On Cavaliers and Roundheads

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!

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19 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by alan on September 2, 2014 at 10:33 pm

    “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.”

    I’m ashamed to say that I did have to look up “fulguration”. Given the context I have trouble imagining a dull fulguration, so the prefixing of “brilliant” might be considered a little tautological.

    I wonder where he stands on the Ossian question?

    Reply

    • I didn’t know what “fulguration” meant either, but I don’t see any reason to feel ashamed: the English language has the widest vocabulary, I believe, of any language, and no-one can be expected to know it all. I am quite happy to look it up.

      I am quite happy with Self using a recondite vocabulary, but I am damned if I can understand Self’s point in the passage you quote. “residual” is an adjective referring to that which is left when a part, or even most, of something is taken away, and I don’t understand what the point is of “at least residually” in this sentence. Furthermore, a great many ancient literary cultures, including the English (“Beowulf”, say), “valorise the excessive and the extreme”. And as for the rest of the sentence – “the rocky eminence of a warrior-bard whose dark countenance is lit up by brilliant fulguration” – can you make any sense of that? I can’t! Not even after i have looked up “fulguration”.

      Will Self really should learn to write more clearly.

      Reply

  2. Do you know that I just finished reading the BBC article when I then read your post. What a coincidence.

    You have completely nailed Self. I was thinking the whole time “Who is he to judge Orwell, or the English or writing”? As you say, he makes a lot of assertions without substantiating any of them.

    What a snob to “wave his septer” over the whole of English writing and Orwell and make his “royal declarations.” I suppose writers have to make inflammatory statements to get published.

    I’ve read quite a bit of Orwell and maybe I don’t agree with all his politics but if he’s not a good writer, who is? Self really didn’t provide any examples. I guess I need to read Noam Chomsky.

    You make excellent points about using clear English. After all, the whole point is to clearly communicate our ideas, not wow people with our flowery rhetoric.

    One last point: I live in the deep South here in the US. I am surrounded by African American dialect. While it is rich and beautiful and part of what makes the culture here so colorful, it is still just that: a dialect. Dialects are simplified versions of a standard language, not more complex ones. So Self is way off saying that a dialect provides greater variety of expressing one’s self. That simply isn’t true. No more than the “country boy” dialect that I also hear every day -even though both dialects are quite musical and I enjoy their rhythm of delivery. But that’s another subject.

    Take care, Himadri!

    Reply

    • Hello Sharon, and thanks for your comments.

      The denigration of Standard English, and the elevation of various vernaculars, is quite a fashionable stance these days. Many argue that there are many vernacular dialects that are rich and expressive, and that it is but elitism, or cultural imperialism, to tell any child that their vernacular mode of expression is wrong, and to impose upon them Standard English. While this may seem agreeably pluralist and egalitarian, its consequences are bound to be disastrous, as the child will be unable to communicate effectively with anyone from outside his or her cultural group. Far from empowering the child, this will have quite the opposite effect: it will merely reinforce cultural ghettoes, and act as a barrier to the child’s future career. I am sure there is expressive richness in a great many vernacular dialects, but Self’s fashionable denigration of Standard English, a denigration is shared by so many others, is ill thought-out and damaging.

      Cheers for now, Himadri

      Reply

  3. Posted by Mark on September 4, 2014 at 11:27 am

    Hi Himadri,

    A supremely lucid piece of writing on your own part – Orwell would have approved. I must admit I felt slightly disappointed when you wrote that you were going to refrain from having a go at Self, but then you stuck it to him anyway by taking his preposterous piece apart.

    In my view there are legitimate criticisms to be made of Orwell. For me his fiction is, arguably, often mediocre (Self is not the first to say so, Nabokov made the point years ago) and even 1984, which might well be a “great” book is not necessarily a great novel. But his essays and reportage are supreme examples of their forms and can be read over and over again.

    Ironically, for me at any rate, Self is kind of the same. His essays are generally quite interesting, his fiction virtually unreadable. This is not because he uses “difficult” words (how difficult can any word be with a dictionary to hand?) but because he uses them clumsily, self-consciously and with no sense of rhythm or style. It’s an adolescent approach to writing. I would nominate the American novelist Alexander Theroux as the current living exemplar of a writer who can deploy an enormous and rich vocabulary with purpose and satirical aplomb.

    In the case of this essay, however, Self falls flat on his not inconsiderable face. And let’s be candid, the whole thing has been a promo exercise for his new novel.

    Great post. Been a subscriber to your blog for a while now, but never commented before.

    Mark

    Reply

    • Hello Mark, and thank you for your kind comments. Do please feel free in future to join the fray, as it were, even if you should disagree: I’m always up for a bit of debate!

      I did initially envisage this post as considering the issue of plain utilitarian prose vs. flamboyant and decorated prose, and I thought I could stick to that theme without being rude to Will Self, but the temptation was too great, I’m afraid. On revising, I decided to keep in that sentence about not wishing to have a go at Self, as it seemed to be – albeit inadvertently – a nice piece of paralipsis.

      Orwell has long struck me as primarily a polemicist: I doubt there has been a better. Since my student days, I have had a 4volume set – long out of print now – of his collected journalism, columns, essays and letters, and even where I didn’t agree with him, I found his a compelling voice. Of his full-length books, I particularly valued his journalistic work – The Road to Wigan Pier, Down and Out in Paris and London, and, especially, Homage to Catalonia. His novels, in comparison, are, I agree, minor works. Except of course for his last two – but once again, these are polemical works. Animal Farm is a simple idea executed to absolute perfection: I find the ending, with its profound sense of betrayal, almost unbearably sad. And 1984 is more full of startling ideas and images than just about any other novel I can think of. But it is perhaps the case that their qualities are not novelistic, as such.

      In terms of his prose style, I think it was exactly right for what he set out to achieve.

      I’m afraid I have tried any of Self’s novels. But from the various articles I’ve read, the problem is not that he uses obscure words (I don’t have a problem with that at all: I’m quite happy to consult a dictionary) but that, as you say, he uses the words clumsily. And, of course, there is an adolescent posturing of a kind many of us grew out of even as adolescents. But that’s enough vituperation from my side: let’s not go overboard!

      All the best for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

  4. Posted by alan on September 4, 2014 at 8:31 pm

    If that piece had been posted on a blog it would have been torn apart. I don’t know if the BBC website pays its writers very much – in this case I hope not, but the very fact that it has been displayed by the BBC means that, however slightly, I am legally required to pay for it.
    Other examples of clear and illuminating prose can be see here and here.

    Reply

  5. My goodness, what a wonderful blog you have here. I can see I have a good bit of back-reading to do. I enjoyed the careful way in which you tried to work down through Self’s argument, quotating, summarizing, and analyzying, organizing it all under this interestingly allusive rubric of the roundhead vs. the cavalier. It’s a rare example of probity and stylishness for a blog (in my experience anyway!). As soon as I’ve written this comment, I’m going to have to go poking around to see what other treasures lie hidden in the archives here.

    But I do feel compelled to comment, because in at least one way it seems to me you’re unfair to Self. (It’s so hard to write about the man without breaking into laughter at the puns in one’s own sentences… Glad I wasn’t cursed with such a surname.) —

    My objection is this: you present his overall point as an endorsement of the complex over the simple, and sometimes you shade into implying that this is really an endorsement of the unclear over the clear, whereas it seems to me his polemic was more about the standard and the non-standard.

    (By the way, you mentioned that he provides no evidence for his assertions about the superior richness of non-standard English. I think he does try to provide evidence, though it’s rather poor evidence. On behalf of the non-standard, he adduces both the “elevated” heterodoxy of his own penchant for archaisms, neologisms, and technical terms, and also the “lowered” heterodoxy of regional dialects. I suspect that the kind of evidence he is trying to provide here is performative – as when he writes, “The answer is, of course, it’s the latter that offers its speakers more ways of saying more things – you feel me?” “You feel me” is either a disastrous slippage in the sentence’s diction, or his attempt to exemplify the great richness of the dialect in question. Not that “you feel me?” is a particularly rich idiom… But I think the implicit argument in favor of the richness of non-standard English — of both the elevated and dialect variety — is supposed to be the magnificence of Self’s own prose. Which, as you point out, rather fails to be as magnificent as he seems to think it is. I’ve read some of his fiction — his short story collection “The Quantity Theory of Insanity,” is full of interesting ideas poorly expressed — and I think he undeniably overestimates the glories of his own style. But *bad* evidence isn’t *no* evidence, and you accuse him a few times of failure to provide any.)

    Supposing we grant for the moment that his polemic was actually against standardization rather than simplicity or clarity, and supposing we put aside the rather poor evidence of his self-demonstration, then I think we ought to admit there’s something right about a line like, “Any insistence on a particular way of stating things is an ideological act, whether performed by George Orwell or the Ministry of Truth.” This assertion, though a double-edged sword, bears thinking about. But the trope you use to organize your own reflections — the names for the two sides in the English civil war — bear out Self’s point here, even if you didn’t mean them to: to *insist* upon a kind of stylistic simplicity — or upon a kind of stylistic complexity — is a political act.

    So basically, to sum up my long-winded comment, I think we can find a kernel of something rather wise in the midst of Self’s ill-written and poorly-supported attack on a great writer.

    Also, one other thing about the fellow (Self, that is) — I went a year or so ago to hear him read here in Boston. Hadn’t read anything by him yet; just recognized his name and decided it was a good excuse to go to dinner in Cambridge and spend some time in a bookstore. And for a while afterward I was pretty into his stuff. The reason was his voice. He’s really an excellent reader of his own work. Moreover, he has a sepulchral appearance and is absurdly tall, all of which contributes to the dramatic effect of his readings. But then as the memory of his voice and appearance faded, I found that his prose style ceased to impress. It would be an interesting experiment to listen to the radio version of the essay in question here (I think there’s a link at the bottom of the BBC page) to see if that made the essay more palatable.

    Anyway, sorry about the length of my bloviations. Love your blog. Off I go to read some more of it.

    Reply

  6. Ha! Just noticed your tagline: “He do the police in different voices.”

    Believe it or not, Will Self used that to describe his reading-aloud style when I went to hear him.

    Reply

    • Really? I hadn’t realised Self had used this line also. Of course, it is a quote from Our Mutual Friend, and the working title of “The Waste Land”.

      My initial tagline for this blog was “Because I’m worth it”, which was the advertising slogan for the cosmetics company L’Oreal, but those who didn’t get the reference probably thought I was solipsistic. Which I probably am … but why advertise it? 🙂

      Reply

  7. Posted by alan on September 5, 2014 at 8:03 am

    Robert, feel foolish to get involved in this but writing on any public blog requires an absence of shame, and I hope you get a more intelligent reply from this blog’s author, but here goes:

    I struggle to see how what is written in the post above could lead you to say of the poster: “you present his [Self’s] overall point as an endorsement of the complex over the simple, and sometimes you shade into implying that this is really an endorsement of the unclear over the clear, whereas it seems to me his polemic was more about the standard and the non-standard. ”

    I don’t have the”Argumentative Old Git”‘s abilities to pick this apart, but I would say that although Self’s polemic might be about “the standard and the non-standard”, the word “seems” in your sentence is a bit of a give away. If one wishes to present complex ideas then that usually requires the ability to explain and sustain a lengthy chain of reasoning. I don’t see how it is possibly to present such a lengthy chain of reasoning if one does not have some form of standard.

    I could easily accept an argument in standard English explaining why in some forms of English language a non-standard form is better or more acceptable, such as the short story or poetry. However, a complex argument, presumably intended to reach a wide range of people, needs to be clearly stated in a standard form.

    It has often been pointed out that there is a tension between reason and rhetoric, because if you don’t have an interesting style then nobody is going to read past the first paragraph. But in my opinion style should be the servant of reason, not the other way around. When you make reason the servant of style then it leads to demagoguery.

    Reply

    • Hello Robert and Alan, (if I may address you both at the same time),
      First of all, Robert, thank you for your very kind comments, and welcome to the blog. As I said in my initial post on this blog (the “About” page), I set this blog up initially hoping people would treat it as a sort of literary café, and become involve in discussion; and to that end, your post, and all the other posts above, are very much welcome.

      I think I’d agree that Self endorses the complex over the simple, and the standard over the non-standard, making in the process what seems to me the questionable assumption that these two axes are aligned, and that standard prose styles are incapable of communicating richness or complexity.

      There seems to me to be a further implicit assumption that complexity is by its nature superior to simplicity. If this assumption is indeed there, albeit implicitly, it may easily, I think, be refuted by example: the Sermon on the Mount passage in the King James version of St Matthew Gospel is written in very simple English, and contains very simple ideas: there is no complexity to it at all. Yet, I cannot think of any writing of greater stature, either aesthetically or morally. (I am not Christian, by the way.)

      But let us consider what I think is the former assumption. Is it really the case that standard English cannot convey complexity? At this stage, I think I have got my terminology wrong: we’re not really talking here of complexity, but of ambivalence. Literary art often (though not always) thrives on ambivalence, of communicating at the same time different layers of meaning – sometimes at odds with each other. And to achieve this, writers need, I agree, language that is complex – language that both denotes and connotes, language with richness of subtext, language that implies more than it directly says. And it is this kind of language that Self advocates.

      But while this is rewarding in certain contexts – poetry, prose fiction, dramatic dialogue – this is the last thing that is needed in areas where clarity is all-important. And this, I think, is Alan’s point: when making a coherent argument, when presenting ideas, when communicating facts, there can be no room for those things that in other contexts confer richness. It is not, I think, so much a case of “clear” vs “unclear”, as “clear” vs “ambivalent”.

      I think I actually agree with Self when he says: “Any insistence on a particular way of stating things is an ideological act, whether performed by George Orwell or the Ministry of Truth.” However, I’d like to add a few qualifications – the first of which is that Standard English is not a strait-jacket, and offers a greater variety of writing styles than Self, I think, is willing to admit. (Orwell himself demonstrates that Standard English can be used with elegance.) And the second is that Orwell in his essay is not laying down the law on how to write: he is offering advice – I think very good advice – on how to write clearly in cases where clarity is important. In view of the appalling examples Orwell provides in his essay of lack of clarity; and in view also of the often appallingly unclear writing I see myself every day in the public sphere; I do frankly wish more writers would take his advice.

      On the question of vernacular, as I said in response to Sharon above, I am quite happy to accept that vernacular can be very rich and expressive. One of the richest and most expressive of all English-language novels – Huckleberry Finn – is written entirely in vernacular. There is far greater richness in vernacular dialects than is implied in Self’s clumsy “you feel me?” and his even clumsier “Duh!” My problem is not with Self’s praise of vernacular, but with his denigration of standard English.

      To recap: Standard English is capable of expressing depth and richness, as any number of examples – from the St Matthew’s Gospel to The Pilgrim’s Progress to the novels of Daniel Defoe to even, dare I say, the essays of Orwell – may demonstrate; and in all those many instances where clarity is important, Standard English seems to me to be of vital importance.

      I haven’t seen Self in real life, but from his television appearances, he certainly is a striking personality, and, in our times when personal charisma is valued above virtually all other qualities, he has become a prominent figure in the literary world. I haven’t tried his novels, but I must admit I have never been impressed by the various articles of his that I have read: he strikes me frankly as a bad stylist – not, as Mark says above, because he uses obscure words, but because he uses them badly, with little consideration for the rhythms of English prose.

      And in conclusion, do feel free to bloviate at length here as often as you wish!

      Best wishes to all, Himadri

      Reply

  8. I’m coming to this late, so I think everything has already been said. I’m another one who finds Will Self pretty much unreadable, and it’s no surprise to discover that his poor style has behind it an equally poor philosophy of language.

    I don’t think you can’t write clear, simple English as well as Orwell wrote it without first mastering the language in all its complexity, as there are innumerable ways in which it can fail to be clear and simple. I can’t help feeling Orwell’s solid grounding in Latin and Greek at Eton (though he often disparaged its worth), as well as his reading in French, played some part in his command of the style he chose, and that he was drawing on resources of knowledge that are not always apparent – certainly not in the showy and superficial way characteristic of Will Self.

    Reply

    • Yes, I agree – “clear and simple” most certainly does not imply that the writer does not have sufficient command over language. I have over the years been on various message-boards and the like, and (without of course naming names) those who clearly did not have sufficient mastery of language invariably wrote prose that was far from clear and simple.

      We all seem to have a horror of rules nowadays – a horror of authority. But when you are setting out with no greater ambition than to be clearly understood, rules, if well formulated, can be very useful.

      Orwell, as you say, clearly had a fine mastery of the language. In all his essays and journalism that i have read, he expresses himself with the utmost clarity, and also, I think, with great elegance.it is easy to underestimate the skill this requires.

      All the best for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

  9. Good for you, Argumentative Old Git. I had very similar feelings, though certainly not with the same degree of erudition, when I read the tiresome Self’s remarks about Orwell.
    I’ve only just discovered your blog through serendipity, and will certainly be back to read more.

    Reply

    • Thanks for that. I think I had set out to defend plain, clear style of writing (what i refer to as “Roundhead writing”) but the urge to bash Will Self was too strong. I shall try to be more disciplined in future! 🙂

      All the best,
      Himadri

      Reply

  10. The hospital point seems to me a bit of a non-sequitur. Self is clearly writing in a given context, here that of literature. I don’t actually agree with his argument (I’d have countered with Hemingway or Toibin) but I don’t think the fact it makes sense to have purely informative messages written in standard English says anything as to the merits of standard English for use in literature.

    Put another way, you’re obviously right that “Medical files, journalism, parliamentary reports, reportage, business references” all require lucid writing, but from context it’s clear Self wasn’t talking about any of those points. I suspect in fact he’d agree with you.

    The other thing that struck me was that your counterexamples to Self’s criticism of English literature are all pre-war, over 70 years old. Most of them were dead before my grandfather was born. Self of course is a contemporary writer. I don’t think he’s arguing our literary culture was always moribund (though he may also argue that), but that it’s moribund now. Citing greats of the rather distant past if anything supports rather than refutes his point. I also think he’d actually cite Woolf as being an example of brilliance that lay on his side of the argument rather than Orwell’s.

    The specific context for all this of course is that Self has a new book out and is experimenting (in his view anyway) stylistically, and so is thinking a lot about matters of style. Hence, an essay about style which sets out to challenge an older and still much referenced essay about style by Orwell. That and he always enjoys shocking, and when you have a public persona as he does it must get harder over time to find anything to shock with.

    Reply

    • Hello Max,

      Apologies for the late reply.

      Self enjoys shocking, I agree; and I agree further that it is becoming increasingly difficult to shock nowadays. But merely the desire to shock does seem to me, frankly, somewhat childish: it may be an endearing trait in a precocious sixth-former, but in a fully grown adult, it strikes me as immature and tiresome. And if the best one can do in attempting to shock is to spout foolishness – as I think Self has done – then it’s perhaps best to desist.

      I do not know that the context is clear in Self’s essay. A good polemicist is clear about the context of his or her polemic: since Self isn’t, I don’t really see why I should give him the benefit of the doubt on the matter.

      Self’s diatribe is not merely against Orwell, but against Standard English itself. If Self himself would agree with me, as you suspect, that Standard English is indispensable in a great many contexts, then he should have qualified his argument by saying so: but since he doesn’t, it seems to me worthwhile to point this out.

      I think it is pertinent to distinguish between those contexts in which clarity of expression is of utmost importance, and those in which other considerations may take precedence. For once this distinction is made, it is clear that Orwell’s writings – at least, the writings on which his reputation rests – belong firmly in the former category. His major works are his essays; his journalistic non-fiction (Homage to Catalonia, Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier); and his two most well-known novels – Animal Farm and 1984. All these works are polemical in nature, and, being so, require the utmost clarity. This is what Orwell aims for, and this is what he achieves. Once this is acknowledged, it becomes pointless to criticise Orwell for not attempting a more florid style that he never aimed for in the first place, and which would have been inimical to his specific ends.

      It is perhaps not surprising that my counter-examples are from the past rather than from the present, since I am more well-versed in the literatures of the past than I am in contemporary works, and can only offer examples from the writing I am most familiar with. However, Self’s criticism of plain English – the use of which he perceives as indicative of mediocrity – is not restricted to his own time:

      Each generation of talented English mediocrities seizes upon one of their number and elevates her or him to become primus inter pares.

      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.

      (My emphasis in both instances)

      Self’s context is clearly that of the history of English writing; and to claim in this context that Englishness is characterised by “mediocrity” – by which Self means plainness of expression – seems to me foolish in the extreme.

      I suppose it can be argued that since Self is out merely to shock, one shouldn’t take seriously what he has to say. I can see some merit in this argument, but the value of Standard English is so frequently attacked these days- as indicative of elitism, or of cultural imperialism, or whatever – I do feel it worthwhile to present arguments in its defence.

      All the best,
      Himadri

      Reply

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