Slightly patronising article by Julian Barnes on George Orwell in the New York Review of Books, and why he is loved and honoured by the British, or as he dismissively puts it, :-
The Queen of England, advised by her government, appoints knights and peers; the nation at large, by more informal means, appoints national treasures. To achieve this status, it is not sufficient to be outstanding in your profession; you must reflect back some aspect of how the country imagines itself to be. . .
When it comes to the dead, it is hard to retain, or posthumously acquire, treasuredom. Being a great writer in itself has little to do with the matter. The important factors are: (1) an ambassadorial quality, an ability to present the nation to itself, and represent it abroad, in a way it wishes to be presented and represented. (2) An element of malleability and interpretability. The malleability allows the writer to be given a more appealing, if not entirely untruthful, image; the interpretability means that we can find in him or her more or less whatever we require. (3) The writer, even if critical of his or her country, must have a patriotic core, or what appears to be one.
It might be that it is Orwell’s originality that is valued, both in Animal Farm and his writings on popular culture, or his anti-totalitarianism, or his love of the natural world. Bing Crosby said he sang like an ordinary man could imagine himself singing (whereas no-one can imagine himself singing like Pavarotti) so Lionel Trilling said of Orwell he wrote as anyone can imagine themselves writing, if they make an effort, whereas everybody knows they can’t write like James Joyce (whom Orwell admired greatly, stating that his own writing was a “eunuch’s squeak” compared to Joyce’s). So he is something attainable – “accessible” as the buzz word is these days - in both being readable and imitable.
"Good prose is like a windowpane." As an instruction to cub reporters and old hacks—also as a self-instruction of the kind writer-critics issue to the world while actually describing their own procedures—it sounds reasonable enough. But it begs questions, as does Orwell's other key instruction, from "Politics and the English Language": "Let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about." Together, these dicta presuppose, and instruct, that writing is a matter of examining the world, reflecting upon it, deducing what you want to say, putting that meaning or message into words whose transparency allows the reader, now gazing through the same windowpane from the same position, to see the world exactly as you have seen it. But does anyone, even Orwell, actually write like that? And are words glass? Most writing comes from a more inchoate process; ideas may indeed propose words, but sometimes words propose ideas (or both transactions occur within the same sentence). As E.M. Forster, a frequent target of Orwell's, put it (or rather, quoted) in Aspects of the Novel : "How do I know what I think till I see what I say?" To Orwell this might seem a piece of pansy-left whimsy; but it probably accords more closely to the experience of many writers.
That is a reasonable objection because as you write your words start a brain storming session and engender more ideas than the ones that got you writing that piece in the first place. But words also engender other words, and old metaphors, and overly extended metaphors and that is the danger – you start writing “both exhaustive and exhausting”, you seek for the pun or the play on words or the half remembered quote starts to go off on its own track. Words are seductive. They heat you up to pay attention to them, and not what they represent. They distract you from the point. The puritan Orwell bathes you in a cold shower – is that what you observed? Is that what you know about?
Here’s a sentence from one word lover:-
“Geoffrey sweated too much and was running to fat (why does one say running? Geoffrey never ran).
(Anthony Burgess, Earthly Powers)
And from another:-
I wondered why Penny should dislike me so much: not surely because of my breasts-fumble of a couple of years previously. She, or they, must long have been hardened to that kind of thing.
(Kiingsley Amis, Girl, 20)
Amis of course is being funny, and his playful pedantry is part of his style. But in both extracts there is a fidgetty archness, a mannered quality that you don’t get in Orwell.
The Fat Man is astute on this:-
Orwell is a savage writer; angry, discontented and bitter. His plainness of style is not a folksy anti-intellectualism, it is a method of critical thinking.
This method is to keep an eye on the object and try to describe it accurately, whether it’s a fellow traveller’s excuses for Stalin or how plots of land in Morocco are irrigated.
The diaries that are on The Orwell Prize site are diaries of observable fact, mostly about the natural world. Nothing, for instance, about his relationship with his wife, and no interest in human beings as personalities – totally unlike Virginia Woolf’s diaries for instance.
The Fat Man points out:-
One of the things that surprises me is the number of unlikely people who claim Orwell as an intellectual hero. He has, of course, become an icon of Eustonians because of his anti-totalitarianism, though some of them might be uncomfortable with the fact that the reason he went to fight in Spain was not to uphold the right to free speech but to "kill fascists". The most curious admirers though are libertarian conservatives.
I think that Orwell's appeal to them rests on two features drawn from his later novels. Just as anti-Americans borrow his description in 1984 of Britain as Airstrip One, libertarians see the novel as a working out of Hayek's view of the evolution of totalitarianism from war-time planning. Neither interpretation would have appealed to Orwell who was a firm supporter of the post-war Labour Government and certainly knew whose side he was on in the Cold War. However, it is probably his anti-Communism that appeals most to the right. I am not sure that they should be quite so admiring.
Orwell’s dislike of the rich would have kept him away from Conservatism. He hated the way the rich talked, the games they played, the fact that rich women cared about preserving their looks, he had a puritan distaste for material excess and luxury never tempted him. But the classic liberal freedoms of association and speech were highly important to him.
The real division is not between conservatives and revolutionaries but between authoritarians and libertarians.
(I’ve quoted this before from The Lost Orwell ed by Peter Davison)
In the past every tyranny was sooner or later overthrown, or at least resisted because of “human nature” which as a matter of course desired liberty. But we cannot be at all certain that “human nature” is a constant. It may be just as possible to produce a breed of men who do not wish for liberty as to produce a breed of hornless cows.
His other appeal to the Spectator right is his paramount fear that intellectual inquiry was being irretrievably corrupted by ideology. From his Spanish Civil War days onwards he decried how history was simply being made up and you might never find out any truth again. Winston Smith’s job description in Nineteen Eighty-Four is to falsify of history in the interests of the Party.
The British are famous for their obfuscation, their fudge, their fogginess, their hypocrisy. These are vices which can be defended as being necessary for padding the harsh reality of human interaction and of power relations but they weren’t Orwell’s vices.