When you set out to stick the boot into another author’s literary style, it’s best to ensure that your own style is … well, if not necessarily above criticism, then, at least, competent. For if your philippic contains sentences such as this:
I like Orwell’s writing as much as the next talented mediocrity.
…then you’re likely not to be taken very seriously. From the context, one may discern that the author, Will Self, means it is Orwell who is the “talented mediocrity”; yet, the unfortunate construction of his sentence seems to indicate that the “talented mediocrity” is Self himself. And one can’t help reflecting that Orwell would never have written a sentence as crap as this.
But let us not get sidetracked into having a go at Will Self, enjoyable though that may be. The issues raised in his attack on Orwell deserve, I think, greater attention.
Self declares near the start of his piece:
… overall, it’s those individuals who unite great expertise and very little originality – let alone personality – who arouse in us the most perfect devotion.
This attack on the lack of originality or of personality does seem an odd prelude to a piece attacking Orwell, who was original enough to go persistently against the flow in his politics, often alienating himself from both the mainstream Left and the mainstream Right, and whose writings are generally acknowledged to project a very powerful and individual authorial personality. But Self’s piece gets odder: he goes on to characterise Englishness as essentially bland and colourless – so bland and colourless, indeed, that it has extended its baleful tentacles even to subdue the Celtic exuberance of its neighbours:
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.
If we are talking here about literary style – as I guess we are, since that is the thrust of the rest of the piece – then I personally wouldn’t have characterised as bland or as colourless, and certainly not as “mediocre”, the literary culture of a people who have produced such flamboyant stylists as John Donne, Charles Dickens, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, and, obviously, that chap Shakespeare. But I suppose if you don’t feel obliged to provide supporting evidence, you can assert just about anything you want. So let us not worry too much about that, and continue.
After this curious preamble, Self moves to his theme: the “Supreme Mediocrity – George Orwell.”
At this point, Self anticipates with relish, as all self-regarding iconoclasts do, the gasps of horror his iconoclasm will occasion:
I don’t doubt characterising Orwell as a talented mediocrity will put noses out of joint. Not Orwell, surely!
This is followed by an extended passage of heavy-handed sarcasm:
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.
That last bit is a reference to the revelation, made some years ago, that Orwell had compiled a list of prominent public figures who, to his mind, had Communist sympathies, and were, hence, unsuitable as writers for the Information Research Department, a propaganda department that had recently been set up by the Labour government. This revelation created at the time something of a rumpus, and remains a contentious issue; but I personally can’t help wondering whether there would have been such a rumpus had it been revealed that Orwell had compiled in the mid-30s a list of writers sympathetic to Nazism. In retrospect, as we all know, or should know, Soviet Communism was every bit as great an evil as Nazism; and in the late 40s, when Soviet Communism was indeed a great danger, and when many public figures were indeed sympathetic to it, the moral ambiguity of the situation seems to me to have been far too great to allow for any simplistic apportioning of blame. However, I do not insist on this point: no doubt there are many who, with good reason, are more censorious on this point than I can bring myself to be. But whatever we may think of Orwell’s action on this matter, it does seem to me a tad spiteful, and, indeed, malicious, to bring it up in a piece that is about Orwell’s writing style, not his politics.
And finally, after all that, we come to the heart of the matter: Self thinks Orwell a mediocrity because Orwell wrote plain English:
It’s this prose style that has made Orwell the Supreme Mediocrity.
And worse, in his essay “Politics and the English Language”, Orwell recommended writing plain English. In brief, it’s the old story of Cavaliers and Roundheads: Orwell was a Roundhead, and Self thinks it is better to be a Cavalier.
Self then goes on to declare war against the Standard English that Orwell stood for, declaring it to be “mediocre”, and preferring instead language of greater flamboyance – in short, preferring the Cavalier rather than the Roundhead aesthetic. Self claims, amongst other things – although, as ever, he offers no arguments in support – that African-American vernacular English “offers its speakers more ways of saying more things” than does Standard English. That may or may not be so, but I do know that whatever merits this particular vernacular may have, if ever I am ill and am admitted to hospital, I would much prefer my medical report to be written in the plain Standard variety of English that Self so looks down upon.
No doubt Self would think this is a trivial and mundane point, and that, as a literary artist concerned with richness of expression, he is far above such trivial and mundane matters. But it’s thanks to these trivial and mundane matters that our world works. Medical files, journalism, parliamentary reports, reportage, business references – all these things and more require writing that is, above all, lucid. And for this, it is Roundhead writing one must turn to, not Cavalier. Orwell himself was primarily a journalist and essayist, and much of his writing – including his two most famous books – is didactic in nature; so it is hardly surprising that he preferred the Roundheads to the Cavaliers when it came to writing style. Indeed, it is noticeable that Self himself, in making his didactic point, has adopted a style that is – the odd “fulguration” apart – more Roundhead than Cavalier.
Orwell’s advice on writing is actually excellent advice for anyone who sets out to write lucidly: to judge from his article, Self could, I’m sure, learn much from it. But Orwell was addressing a particular kind of writing: the title of this essay is a bit of a give-away – “Politics and the English Language”. Orwell was specifically talking about political writing, where lucidity is vital; in other kinds of writing, he most certainly did not insist that the Roundhead way is the only way to write well: his obvious admiration, as evidenced in his literary criticism, for Dickens, Joyce and Lawrence, should leave no-one in any doubt at all that on that point. What he was insisting was that in certain kinds of writing, lucidity is of primary importance; and to achieve lucidity, one must eschew flamboyance. “The simpler the better” is not a dictum that always holds true; but in certain kinds of writing, it does.
And even for other kinds of writing, there is, pace Self, much to be said for simple English. If “the simpler the better” is a foolish maxim in the context of creative writing, “the more flamboyant the better” does not seem to me any better. My own personal preference in these matters is actually for the Cavaliers rather than the Roundheads: I much prefer Faulkner, say, to Hemingway; but given the choice between the harmonious simplicity of Bunyan’s prose, say, or the flamboyant prose of some writer with a tin ear for the rhythms of English prose (let’s not name names), I certainly know which I prefer!