Orwell Prize: English spoken without fear
Getting myself longlisted yet again for the Orwell Prize (and good luck to all the real bloggers who don't have a mainstream media pension, salary and self-censorship training to fall back on)... made me ask: what single bit of Orwell's writing I would recommend to somebody starting a blog, or studying journalism?
Actually it's Inside The Whale, where Orwell takes apart the literary industry of the late 1930s, concluding that of 5,000 novels published, 4,999 were "tripe". He does this sandwiched between two lengthy eulogies to a book that, at the time of writing, was banned - and banned in the 1930s meant impounded at Dover and burned, to be found only in the secret cupboards of anarchists and wierdos.
The book in question is Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller - a strange choice of book to praise for a man who'd just come back from the Spanish Civil War and who, with the Dunkirk fiasco, believed Britain was entering a "revolutionary period".
Musing on this very point, Orwell concluded that Miller had probably founded a new school of writing with this one book, and its successor Black Spring:
"In Miller's case it is not so much a question of exploring the mechanisms of the mind as of owning up to everyday facts and everyday emotions. For the truth is that many ordinary people, perhaps an actual majority, do speak and behave in just the way that is recorded here. The callous coarseness with which the characters in Tropic of Cancer talk is very rare in fiction, but it is extremely common in real life; again and again I have heard just such conversations from people who were not even aware that they were talking coarsely. It is worth noticing that Tropic of Cancer is not a young man's book. Miller was in his forties when it was published, and though since then he has produced three or four others, it is obvious that this first book had been lived with for years. It is one of those books that are slowly matured in poverty and obscurity, by people who know what they have got to do and therefore are able to wait. The prose is astonishing, and in parts of Black Spring is even better. Unfortunately I cannot quote; unprintable words occur almost everywhere. But get hold of Tropic of Cancer, get hold of Black Spring and read especially the first hundred pages. They give you an idea of what can still be done, even at this late date, with English prose. In them, English is treated as a spoken language, but spoken without fear, i.e. without fear of rhetoric or of the unusual or poetical word. The adjective has come back, after its ten years' exile. It is a flowing, swelling prose, a prose with rhythms in it, something quite different from the flat cautious statements and snack-bar dialects that are now in fashion."
The whole essay is meandering like this, and in a way "provisional" - because there was no way of knowing what the outcome would be, given five more years of war still to go.
But we know the outcome of Miller's experiments with language, profanity and honesty: it inspired the post-war "beat" generation - there is a direct lineage to the work of Kerouac - and Kerouac then inspires the Sixties. So that in every Pynchon novel, Doors lyric, Hendrix guitar solo, in every dispatch from Vietnam by the "New Journalism" school and beyond, filtering through to the NME and Rolling Stone in the 1980s, there is a bit of Henry Miller.
Orwell sensed that at some point people would start writing about ordinary life in ordinary language, dramatising the ordinary, peeling back layer upon layer of literary finesse, pretension, writing-school prose, irony etc.
The blog is the logical outcome.
And like the novels of 1940, the vast majority of blogs are mediocre, "tripe" as Orwell might have said. But they are mostly attempts at honesty - whether literary or non-fictional.
I give you two excerpts, both from fellow longlisters, writing about the same recent event:
"I find myself in front of the riot line, taking a blow to the head and a kick to the shin; I am dragged to my feet by a girl with blue hair who squeezes my arm and then raises a union flag defiantly at the cops. "We are peaceful, what are you?" chant the protestors. I'm chanting it too, my head ringing with pain and rage and adrenaline; a boy with dreadlocks puts an arm around me. "Don't scream at them," he says. "We're peaceful, so let's not provoke."
"I've just watched the soi-disant "March for the Alternative" snaking its way across London. It is clear enough, from the banners and slogans, what the protesters are against: spending restraint, open markets, private enterprise, property rights, free contract, Tories, bankers and Nick Clegg. Fair enough. But what are they for? Their website suggests that they think the answer to our debt crisis is more spending. In fact, they don't think we have much of a debt crisis. They want higher taxes, particularly for the rich, whom they expect to wait around meekly to be fleeced. And they insist that higher state expenditure ("investment") will create more jobs. Why so half-hearted, comrades? Why not go all the way, nationalise every business, place every adult on the state payroll and confiscate all income? By your logic, it would surely make Britain the most prosperous country on Earth."
The first is from New Statesman blogger Laurie Penny, the second from Dan Hannan MEP, who blogs in the Telegraph. Two ends of the political spectrum, two kinds of language, but both part of a combative, Anglo-Saxon-word infested, plebeian writing tradition that in the space of ten years has begun to swamp the polite, official media with its deference to experts, to everything "middle", its restraint and euphemism.
George, you would have loved blogging: 99% of English literary novels are still tripe but here - in the world of the hyperlink - we are well and truly "inside the whale"; and English is definitely spoken without fear.