivolous, passing concerns to get on with prodigious amounts of loopy, inner-directed research and writing.

During that phase of reading Wilson, I became intrigued by a book he discussed about a 1920s German serial killer (criminology has been his other big interest, part of his endless fascination with "peak experiences") and I tried to obtain this rare volume through the inter-library loan network. Hot stuff, clearly, because you had to be a doctor, a shrink or a cop before the librarians would consent to release it, and I was merely a youth with outsiderish inclinations and lots of time on my hands. Not to be thwarted, I wrote to Wilson, who immediately and without question dispatched his own photocopied, bound facsimile of this long-out-of-print study to a complete stranger, who might have been a serial-killer-in-training for all he knew. I was pretty impressed by his openness and generosity. I read this alarming, unsavoury volume and sent it back to him.

The Guardian piece, concentrating on just one early episode in Wilson's career, was petty and pointless. Shame they didn't use the "golden anniversary" since The Outsider's publication to attempt a more informed and measured assessment of what Wilson's been up to, with such unswerving self-belief, for the last 50 years.

Posted by: Rick Poynor on August 18, 2006 7:08 AM

'The Outsider' was a book that really changed a lot of peoples lives. To me it's an amazing read.
Wilson is a very gracious man when it comes to his fans too. A man with a super-ego typically won't bother with the laymen.

Posted by: Kevin on August 26, 2006 12:08 AM

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