The Lion and the Inkhorn: Knocking a literary great off his pedestal

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Photograph: Cory Doctorow

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If there is one bust that sits atop the pedestal of British literary culture, it is that of George Orwell: novelist, radical journalist, and tireless crusader for social justice. However, Radio 4 recently aired an episode of A Point of View in which the writer Will Self declaimed him as “the supreme literary mediocrity” of the post-war era. Understandably, this attempt to dislodge the sacral author rattled a few cages with commenters on newspaper websites from The Telegraph to The Guardian enraged by Self’s indictment.

Self takes issue with Orwell’s faith in a version of plainspoken English, enumerated in his famous essay, Politics and the English Language. Skewering Orwell’s forthrightness, Self enunciates the writer’s rejection of the “half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.”

He himself argues that “Orwell’s ideology is ineffably English” believing in the “inherent reasonableness, impartiality and common sense of a certain kind of clear-thinking, public-school-educated but widely experienced middle-class Englishman.”

For a writer whose whole style hinged on truth-telling, nothing less than total control over the written medium would do. Yet, as Self points out, our understanding of linguistics has come a long way and language surely, is a natural outgrowth which is resistant to any attempts to prune it into the more conventional shape of an English country garden.

How Orwellian is that? Rubbishing the enemy without even listening to them.

Yet in reactions to the piece, commenters expressed a refusal to entertain the idea that Orwell is anything other than the best post-war British novelist, a devotion which he himself may have been uncomfortable with. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect great insight from online comments. But they are ultimately a forum for majority opinion. One such example, a panegyric which terminated with a mildly funny put down was by grumpy_old_ben on The Telegraph website, “Will Self isn’t fit to stack Orwell’s works in Waterstones.”

The idea of a morose Self irritably stooping to tend the shelves makes me titter. Nonetheless, it is genuinely disconcerting that for a supposedly pluralistic literary culture, most of the commenters hadn’t even listened to or read the argument first-hand. How Orwellian is that? Rubbishing the enemy without even listening to them.

For Orwell there is a danger that his enlarged stature may obscure the minutiae of his work. Like me, Self seems passingly bitter that the anti-statist writer is invoked more frequently than the social democrat who wrote about his conflicted experiences as an imperial policeman in Burma, spending time among the homeless in London and the working-classes in the industrial north.

If the drive for accessibility is laudably democratic in one way – Orwell’s ideas about language are ideologically exclusory. This is what Self is hinting at when he opines “the clarity they so admire in his writings is simply another kind of opacity, since in the act of revealing one truth it necessarily obscures many others.” If there is one danger in Orwell’s line of reasoning, it’s the insistence on moral clarity above all else.

We’re launching yet another war in the Middle East, dropping bombs on the same people (ISIS) who we gave weapons to a short while ago. This is all very Orwellian. He called it in his writing, but his faith in the power of signification is his biggest blind spot. Just because they say it in rational, plain English, it doesn’t make it any truer.

Self’s intervention is a timely one. But can we simply dismiss Orwell as a mediocrity? If he isn’t to be a writer’s writer, then the rousing response still confirms his place as a true people’s writer.

In our literary post-mortem of Orwell, we may feel we have discovered everything his novels have to tell us and more, yet we are brought inexorably back to the man who in many ways, taught us everything we know about the post-war world. At once, we are torn between the reverence for a man deeply embedded in our cultural history, and a recognition that we need more radical literary mediocrities for our own time.

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