Will Self has a book to sell and it’s 2014, so he needs to generate some online traffic. Instead of retitling his novel as “The Top 8 Beauty Tips that Kim Kardashian doesn’t want you to know”, Self decided to savage one of the most highly-esteemed English writers of the 20th Century, George Orwell, from his platform on the BBC. You can read his essay here:
The ploy seems to have worked. Online forums racked up comments in the hundreds, which in turn prompted responses from columnists to keep those hits coming. Most of the responses I’ve seen support Orwell and disagree strongly with Self. Laura Miller has already written probably the most thorough refutation for Salon.com:
but I can’t help thinking that something is missing from the debate. What if Will Self actually has made a valid point?
Most of the comments I’ve seen have been a response to Will Self calling Orwell “the Supreme Mediocrity” and his repeatedly referring to Orwell as a “talented mediocrity”. This elicits an immediate response along the lines of “How dare you?”, or “Who the hell are you? How can you call Orwell mediocre when I’ve never even heard of you?”. Another natural response is to invoke the greatness – the decided anti-mediocrity – of Orwell’s works, and to compare them with Self’s output, which is unlikely to have a fraction of that cultural impact.
Those comments might point out Orwell as “the tireless campaigner for social justice and economic equality”. They might refer to 1984 and Orwell’s “prophetic voice, crying out in the wartime wilderness against the dangers of totalitarianism and the rise of the surveillance state”. Or those comments could be more interested in Orwell’s socialism, in how he “nobly took up arms in the cause of Spanish democracy, then, equally nobly, exposed the cause’s subversion by Soviet realpolitik”. The trouble is that all of those quotations come from Will Self’s own essay.
Will Self could have just tweeted “Orwell is the supreme mediocrity”, but he wrote an essay instead. It would be fair to assume that he’s read more of Orwell’s writing than most of us, that he’s not lying when he claims to have “read the great bulk of his output – at least that which originally appeared in hard covers, and some of his books[…] many times over – in particular The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London”, and is capable of seeing Orwell’s worth. So, is this just plain trolling? (As Laura Miller puts it: “wild — and one can only assume willful — misinterpretation”, and “a ludicrous smear”)
Laura Miller goes beyond the knee-jerk reaction, addresses Self’s points about Orwell’s prose style and refutes them with scholarly precision. She demonstrates how Orwell was far less conservative and prescriptive in his approach to language than Self claims, by quoting the part of Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” that limits the suggested rules about plain English to political communication.
Miller also includes some well-aimed jibes at Self’s expense “His penchant for deploying such dust bunnies of the thesaurus as “fulguration” and “lucubration”” is his “schtick”. He’s “not so much an obscure writer as an exhausting one, and not always able to convince readers that the rewards his work offers will be worth the effort it takes to get them”. “Many Britons are fond of him, for if the English, as Self claims, like their mediocrities, they absolutely adore their eccentrics.” So the result seems clear:
Orwell 2 – 1 Self
We can rest easy now that Self has been proven wrong by someone who obviously knows what she’s talking about. But Miller didn’t address the heart of Self’s argument, even if she did a handsome job of refuting Self’s examples and hyperbole. For Self’s essay was never really an attack on Orwell as much as on all of us, and he says it clearly enough: “these figures may not, in fact, be talented mediocrities at all, but rather genuinely adept and acute [as we can all, including Self, agree about Orwell] . However, what’s important is that they either play to the dull and cack-handed gallery [that’s us], or that those who sit there see in them their own run-of-the-mill reflection. [that’s us too]” .
This is an argument that cannot be answered with an assessment of Orwell’s worth or by denigrating Self’s. Although certain paragraphs of his essay have been deftly dismantled, there’s an insidious sentiment that we’d rather ignore running throughout: we’re not as clever as we think we are. That’s what Self is getting at all the way through, and it’s not easy to hear: “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.”
Orwell may well have been great, says Self, but his success was in making dullards like us feel clever. Furthermore, Self adds, Orwell’s ideal of plain language as a pane of clear glass through which to see the world is a misleading metaphor. Miller misses Self’s point here, and addresses the conflicting aesthetics of plain and of ornate prose in creative writing- “clear glass” versus “stained glass windows” – before dismissing them as irrelevant to Orwell’s essay about political writing.
In fact, Self is using this essay as a way to assert the worth of a basic concept of the academic world, at least in literature: that there is no such thing as unadulterated truth, that everything is coloured by one’s own perspective, and so “clear glass” or “plain English” writing are not actually possible. After cutting away the ill-advised / calculated provocations which align Orwell with small-mindedness, it’s worth noticing the moment where Self makes the point about truth most clearly:
“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.”
I believe it’s a point worth making and responding to, even if Self is doing it to sell books.