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Why Are George Orwell's Essays's So Good?
James Morford
What made George Orwell such a good writer? Usually critics reply it had something to do with his character. They emphasize the best selling serious author of the 20th Century was free from humbug or whatever else that breaks the trust between writer and reader, that he was a virtuous man.


Orwell wrote the way an average person would write if they could, and he didn’t “talk down to anyone.” As Louis Menand said:  “Orwell had the rare talent for making readers feel that they were dealing not with a reporter or a columnist or a literary man – not with  a writer – but with an ordinary person.” It should be added he accomplished this while studding his essays with erudition that never comes across as gratuitous.

Orwell often lived the lives of those he wrote about, be they soldiers, miners, or the down and out waiting to die in hospitals for the poor. He identified with his subjects while striving for objectivity, leading him to be praised by writers of the political left or right. He transcended a given ideology even while condemning or praising it (socialism, the best example of the latter). When Orwell’s life and writings exhibited human failings, and, of course sometimes they did, critics suffer a defensive reaction. “He was human,” they sniff, as they dutifully report his workingman affectations, like sipping tea or coffee from a dish rather than a cup, or more damning, giving out people’s names he considered   “pinkish” during the period following the Second World War. Critics thought him not a saint (indeed, in his essay on Ghandi, Orwell said saints should be considered guilty until proven innocent) but a good man who was, above all, fair and honest.  

Orwell’s frequently anthologized essay, “Shooting an Elephant ,” highlights his verities. He writes of his youthful days as a sub-divisional police officer in Burma. The Burmese can irritate the European, he commented: “In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was a safe distance, got badly on my nerves.” Even though he didn’t care for the Burmese, Orwell considered the British Empire as their oppressor. He then, in typical Orwell fashion, says:. “I did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better then the younger empires that are going to supplant it.”

Orwell is most famous not for essays or longer non-fictional works, “Homage to Catalonia,” or “Down and Out in Paris and London,” but his last two novels, “Animal Farm” and “1984.” He wrote six novels in all. Critic Richard Rovere thought him a novelist of the second rank, but never second rate. I would imagine Mister Rovere had in mind novelists of panoramic genius such as Tolstoy and Faulkner. Rovere may well be correct. Orwell’s novels do not possess the scope of those men, but his non-fictional work is certainly of the first rank, and by implication that brings me to my point.

The reason behind Orwell’s brilliance was that the essay, and very good non-fiction in general, is an art form, and Orwell’s talent suited that particular form. He was above all a great artist of the personal point of view. His first person writings are in a kind of “Welcome to my World,” style. To enter an essay of his is to get “hooked” and stay until you’ve finished reading it. Yes, he was objective, honest, and filled with virtue, but such qualities don’t automatically create a writer that forces you to read on and on. Strange that critics fail mentioning this. They act as if goodness and virtue (hard as they may be to achieve in one’s personality) are sufficient to keep the reader glued to the page .

Orwell also didn’t wax lyrical or lavish his pages with physical descriptions. He had a plain style.  Critics refer to Orwell being faithful to the rules he set forth in his essay, “Politics and the English Language,” now considered a primer for writing lucid English. They emphasize compliance to Orwell’s six rules for good writing (“never use the passive voice when you can use the active,” etc.). Yet, Joseph M. Williams, in his book “Style, Toward Clarity and Grace,” illustrates that one paragraph of this famous essay saw Orwell not only use the passive over the active tense, but violated two other rules, using a verb as a phrase and  noun constructions.

Most critics agree an author’s style reflects his personality, that regardless of artistic talent, a writer filled with humbug and dishonesty could never write the essays Orwell wrote. One is reminded of J. D. Salinger’s teenage character, Holden Caulfield, saying there were certain writers he would like to know, and others he wouldn’t like to know, and I would imagine just about everyone would like to know George Orwell. But are Orwell’s virtues powerful enough to turn an essay about dated fictional characters such as “Raffles and Miss Blandish,” into a meaningful read? Personally, I had never heard of them before Orwell’s essay, nor had I heard of postcard artist Donald McGill (much less given a thought to the process of creating postcard arts), yet I enjoyed Orwell’s essay “The Art of Donald McGill.”

George Orwell had the ability to turn those subjects into something more than they appear on the surface, and it doesn’t have as much to do with integrity, erudition or lucidity as it does creating another world, as fiction does. When reading Orwell, the seemingly minor and uninteresting become major and interesting. You are riveted to the page by the talent of the author.

orwell2 Critics often speculate what Orwell would write if he were alive today. Many believe his honesty meant he would retain his liberal bent, and his objective spirit while savaging the hypocrisy of contemporary liberal practitioners. They would stress that he was too fair and balanced to do anything else.

Probably true. Yet, it would be interesting if Orwell himself could now read his critics (who showed little interest in him until after his death at age 47). Would Orwell agree virtue created his success? I doubt it. He might argue, as he had previously written, everything he wrote was directly or indirectly political, an argument that in many ways begs the question.

The fact is George Orwell was a born literary artist that could not turn away from his gift. He himself admits he had little choice to do what he was meant to do. He starts out his essay on “Why I Write” with the following sentence: “From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer.”

The virtue came later.
© James Morford Feb 2010

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