George Orwell Why I Write Penguin BooksOh the woes of being Will Self. No one is going to shoot at you across a barren stretch of contested Spanish earth in a great faceoff between rival ideologies. No one is going to hunt you through the streets of Barcelona for “rabid Trotskyism.” No one is going to drop a flying bomb on your flat and demolish your library. No one is going to refuse to publish one of your masterworks for fear of upsetting wartime allies. No one is going to make special requests to the Minister of Health to import the drugs needed to keep you alive. What can you do to compete? Especially when you have a new book just out? How are you going to get any attention?

Well, one simple answer is obviously accuse those so endowed of being mediocrities. Which is just what Will Self has done in a BBC Point of View post. There, Self castigates Orwell as the “single Supreme Mediocrity” of the UK’s post-war period. Not that the English needed Orwell’s help to worship stupidity and ignorance in the guise of common sense and simplicity. They’d been doing that very comfortably for centuries before he came along.

What gets Self’s goat especially (though not necessarily in the Aleister Crowley sense) is the influence of Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” as “a manifesto of plainspoken common sense.” Not that Orwell himself had much to do with spreading this orthodoxy, with only four years to live after the publication of that essay. Self complains that Orwell’s devotees are “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.”

In saying that, though, Will Self is wilfully (perhaps even selfishly …) sliding over the “Politics” headword in the essay title, ignoring the fact that this was an essay inspired by political propaganda, not literary style. And he also ignores the fact that Orwell often wrote very diversely and in ways far removed from those dicta. You don’t produce a brilliant analysis of a writer like Henry Miller in “Inside the Whale” without having artistic and stylistic sensitivities very close to those of your subject, and Orwell remains an inspired and inspiring critic of other writers from Dickens to Arthur Koestler. Doesn’t that sound like Self is engaging in a bit of doublethink?

Maybe the neologisms are part of the problem. How many of Self’s coinages have made it into the lexicon. And what would you call them anyway? After thoughtcrime, could we have Selfcrime? After newspeak, Selfspeak? After Orwellian, could we have Selfish?

But it (probably) isn’t (just) about sales. It’s also that nagging anxiety that can assail some writers when they complete a work, of how valuable their writing actually is. How many people are really going to remember it in 20, 30 years’ time? How big is your posthumous reputation going to be? That kind of gnawing concern can spook writers into all kinds of errors of judgment. After all, god forbid, you might even be … mediocre?


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