A couple of months ago, Will Self published an essay for the BBC’s points of view website which caused a bit of a furore. No change there then, I hear you say. Hasn’t Will Self made a living out of courting a mild veneer of louche and verbose outrageousness? Possibly but in this case I’ve found the reaction to what is a relatively short essay quite interesting.
The basic nub of Self’s argument was that far from being the towering colossus of 20th century letters, Orwell was in fact, in Self’s words “a literary mediocrity”. Cue howls of protest and an initial kneejerk reaction is to join in with them, but on reflection I’m inclined to think that Self might actually have a point.
Orwell’s lasting fame lies on a couple of points. Foremost is his insistence on plain, easy-to-understand English (from Politics and the English Language). I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been tossed a photocopy of this essay by everyone from grumpy chief subs and news editors to college lecturers. And when you’re faced with the obfuscation of officialese and jargon by everyone from PROs to academics who seek to hide their banalities or outright lies behind a sheen of bogus authority, you can kind of see his point. Orwell’s most successful prediction is perhaps the rise of the spin rather than of outright state surveillance.
But there is a downside. It’s somehow become the only standard for writing now. For example, David Foster Wallace would fail Orwell’s test. Does that make him a bad writer? Clearly not. He’s one of the best prose stylists of the last 30-odd years. And then there’s Self himself, who’s clearly a fine short-story writer. And then there’s Joseph Conrad. James Joyce. Oscar Wilde, even. All great writers and all contribute the diversity and richness of English literature. It’s possible to argue that Orwell can take the blame for the fact that a good 80 to 90 per cent of modern novels seem to be written in exactly the same bland, identikit wipe-kleen prose.
And then there’s his role as a visionary or prophet of our modern surveillance state. Now there’s no doubt that we live in an age of runaway electronic surveillance and there’s no doubt that many of the concepts of 1984 are scarily present in our modern world — Newspeak, Big Brother, Room 101 and so on. But is it really any more prophetic than say Brave New World (which, considering it was written in the 1930s could be argued to be even more prophetic than Orwell) or Fahrenheit 451? Certainly I’d argue that Bradbury is the far better novelist. 1984 contains great ideas but it is slight in terms of plot and its characterisation — especially when it comes to Julia (Orwell is just terrible at women).
Even as a didactic novel, you could argue it falls down slightly. The fact that you regularly see it being championed by both the Right and the Left suggests that it is somehow vague in its overall message. Those on the Right see it as a parable of the dangers of socialism and the crushing of individuality. Those on the Left see it as warning on right-wing totalitarianism. You could argue it is both those things but I’ve read the book several times over the years now and I’ve always come away with the impression that in the end Orwell didn’t quite know what he wanted to say. Maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe the point is to just to ask the questions.
This is not to say that Orwell is a bad writer, or has bad ideas. Clearly he does not and his essays and longer works of reportage are classics of journalism. Nor are his novels all bad. They have a nice truculent cynicism to them, although they suffer from what we might charitably call the chauvinism of the time, although I’d argue it crosses over into out-and-out misogyny on occasion. But in fact if you want to get a sense of what life was like, or how people were thinking, throughout the 30s and 40s then Orwell is a good place to start, if only because he is articulate in railing against it.
However, as Self says, what Orwell is offering in the end is just another kind of conformism. The true genius of 1984 is that it recognises that he who controls language then controls how people think and therefore how they behave politically.
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.
But like Self, I’m not interested in castigating Orwell so much as those who slavishly deify him. His ideas are not gospel and indeed are many are dated beyond redemption. They make no allowances for feminism, for multiculturalism. I suspect part of his appeal is that he does hark back to an idyllic sense of an England free of such vexing concerns, perhaps appealing to the current conservative forces of Ukippery (although it should be remembered that Orwell was smart enough to know that this world was gone and was never coming back, if it ever existed at all). Even his ideas about political and electronic surveillance are hopelessly naive compared to what we have to deal with today. As they’d have to be, I suppose. One can’t help but wonder what Orwell would have made of the internet.