Orwelling Orwell

This morning, through a piece on Salon, I was introduced to an article by fiction-writer Will Self on George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” As I will be teaching that essay Monday in my Specialized Communications for Technology Students class, I was particularly interested in taking a look, especially after reading Salon‘s Laura Miller’s rather negative take on Self’s view of Orwell.

The very title of Self’s essay, “Why Orwell Was a Literary Mediocrity,” predisposed me to join Miller. I never trust rankings, especially in art, finding ranking one of the less attractive holdovers from Modernism with its highbrow/lowbrow, avant-garde/kitsch. Art needs judging, each piece or artist on its (or his or her) own right, not on a scale developed by someone else. Self, obviously, feels he can tell us what is good or what is not. Furthermore, like Edgar Allan Poe, Orwell continues to be read despite the negative (and there is plenty on each) said about him. Each has become part of the culture and not simply the literature; consigning either to “mediocrity,” therefore, makes no sense. Certainly, it does not help us understand their personalities, their writing, or their places in culture and cultural history. On a personal note, Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London was one of the most influential books on my own young years. I’m not likely to react well to a piece that starts out by consigning its author, for all intents and purposes, to the trash.

That, as I read, was Self’s point. He wants start as the antagonist; he wants to challenge people like me.

Does he succeed?

Well, he has managed to get me to respond here, though I do not find him convincing.

I must say that there are severe problems with “Politics and the English Language” for a contemporary reader. Orwell, to his shame, did not take into account the dead metaphors and specific styles of sloppy syntax of the 21st century. Being dead for half a century is no excuse. In his defense, he was writing to a specific audience at a specific time and not to us, and with a bit of tongue-in-cheek that may elude many readers today. Certainly, it eludes Self. Orwell opens his essay by claiming that English is “in a bad way.” Self imagines this as a lament; it is not. Orwell’s “in a bad way” is always the state of the English language, and always has been–and Orwell knew that. His examples can be excised and contemporary ones tipped in with no loss to the point he is making (I sometimes have my students do just that). The essay is not a plaint about change but a charge to write carefully–no matter how the language is evolving around one. This misunderstanding by Self undercuts every complaint he makes about Orwell: He’s attacking an Orwell he imagines rather than the Orwell who actually wrote.

An Orwellian use of language, one might say. Or, more accurately, Humpty-Dumpty’s.

One thought on “Orwelling Orwell

  1. Ironically, nuances of tone and shifts in tone are fundamental characteristics of almost all important literary works, and yet the loss of attention to those nuances and shifts in tone is surely one of the major problems with assigning canonical status to a work. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is a work of many starling tonal shifts, and yet I think that most readers are taught to regard it as if it were an extended, even relentless dirge. Likewise, for centuries, critics read Swift’s “Verses of the Death of Dr. Swift” as if it were an unfortunate demonstration of his unraveling sanity when, in fact, it is a remarkably witty and energetic commentary on just that sort of preconditioned view of his body of work and literary persona.

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