I recently came across an article posted over at Reddit (link to discussion), re: George Orwell, and it immediately struck me as one of those faux ‘bad-boy’ envious types. This is not because the writer, Will Self, argues that Orwell was a literary mediocrity– in fact, I’d agree with this claim, even if I might be a little more charitable. The issue, really, is Self’s argument, in one of those moments wherein a person comes to the right conclusion about something, but seems to have little to no clue as to why it’s right. This always get me dismissive, because what good is a good opinion if its trajectory is unknown, and its origin dubious? In fact, it means that as the thinker hits upon new phenomena, he’ll be unable to analyze it, ill-equipped as he is for such tasks, and dependent on luck. Such is the case, here, and Will Self’s argument, after a series of overdone digressions, can be broken down as follows:
Orwell isn’t very good because he is too ‘unadorned’. In fact, he’s not simply a mediocrity, but– and after hundreds of potential examples, Self settles on Orwell– the ‘Supreme Mediocrity’ of recent English memory, mostly because he is too plain. In fact, Self goes on to blame his ‘prose style’, as if style, in and of itself, can be good or bad, rather than what is DONE within this style. He then points to the following Orwell quote as an explanation of the writer’s mediocrity:
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.
Not exactly groundbreaking literary analysis, what with the invocations of ‘general collapse’, ‘decadence’, and other alarums that have been bandied about since the dawn of civilization, but not necessarily wrong, either. Language DOES go through periods of atrophy and decay, language IS abused via poor understanding of terms and definitions, categories, the mis-use of cliches, the non-belief in language, as a whole. And, of course, Orwell’s claim that language is “an instrument which we shape for our own purposes” is 100% correct, and is, in a very real sense, a good explanation for art as a whole: that art is a means of higher communication, and that standard English, ghetto-talk, curse words, holy words, Latinisms, neologisms, derivations, non-derivations, etc., are not preferable to one another. They are simply ONE means to the same goal: establishing meaning, whether that involves the use of a French borrowing, or a paragraph of broken dialect. The issue, then, is learning to use what style where, and why, and to ensure that one’s choices in this matter are not arbitrary.
But while in fact noting these things, Self, in a rather thick-headed way, decides to invoke Chomsky, and harp on George Orwell’s claim that “language is [not] a natural growth,” thus citing scientific data on something that has little to no bearing on the argument at hand. No passages are selected for their mis-use of language; no example is given, of anything, really, and therefore, Self’s argument is always somewhere in the abstract realm, with the reader simply left guessing as to what, exactly, Self’s dissent really means.
Moreover, the claim that Orwell sucks because he’s ‘unadorned’ is silly, for how many plain stylists can YOU think of that were simply great writers? Well, let’s see. There’s Irwin Shaw, for instance, who had virtually no expository element to his prose, and very few raw poeticisms. Instead, Shaw’s poesy came via the structural route, by putting characters in jarring situations, or using a very simple, very plain sentence to play off of a much more complex set of interactions, thus enhancing the impact of both. Adjectives are not TOO common in his prose, and when they do appear, they describe something plainly– even if memorably. Richard Wright, too, who could go, at times, for passages and passages of simple, internal thought within essentially dumb characters, simply went for realism. And Oscar Wilde? Wit, brevity, and all that is not exactly adornment; it is simply getting at a thing’s essence, which, while retaining poesy, is doing it in a way that’s not really innate to the language, itself.
At bottom, Orwell’s issue is that he’s heavy-handed (which, to Self’s credit, is in fact mentioned), didactic at the expense of real character development, had few truly interesting scenes, and was more or less a social critic (and sometimes a good one, at that) who used fiction as a vehicle for ideas, rather than exploring ideas in real-time, and seeing them evolve within realistic, well-written situations. Character is subsumed under idea, and idea, while not subsumed under slogan, is kept afloat by ever more ideas. His most famous quips (“If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever”) are ham-fisted. His characters are symbols. Of course, much worse things can be said of MANY (if not most) other writers, but this does not mean Orwell is, by contrast, a great artist. It simply puts him in the category of better-than.
Putting Will Self aside, I will now tackle Orwell’s rules of proper writing, which Self quotes in full, but offers no analysis of, much less a point-by-point breakdown. (*Note- my analysis appeared, in part, in the original Reddit link, above.)
(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Now, this is a pretty good rule, all around. I can think of some exceptions, such as when you wish to be colloquial, and establish a sense character via that route, but more often than not, a writer’s most obvious issue is an over-reliance on cliches. And that’s pretty bad, since cliches are very easy to recognize, for it’s a mere numerical thing that takes little to no wisdom to discriminate, merely open eyes and a functional brain.
Moreover, in ‘political’ and nonfiction writing (Orwell’s purported object for these rules), these familiar “figures of speech” can also be effective, as they are in, say, Charlie LeDuff’s prose, who combines fresh, cogent insights and quality writing, alongside some more familiar, blue-collar language. It’s a good combination PARTICULARLY because it’s rarely combined (and well, at that), but Orwell’s dictum simply does not allow this sort of discrimination.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
Obviously wrong. A long word might sound better, give a different sense of rhythm, or very subtly call up a different implication, thus turning what might be a cliched thought or phrasing into something unexpected and fresh. Bad advice, even in journalistic writing, which is often bound by the same parameters and given to the same creative flair as nonfiction.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Possible, but not always preferable, for reasons of music and rhythm. Had George Orwell written ‘err on the side of brevity’, it’d be one thing, but note the extreme command: ‘ALWAYS cut it out’, as if such gray areas do not exist.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Another bad piece of advice, which can be detected in all sorts of grammar manuals to this day. Both passive and active have a definite place in good writing, and passive voice is not a mere work-around for things that cannot be said ‘actively’. Passive can be used for things like ambiguity, softening an action, or even — as in George W. Bush’s infamous use of the passive, ‘Mistakes were made’ — to fobb off responsibility.
Again, Orwell had an aesthetic, sure, but what it necessarily has to do with good writing is unclear.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
More of Orwell’s own biases, because jargon, a foreign phrase, a scientific word, etc., can all establish character, milieu, etc., which is really the point of even branching out into these sorts of territories. Will Self is, in fact, correct about this, even though he doesn’t tackle the other rules, or offer up any alternative.
And then, the last one:
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Ah, the class Orwell ham-fist, the sense of aesthetic wound up into social critique, the odd displeasure at anything “outright barbarous”.
Here was a writer who, in some ways, had a good sense for books, and a sense of mission. But whether such things translate into anything deep, or — this is obvious, now — anything that will outlast its time, is another story. More than anything, George Orwell is a snapshot of mid-20th century thinking, and will therefore always be representative. That, I do not doubt, but when one realizes that he’ll be representative of a bygone era, of something NOT the future (despite his own prophecies), even that tends to lose some resonance.