Will Self recently published an article in which he proclaimed George Orwell a “literary mediocrity” and his admirers even more so. In particular, he condemns Orwell’s rules for writing in “Politics and the English Language” as a reaction to the inevitable growth and change of language. My first reaction to these statements is that nobody has a right to condemn an influential writer as mediocre unless they can demonstrate at least equal skill, which, both analytically and structurally, Self has not done. My second is that his interpretation is so unsupported that it seems a willful misunderstanding.
If you have any interest in writing at all, you have probably seen Orwell’s rules:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Contrary to Self, these rules are concerned with clarity, so to claim that they are even implicitly about the evolution of language is forced. Besides, when “Politics and the English Language” ends with the claim that its topic “has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear,” Orwell cannot possibly be said to be resisting linguistic change. In fact, far from being against change, Orwell’s rules overall advocate originality, and an avoidance of over-used expressions.
Moreover, as I used to explain every semester when teaching university composition, the rules are far more flexible than a general impression of them suggests. For example, most people reading the first rule emphasize “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech.” However, Orwell’s real concern is expressed in the words that most people forget: “which you are used to seeing in print.” Orwell is not trying to ban figures of speech, but to encourage original, expressive ones.
Similarly, Orwell’s second rule does not blindly favor short words or longer ones. The result of following such a rule would be an affected simplicity of the kind that you sometimes see in Hemingway. If you mean to convey only a general sense of size, then “big” might do, but if you want to suggest something truly outsized, then “humongous” would be a more appropriate word choice, even though it is three times as long.
In the same way, “Never use the passive where you can use the active” proposes a general rule, but makes the choice a matter of purpose. If you want to suggest helplessness in a short story, “A groan issued from his lips” would be a better choice than “he groaned,” and never mind that it is in the passive voice. Nor, to judge from Orwell’s own writing, would he hesitate to use “a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word” if no “everyday English equivalent” comes to mind.
However, of all Orwell’s six rules, the last one is the most important. “Politics and the English Language” is all about original, forceful, and clear expression. With these concerns, presumably the last thing Orwell wanted to do was limit expression artificially, so in the last rules, he specifically provides for exceptions. He is talking about general tendencies, but in the end what counts for him is whatever works, not keeping the rules. “One could keep all of them and still write bad English,” he admits in the paragraph after them, and their sole virtue is that even a bad example of them would avoid the over-inflated type of English he condemns.
Of course, like all writers, when Orwell advises about writing, he is on some level rationalizing his own style, and his advice may not be as meaningful to some readers as to others. However, before Self or anyone dismisses his work as mediocre or out of date, they should at least do him the courtesy of responding to what he actually said, instead of debunking what they imagine he says.