A Point of View: Why Orwell was a literary mediocrity

George Orwell

George Orwell was a literary mediocrity and his views on the importance of plain writing are plain wrong, argues writer Will Self.

"The English," GK Chesterton wrote, "love a talented mediocrity." Which is not to suggest that we don't also have a reverence for the charismatic and gifted, or that we're incapable of adoring those with nothing to recommend them.

Still, overall, it's those individuals who unite great expertise and very little originality - let alone personality - who arouse in us the most perfect devotion. The permatanned actor whose chat show anecdotes are so dull the studio audience falls asleep; the colourless athlete who's had a highly successful charisma bypass; the nondescript prime minister whose fractious cabinet is subdued by the sheer monotony of his speaking voice. I could go on.

Find out more

Will Self
  • A Point of View is usually broadcast on Fridays on BBC Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays, 08:50 BST
  • Will Self is a novelist and journalist

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.

Or so they claim. 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.

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. There are entire syllabuses full of their lacklustre texts - galleries hung with their bland daubs, concert halls resounding with their duff notes, and of course, radio stations broadcasting their tepid lucubrations.

Each generation of talented English mediocrities seizes upon one of their number and elevates her or him to become primus inter pares. Of course, these figures may not, in fact, be talented mediocrities at all, but rather genuinely adept and acute. However, what's important is that they either play to the dull and cack-handed gallery, or that those who sit there see in them their own run-of-the-mill reflection.

The curious thing is that while during the post-war period we've had many political leaders, we've got by with just a single Supreme Mediocrity - George Orwell.

I don't doubt characterising Orwell as a talented mediocrity will put noses out of joint. Not Orwell, surely! 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.

Shelf of George Orwell books

Now, don't get me wrong. I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity. I've read the great bulk of his output - at least that which originally appeared in hard covers, and some of his books I've read many times over - in particular The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London, the long pieces of quasi-reportage that made his name in the 1930s.

The fiction stands up less obviously well, but I can still find solid virtues in the skewed satirising of Keep the Aspidistra Flying or the unremitting bleakness of A Clergyman's Daughter and Coming up for Air. At any rate they lack the more obvious didacticism of Animal Farm and 1984. As for the essays, they can be returned to again and again, if not for their substance alone, certainly for their unadorned Anglo-Saxon style.

It's this prose style that has made Orwell the Supreme Mediocrity - and like all long-lasting leaders, he has an ideology to justify his rule. Orwell's essay, Politics and the English Language, is frequently cited as a manifesto of plainspoken common sense - a principled assault upon all the jargon, obfuscation, and pretentiously Frenchified folderol that deforms our noble tongue. Orwell - it's said by these disciples - established once and for all in this essay that anything worth saying in English can be set down with perfect clarity such that it's comprehensible to all averagely intelligent English readers.

The only problem with this is that it's not true - and furthermore, Orwell was plain wrong. The entire compass of his errancy is present in his opening lines:

"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."

line
Protest banner quoting George Orwell: "Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."
George Orwell's rules for writing (from Politics and the English Language)

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

BBC History: George Orwell (1903 - 1950)

line

Well, in fact, as Noam Chomsky's work on universal grammar established to the satisfaction of most (although the idea of a universal innate grammar goes all the back to Roger Bacon), language very much is a natural outgrowth of the human brain, which is hardwired for its acquisition and use.

As for most people who bother with the matter admitting that English is in a bad way - hardly. Since 1946, when Orwell's essay was published, English has continued to grow and mutate, a great voracious beast of a tongue, snaffling up vocabulary, locutions and syntactical forms from the other languages it feeds on. There are more ways of saying more things in English than ever, and it follows perfectly logically that more people are shaping this versatile instrument for their purposes.

The trouble for the George Orwells of this world is that they don't like the ways in which our tongue is being shaped. In this respect they're indeed small "c" conservatives, who would rather peer at meaning by the guttering candlelight of a Standard English frozen in time, than have it brightly illumined by the high-wattage of the living, changing language.

Orwell and his supporters may say they're objecting to jargon and pretension, but underlying this are good old-fashioned prejudices against difference itself. Only homogenous groups of people all speak and write identically. People from different heritages, ethnicities, classes and regions speak the same language differently, duh!

line
More from the Magazine
Bust of Orwell

George Orwell is one of the UK's best-known 20th Century authors but he's also claimed by a town in north-eastern India. Orwell was born here - and his home is being turned into a museum.

Orwell’s own Indian animal farm (11 August)

line

If you want to expose the Orwellian language police for the old-fashioned authoritarian elitists they really are, you simply ask them which variant of English is more grammatically complex - Standard English or the dialect linguists call African American Vernacular English. The answer is, of course, it's the latter that offers its speakers more ways of saying more things - you feel me?

It was Orwell's own particular genius to possess a prose style that stated a small number of things with painful clarity. Moreover it's a style that along with its manifest virtues has a hidden, almost hypnotic one. Reading Orwell at his most lucid you can have the distinct impression he's saying these things, in precisely this way, because he knows that you - and you alone - are exactly the sort of person who's sufficiently intelligent to comprehend the very essence of what he's trying to communicate.

It's this the mediocrity-loving English masses respond to - the talented dog-whistling calling them to chow down on a big bowl of conformity.

Tombstone reads: "Here lies Eric Arthur Blair"

Because that's what it amounts to in the end. Any insistence on a particular way of stating things is an ideological act, whether performed by George Orwell or the Ministry of Truth.

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.

It's by no means as pernicious an ideology as Ingsoc and its attendant newspeak, but it's an ideology all the same.

And while I don't judge Orwell himself too harshly for his talent, I feel less well-disposed to those mediocrities who slavishly worship at the shrine of St George, little appreciating that 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.

A Point of View is broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays 08:50 BST or listen on BBC iPlayer

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.

Here is a selection of your comments.

Will Self? What the hell are you talking about and can we have it in plain English not some long words that know one except himself uses or understands. Orwell had a point.

Andy Haskell, Romsey Hants

"Well, in fact, as Noam Chomsky's work on universal grammar established etc etc." Orwell didn't have much grasp of theoretical linguistics. Nor does Will Self as this bold statement illustrates. Noam Chomsky's ideas are well open to question, as are Sapir and Woolf's (whose theories Newspeak is based on). Fact one. Orwell is one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. He wasn't a great writer of fiction but that is besides the point. Martin Luther wasn't necessarily a good writer either but like Orwell, he influenced a lot of people. Fact two. You can write well or badly in English in any register. If you are being pretentious it is more likely you well write badly and if you are trying to write well there is a good chance you will succeed.

Dick Bird, Sydney, Australia

It's true that "Politics & the English Language" is flawed, and relies on rhetoric rather than argument. The same goes for Self's little piece. He claims that Orwell and his sympathisers are hostile to language change, and that they are misguided in that hostility. Some facts, perhaps? ...No. The reality, as Orwell was aware (and his polemical essays generally do include some acknowledgment that they overstate their case) is that language change can be good or bad, or even good and bad. He was not as naive as Self suggests regarding the neutrality and objectivity of a plain style; elsewhere (in an essay on Dickens) he wrote that "all art is propaganda"; his own obviously very much included. On the other hand, it was wise of Orwell to avoid using big words he didn't quite understand, as Self has a regrettable tendency to do in his literary stuff. (For the record, I like both writers: Orwell's essays and Self's short stories being among my favourites of their respective categories.)

Tim Nicolas, Brussels, Belgium

I can respect the intention behind Orwell's rules for writing. My problem with them is not the tediously predictable reference to his Englishness and class, but rather their sheer Puritanism. I want the prose I read to be rich with metaphors and interesting words, even jargon - in fact anything at all that brings it close to that that elusive, indefinable thing we call art. I read most of Orwell's books far too many years ago to comment in detail, but there is so much more to him than prose style. That 1984 was prophetic is a truism. But much more importantly, he spoke out against the Soviet Union and totalitarianism when many so-called intellectuals of the time were pandering not just to a mass murderer like Joseph Stalin but to Nazism as well. That alone raises him far above any accusations of mediocrity.

Terry Hand, Whitstable, UK

To say that Chomsky's work on universal grammar establishes anything about the wiring of the brain is quite generous to Chomsky. Many linguists don't see it that way. Essentially, Chomsky saw patterns in the model he was applying to language - and it wasn't even a very good model - and assumed he was divining something about the brain. Methodologically it's akin to leaving the sticker on your brand new sunglasses, and then triumphantly announcing your discovery that the world has a big elliptical dark patch everywhere you look, and that this tells you something important about the sun. By today's standards it's pretty naive. Linguistics has moved on.

Jason Handby, Brighton, UK

All writers are mediocre, but some are more mediocre than others.

Nathanael Price, London

More on This Story

Features & Analysis

Elsewhere on the BBC

  • FordFactory facelift

    Watch as the plant that makes Ford's legendary F-150 undergoes a total overhaul

Programmes

  • A prosthetic legClick Watch

    How motion capture technology is being used to design bespoke prosthetics

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.