“By declining to lie, even as far as possible to himself, and by his determination to seek elusive but verifiable truth. He showed how much can be accomplished by an individual who unites the qualities of intellectual honesty and moral courage”.
This quote on Orwell’s writing I believe sums up the great advantage a person can have when they write in the most brutally honest form that they can. A writer who does that is able to say the most without having to worry about it being challenged. When a writer publishes the truth, they have nothing to fear when it comes to people criticizing their work. Because the critic can only say that they don’t like it, but they can’t say that they are wrong.
His first published piece, titled Down and Out in Paris and London, introduced the world to the writing styles of Orwell. Holding nothing back, he used his experiences as a poor writer trying to scrape by to write a fictional, but very realistic account of a broke writer who is trying to scrape by while living in Paris and describes the types of labor he had to do in order to make a living.
The realism of his prose was apparent from the beginning. The owner of the restaurant he worked at wrote to the magazine his piece was published in complaining that what he wrote was “unfairly disparaging to the restaurant trade”. Despite being a fictional piece, Orwell’s ability to paint for the reader an honest picture of reality was already being noticed. People not in the restaurant business loved it however, saying that it took readers to the underworld of the city that no other writer had gone to before.
One thing this piece showed the world, along with Orwell’s ability to tell the truth, was his fearlessness when it came to facing critics. He used a story to attack an industry he worked in; one which probably would have had to be his fall-back job option if his writing career never took off, and he had no issue when it came to tearing the industry apart. This first piece was a preview to the world of the brutally honest writer who had just been let out of his cage and released into the world of public writing.
Having read a few of George Orwell’s essays I have come to two conclusions. One is that he writes exactly how I wish I could write, the other is that he writes exactly the opposite of how I do write at the moment. In other words, I don’t write the way I want to but this man does. He has this amazing ability to say exactly what he wants to say in as simple of terms as he can. This was something I didn’t appreciate upon first reading because I found it to be writing that has nothing special about it. But now that I’ve read a bit more of his work I can come to understand that his ability to simplify his writing so well was what made it so special.
I think the person who best describes Orwell’s writing is Orwell himself in his essay “Politics and the English Language”. In this essay he lists his six rules for writers, which go as follows:
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.”
One could argue that this is not a list of ways to make your writing exciting but I feel that nobody, regardless of how good of a writer they are, would be able to follow these guidelines and produce something that would cause a reader to say “I’m not sure what point this writer is trying to make”.
This differs greatly from many of the other famous writers of that time. I can think of many instances in high school where I was reading a twentieth century novelist for a class and there was some point where the teacher would ask “What do you believe the author is trying to say in this passage?”. The conversation then continues with a bunch of high school kids trying to decipher a complex metaphor the author felt the need to include in their writing because the idea they were discussing wasn’t interesting enough to be written in plain language.
An example of how I believe that Orwell differed from other writers at the time comes from a feud that I’ve read about between William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. Faulkner said, of Hemingway’s work, “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary” to which Hemingway replied “Poor Faulkner, does he really think big emotions come from big words?”
Now, on one hand, both of these author’s insults to each other provide great but contradicting advice to writers. Faulkner is saying that a writer should try to stay away from dry language whereas Hemingway is saying that the language doesn’t matter so long as the emotion is there. What this reveals though is that both of these writers wrote with the concern of how well their work would be received. They both admit that there is a tool they are consciously using in their writing to keep the reader reading.
Why I believe this makes Orwell so different is that his writing strives for neither the display of a colorful vocabulary nor did he try to express wonderful emotion. His writing is centered entirely around idea.
His straightforward style of writing is on display again in his essay titled The Hanging which he starts by saying “It was in Burma, a sudden morning of the rains. A sickly light, like yellow tinfoil, was slanting over the high walls into the jail yard.” Most great writers I know of have a great focus on detail in their writing. Many of which would have probably take two to three pages to describe the same kind of scene. But Orwell gives the reader the image of the scene, albeit with a little less detail, in fewer than thirty words. He still has the imagery down as well as the setting, and he wastes absolutely no words in creating them.
When he did go into detail though, he didn’t go overboard. He never felt the need to spend pages describing a scenery or even try to set a serious tone with his writing. He does break from his rule of wasting words when he goes on describing some people. This could either be meant for comic effect or that he doesn’t follow all the rules that he tells others to follow. One example of him breaking this rule is in “A Hanging” when he describes one of the prisoners. He describes him by saying “He was a Hindu, a puny wisp of a man, with a shaven head and vague liquid eyes. He had a thick, sprouting mustache, absurdly too big for his body”.
I think it would be fair to say that the redundancies in this description are meant for comic effect because they are one’s so obvious that there is no way an author would be able to overlook when proofreading. Descriptions such as “a puny wisp of a man” which, in very plain language would translate to “a very small man who is small” as well as the description of the man’s mustache being “absurdly too big for his body” as if any person could grow a mustache that is too big for their body which doesn’t look absurd.
Both of these add to the slight comedic undertone of the piece, they make the piece less like a story and more like a funny video playing inside the readers head. The images I would get in my head if someone were to describe a man’s mustache as “too big for his body” as opposed to “drastically too big for his body” are very different. The second image I get is a very nonsensical one that makes me laugh to myself whereas the first description would just make me picture a man with a big mustache. I think Orwell is very deliberate in this. Most of his writing goes by the idea that “less is more” but these passages go back to the basic idea that more is usually more. By overly describing the appearance of these two characters he makes it very clear to the reader how much they stand out.
I have written about the honesty in his writing but I have never explored what may have lead him to being such an honest writer. One reason, proof of which I believe can be found in the story of why he chose to write under a pen name, would be his pessimism. And almost all of Orwell’s writing was pessimistic in some way.
George Orwell was actually born Eric Arthur Blair. The reason for not publishing under his birth name is because he didn’t want to embarrass the family name for the time he believed that he would spend in poverty due to his writing. This is possibly the only career move he made for fear of embarrassment. He knew he wanted to be a writer, and he believed that all writers would spend time poor. Rather than trying to be optimistic and say to himself “Well maybe I can be an exception” he just went with the more realistic path of “This will probably send me into poverty for a bit and I don’t want my family to be embarrassed because of my failure”. This style of thinking can be clearly seen in the majority of his writing, almost none of which deals with happy themes and I don’t think any of his stories contain happy endings. Rather they had endings that he believed were what would be the most realistic outcomes, which I think ties back to Hitchens’ point about Orwell declining to lie, even to himself.
Orwell makes a very interesting statement in his essay Politics and the English Language about why writing well is such a difficult task. He says “It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish. But the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible”. I’m not going to go into how much this made me reevaluate my own thinking because it would get off topic but I do think he makes an interesting point. I almost felt he was criticizing my writing as I was writing about him. I think he is saying that our thoughts effect our language and our language effects our thoughts. I always knew the former to be true but I never even considered the latter.
I think it makes a lot of sense that one wouldn’t be able to express an idea if they did not know the proper language needed to express it. If you didn’t know the word “big”, or any other synonyms that could substitute for it, than you would be very limited when trying to describe to someone something that was big. I think Orwell is applying this to ideas in general. If we do not have the vocabulary that is needed to understand and discuss a certain idea then we will be unable to understand and discuss it. And when put like that it seems so obvious and I don’t know how I never realized it before. I think this could be counted as a seventh rule that someone should not choose to write about something that they do not eat possess the proper vocabulary to do so. And I really hope that if I were to apply that rule to my own writing it wouldn’t mean that I shouldn’t be writing about Orwell because the more I learn about him the more I believe that he is too complex for me to properly write about. Although I think that, as I read, I might be able to figure out how to properly write about him.
An interesting, and almost creepy aspect of Orwell’s writing was his ability to predict the future through his societal observations. And these predictions stretch far beyond people constantly comparing Trumps’s America to 1984. This can be seen in his essay “You and the Atomic Bomb” Which was published in 1945 and used the phrase “Cold War” Which he predicted would happen between the worlds largest powers at some point.
As can be expected, Orwell starts this piece off by not wasting any words getting to his point… “Considering how likely we all are to be blown to pieces by it within the next five years, the atomic bomb has not roused so much discussion as might have been expected”. I can feel the passive aggressiveness, or more just straightforward aggressiveness. This piece appears to be written with the hopes that someone in power will pick it up and understand that it is directed at them. Without directly stating it, he is able to convey to the reader, just with his word choice, exactly how he feels about this situation that they are in.
He follows this with a paragraph written with the hopes that it will be read by president Truman will read it and either feel insulted or change his mind about what decision he makes regarding the bomb. Which is then followed by an incredibly interesting history lesson about how the ability to invent new weapons has altered the history of countries fighting for years. Again, a quite obvious fact that I never would have thought about had I not come across it in one of his pieces. He ends this piece with an incredibly profound description of the Cold War that is sure to stick in the readers head when he describes it as “peace that is no peace”. I don’t know why that last part stuck with me so much. I could be overthinking it but I feel that it is a perfect way to describe the situation they were facing. Just because no violence was occurring doesn’t mean that anyone in the United States or Russia ever felt a sense of security.
So Orwell may not have been the first writer who tried conveying the truth through fiction, but he was certainly one of the seminal ones. One who influenced many other writers after him to fearlessly tell the truth in their writing regardless of the consequences. I don’t think everyone has to aspire to write identical to Orwell. People can still publish optimistic pieces, they can still use common metaphors and long words if they wish to. But every person should aim to tell the truth just as fearlessly as Orwell did. I think Orwell would agree that no writer has ever regretted getting in trouble for speaking their mind so much as they would regret never speaking their mind to begin with.