A Point of View: Why Orwell was a literary mediocrity
- 31 August 2014
- From the section Magazine
George Orwell was a literary mediocrity and his views on the importance of plain writing are plain wrong, argues writer Will Self.
"The English," GK Chesterton wrote, "love a talented mediocrity." Which is not to suggest that we don't also have a reverence for the charismatic and gifted, or that we're incapable of adoring those with nothing to recommend them.
Still, overall, it's those individuals who unite great expertise and very little originality - let alone personality - who arouse in us the most perfect devotion. The permatanned actor whose chat show anecdotes are so dull the studio audience falls asleep; the colourless athlete who's had a highly successful charisma bypass; the nondescript prime minister whose fractious cabinet is subdued by the sheer monotony of his speaking voice. I could go on.
At least residually, the Celtic cultures valorise the excessive and the extreme - the rocky eminence of a warrior-bard whose dark countenance is lit up by brilliant fulguration.
Or so they claim. In truth the grey hold sway in Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast and Dublin quite as much as they do in London. Is it any surprise? Whatever their own talents, the Scots, Welsh and Irish have all been colonised by English mediocrities.
Over the centuries during which they've held sway these administrators of ennui have built up a sort of pantheon of piffle, comprised of talented mediocrities' productions. There are entire syllabuses full of their lacklustre texts - galleries hung with their bland daubs, concert halls resounding with their duff notes, and of course, radio stations broadcasting their tepid lucubrations.
Each generation of talented English mediocrities seizes upon one of their number and elevates her or him to become primus inter pares. Of course, these figures may not, in fact, be talented mediocrities at all, but rather genuinely adept and acute. However, what's important is that they either play to the dull and cack-handed gallery, or that those who sit there see in them their own run-of-the-mill reflection.
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.
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.
The fiction stands up less obviously well, but I can still find solid virtues in the skewed satirising of Keep the Aspidistra Flying or the unremitting bleakness of A Clergyman's Daughter and Coming up for Air. At any rate they lack the more obvious didacticism of Animal Farm and 1984. 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.
The only problem with this is that it's not true - and furthermore, Orwell was plain wrong. The entire compass of his errancy is present in his opening lines:
"Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language - so the argument runs - must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes."
George Orwell's rules for writing (from Politics and the English Language)
(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.
Well, in fact, as Noam Chomsky's work on universal grammar established to the satisfaction of most (although the idea of a universal innate grammar goes all the back to Roger Bacon), language very much is a natural outgrowth of the human brain, which is hardwired for its acquisition and use.
As for most people who bother with the matter admitting that English is in a bad way - hardly. Since 1946, when Orwell's essay was published, English has continued to grow and mutate, a great voracious beast of a tongue, snaffling up vocabulary, locutions and syntactical forms from the other languages it feeds on. There are more ways of saying more things in English than ever, and it follows perfectly logically that more people are shaping this versatile instrument for their purposes.
The trouble for the George Orwells of this world is that they don't like the ways in which our tongue is being shaped. In this respect they're indeed small "c" conservatives, who would rather peer at meaning by the guttering candlelight of a Standard English frozen in time, than have it brightly illumined by the high-wattage of the living, changing language.
Orwell and his supporters may say they're objecting to jargon and pretension, but underlying this are good old-fashioned prejudices against difference itself. Only homogenous groups of people all speak and write identically. People from different heritages, ethnicities, classes and regions speak the same language differently, duh!
More from the Magazine
George Orwell is one of the UK's best-known 20th Century authors but he's also claimed by a town in north-eastern India. Orwell was born here - and his home is being turned into a museum.
If you want to expose the Orwellian language police for the old-fashioned authoritarian elitists they really are, you simply ask them which variant of English is more grammatically complex - Standard English or the dialect linguists call African American Vernacular English. The answer is, of course, it's the latter that offers its speakers more ways of saying more things - you feel me?
It was Orwell's own particular genius to possess a prose style that stated a small number of things with painful clarity. Moreover it's a style that along with its manifest virtues has a hidden, almost hypnotic one. Reading Orwell at his most lucid you can have the distinct impression he's saying these things, in precisely this way, because he knows that you - and you alone - are exactly the sort of person who's sufficiently intelligent to comprehend the very essence of what he's trying to communicate.
It's this the mediocrity-loving English masses respond to - the talented dog-whistling calling them to chow down on a big bowl of conformity.
Because that's what it amounts to in the end. Any insistence on a particular way of stating things is an ideological act, whether performed by George Orwell or the Ministry of Truth.
Orwell's ideology is ineffably English, a belief in the inherent reasonableness, impartiality and common sense of a certain kind of clear-thinking, public-school-educated but widely experienced middle-class Englishman - an Englishman such as himself.
It's by no means as pernicious an ideology as Ingsoc and its attendant newspeak, but it's an ideology all the same.
And while I don't judge Orwell himself too harshly for his talent, I feel less well-disposed to those mediocrities who slavishly worship at the shrine of St George, little appreciating that the clarity they so admire in his writings is simply another kind of opacity, since in the act of revealing one truth it necessarily obscures many others.
A Point of View is broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays 08:50 BST or listen on BBC iPlayer
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