Penguin Great Ideas : Why I Write Mass Market Paperback – 2 Sep 2004
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About the Author
Eric Arthur Blair (1903-1950), better known by his pen-name, George Orwell, was born in India, where his father worked for the Civil Service. An author and journalist, Orwell was one of the most prominent and influential figures in twentieth-century literature. His unique political allegory Animal Farm was published in 1945, and it was this novel, together with the dystopia of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), which brought him world-wide fame. His novels and non-fiction include Burmese Days, Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia.
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Top customer reviews
Orwell's writing about literature, when not in a political vein, is instructive. He loves the stories of Jack London and mourns their popularity, while admitting they are extremely variable in tone. The problem with these stories is their extreme cruelty - indeed London's Iron Heel predicts the rise of fascism. His greatest works have the theme of the cruelty of nature.
In his essay on The Prevention of Literature Orwell is most exercised by the distortion and suppression caused by Communists and `fellow-travellers'. "There can be no question," he says, "About the poisonous effect of the Russian mythos on English intellectual life. The kind of distortion he has in mind take in situations such as that which found "...very large numbers of Soviet Russians - mostly, no doubt, from non-political motives - had changed sides and were fighting for the Germans. Also a small but not negligible proportion of the Russian prisoners and Displaced Persons refused to go back to the USSR, and some of them were repatriated against their will. These facts, known to many journalists on the spot, went almost unmentioned in the British press, while at the same time Russophile publicists in England continued to justify the purges and deportations of 1936-38 by claiming that the USSR `had no quislings.' The fog of lies and misinformation that surrounds such subjects as the Ukraine famine, the Spanish Civil War, Russian policy in Poland and so forth, is not due entirely to conscious dishonesty, but any writer or journalist who is fully sympathetic to the USSR - sympathetic, that is, in the way the Russians would want him to be - does have to acquiesce in deliberate falsification on important issues."
Lighter pieces include Pleasure Spots which describes in scathing tones new ideas for holidays of the future. Interestingly these sound exactly like a Centre-Parks complex, even down to the continuous music in all covered areas. Oh please preserve us from musak!
One of Orwell's most famous journalistic pieces is called The Decline of the English Murder - and it is gruesome, though one does hear the satire not far beneath the surface. In one of his best pieces of work: Politics and the English Language, Orwell includes six rules for writing:
1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one would do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Strangely enough one of the best pieces of writing here is entitled: Some Thoughts on the Common Toad. On waking, Orwell notes, "the toad has a very spiritual look, like a strict Anglo-Catholic towards the end of Lent. His movements are languid but purposeful, his body is shrunken, and by contrast his eyes look abnormally large. This allows one to notice... that the toad has about the most beautiful eye of any living creature. It is like gold, or more exactly it is like the golden-coloured semi-precious stone which one sometimes sees in signet rings and which I think is called a chrysoberyl.
Later in this piece, which might be my favourite of all his writings, he asks: "Is it wicked to take a pleasure in Spring and other seasonal changes?... while we are all groaning, or at least, ought to be groaning, under the shackles of the capitalist system, to point out that life is frequently more worth living because of a blackbird's song, a yellow elm tree in October, or some other natural phenomenom which does not cost money..." He also remarks, "'Nature' in one of my articles is liable to bring me abusive letters." Mainly, it seems, because he has gone off the political track and is being "sentimental" about his surroundings.
There is much more to this collection, much of it important political writing, especially so with Politics vs. Literature: An Examination of Gulliver's Travels, and Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool, as well as an excellent essay about Ghandi. Much of what Orwell has to say is very much involved with the politics of his own time, which are much more agonised than our own. This is because people, ordinary people, matter to Orwell. Political activity matters to him in a way it no longer does to us. I have no respect for the politicians of my day, but much respect for a man who tried always to tell the truth when all about him were liars, fools and fabricators.
On the subject of his reasons for writing, Orwell provided four reasons why any writer might write, apart from the need to earn a crust. These four points were, sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose. The last point acted as a good primer for the subjects of the other three essays.
His analysis of England, "The Lion and the Unicorn", attempted to define the essence of the English. This work was written after the British retreat from Dunkirk and before the D-Day landings. Orwell's essay describes people's expectation that there would be at least another three years of war, and he is very supportive of patriotism to England while at the same time promoting the improvement of the position of the common man.
"A Hanging" is a brief account of a hanging in India and it leaves little to the imagination.
"Politics and the English Language" deals with the way politicians, businesses and newspapers use the English language to say a lot while stating absolutely nothing. He proscribes six rules for the writing of plain English with the objective of actually communicating a message to the biggest number of people. These are:
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, as 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.
I found this little book to be full of fascinating ideas and socio-political concepts, not to mention great expressions. My copy is full of under linings, margin notes and references scribbled on the inside back cover. Much of the content is as relevant today as it was in the 1940s. We have different pressures today but they are presenting the same social problems that Orwell was discussing in these essays.
I was reading two other books around the same time I was reading this book and there was considerable overlap in relation to the language of politicians and people's tendency to ignore difficult issues that are staring them in the face. The other two books were Wilful Blindness by Margaret Heffernan and Spy the Lie by Philip Houston.
I would strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in writing, and anyone who cares about social justice.
It is Orwell's combination of a sentimental attachment to the ordinary Englishman who doesn't hesitate in the face of Fascism, and a withering dismissal of English anti-intellectualism, that makes this book so beguiling. It feels remarkably contemporary as he observes 'England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality.' And touchingly prescient as he predicts in 1940 that 'in whatever shape England emerges from the war..the gentleness, hypocrisy, the thoughtlessness, the reverence for law and the hatred of uniforms will remain, along with the suet puddings and the misty skies.'
Towards the end he gets a little bogged down in his manifesto for change - and his belief in nationalisation now seems quaint. But the book returns to form at the end with a coruscating attack on the misuse of English.
Poor a slightly warm beer, look out over some interlocking hills, and enjoy.
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