Will Self says Orwell was a talented mediocrity.
The curious thing is that while during the post-war period we’ve had many political leaders, we’ve got by with just a single Supreme Mediocrity – George Orwell.
I don’t doubt characterising Orwell as a talented mediocrity will put noses out of joint. Not Orwell, surely! Orwell the tireless campaigner for social justice and economic equality; Orwell the prophetic voice, crying out in the wartime wilderness against the dangers of totalitarianism and the rise of the surveillance state; Orwell, who nobly took up arms in the cause of Spanish democracy, then, equally nobly, exposed the cause’s subversion by Soviet realpolitik; Orwell, who lived in saintly penury and preached the solid virtues of homespun Englishness; Orwell, who died prematurely, his last gift to the people he so admired being a list of suspected Soviet agents he sent to MI5.
Orwell who wrote decent, readable, but far from brilliant prose. Yes, that Orwell.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I like Orwell’s writing as much as the next talented mediocrity. I’ve read the great bulk of his output – at least that which originally appeared in hard covers, and some of his books I’ve read many times over – in particular The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London, the long pieces of quasi-reportage that made his name in the 1930s.
Same here, but I have also realized that his writing is not as good as I used to think it.
As for the essays, they can be returned to again and again, if not for their substance alone, certainly for their unadorned Anglo-Saxon style.
It’s this prose style that has made Orwell the Supreme Mediocrity – and like all long-lasting leaders, he has an ideology to justify his rule. Orwell’s essay, Politics and the English Language, is frequently cited as a manifesto of plainspoken common sense – a principled assault upon all the jargon, obfuscation, and pretentiously Frenchified folderol that deforms our noble tongue. Orwell – it’s said by these disciples – established once and for all in this essay that anything worth saying in English can be set down with perfect clarity such that it’s comprehensible to all averagely intelligent English readers.
And that’s bullshit. It’s not true. Much of what he says in “Politics and the English Language” is not true, and is anti-intellectual and anti-a good many other things that matter.
The Beeb helpfully provides Orwell’s List O’Rules, so that we can see how wrong some of them are.
(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Two, three and five in particular are terrible “rules” – and he didn’t even obey them himself. (Never use a long word where a short one will do? You’ve got to be kidding. A short one will always “do”; but good writers want words that more than just “do”.)
Those are ok rules for a newspaper that wants the largest possible audience and thus wants to be very careful that might be over the heads of some of the potential audience, but for anyone else, they’re instructions on how to be dull.
I said some of this back in 2005 on the ur-B&W.
I’ve been reading a little Orwell lately – prompted partly by my offhand comment in an email to Norm that Orwell was good but Hitchens is better – which itself was prompted by Philip Dodd’s introduction of Hitchens on ‘Night Waves’ in which he quoted someone (someone unnamed, I think) as writing in a review that Hitchens is as good as Orwell, or almost as good as Orwell, or some such. That annoyed me. It is my considered opinion – despite the offhandedness of the comment alluded to above – that Orwell is over-rated as a writer. Really quite seriously over-rated. That his language is very often decidedly tired and uninspired, even banal, and that there is a lot of commonplace thought in it. Phrases like ‘dirty little scoundrel’ come to mind.
But when Harry at Crooked Timber did a post about Fascinating Hitchens in which he quoted Norm quoting me there was a lot of disagreement (along with some agreement) with my relative estimation of the two – which is why I got Orwell off the shelf to check my impression again. And – I still agree with myself. He’s good, he’s interesting, he’s definitely worth reading, but he is not a great writer or stylist or thinker. He’s not as good as Dwight Macdonald, for instance.
That’s just a flat assertion, obviously. It would take extensive quotation to make my case – because he is good, so I can’t just quote a terrible sentence and leave it at that. But if you read a good chunk of him, the flatness and uninspiredness become increasingly noticeable.
I don’t like flatness in writing. “Politics and the English Language” gets way too close to telling people to write flatly.