Exit Orwell, pursued by a gigantic hound
A pert, conceited, saucy, pragmatical, little fellow.
I hate Orwell’s writing rules. All that crap about preferring the active voice and never using a long word where a short one will do. Should Conan Doyle not have written “They were the footprints of a gigantic hound!” because gigantic could have been replaced with something shorter? Or because it’s in the passive voice? What about the “make me a willow cabin at your gate” speech, would Orwell start slashing words from these lines:
Hallow your name to the reverberate hills, And make the babbling gossip of the air Cry out 'Olivia!'
Without babbling and reverberate what would we have here? Try going through Shakespeare, the King James Version, or Mrs Dalloway and applying Orwell’s rule, “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” You will be left with the sort of prose that passes for writing in shampoo adverts. For God’s sake, there would be no Ulysses with these bloody rules. No Proust, Lydia Davis, Samuel Johnson.
Robert Cottrell defended Orwell recently on the grounds that his rules are good for journalism, if not literature. Tell that to Tom Wolfe! Take this sentence from The Great Gatsby, which, horror of horrors (whoops!—I used a figure of speech I am used to seeing in print!), is written in the passive voice: “The lawn and drive had been crowded with the faces of those who guessed at his corruption—and he had stood on those steps, concealing his incorruptible dream, as he waved them good-bye.” I would be happy to find more such writing in journalism. If I could be bothered to look, I think the New York Times archives would be full of such un-Orwellian prose. If they didn’t write like that about Nixon, they ought to have done. (Nice use of the passive voice, there, if I do say so myself.)
Oh, by the way, the opening sentence of the essay where Orwell laid down these rules includes a usage of the passive voice. The second sentence includes a figure of speech we are used to seeing in print. The essay is full of words you could cut or shorten. Sentimental archaism. Take the necessary trouble. The slovenliness of our language. Need I go on?
Try getting chatGPT to rewrite all your long funny rambling emails to friends by applying Orwell’s rules. You won’t want to send those emails. He saps the life out of writing. He’s a school teacher dressed up as a literateur. (Damn! I used a foreign word.) He is a prig, which Johnson, in splendid contravention of Orwell, defines as: “A pert, conceited, saucy, pragmatical, little fellow.” You see: even in a dictionary, using a short word instead of a long one would be a stupid idea.
Orwell’s error was that he was encoding a fashion as if it were a principle. He tries to make an art of minimalism, not realising he is merely an inverted Augustan. It makes no more sense to say “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent” than it does to outlaw the use of prepositions at the end of a sentence. Also, yes, please do use jargon and scientific words. Was he drunk when he wrote that?
It is no more sensible to think that complex left-branching sentences with nested sub-clauses are inherently good or bad than it is to say that all sonnets are either good or bad. Good writing must be discovered, sentence by sentence. The rules of writing are just not very useful. Sometimes you will use the passive well, sometimes the spliced comma. In Sense & Sensibility Jane Austen wrote, “It was a gentleman, it was Colonel Brandon himself.” To give the effect of someone hurriedly, excitedly, (and mistakenly) realising who is walking towards them, this technique is very good. It breaks a rule though.
Cottrell was reacting to this essay by David Bentley Hart, which he found, I think, a little windy. I loved the essay, especially its long quotations. The heart of it was this sentence: “Sometimes less is more. More often, more is more and less is less. Sometimes more is the very least one can do for one’s readers.” Here’s another sentence from Hart I was pleased to read: “If you were told in school that Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea is a specimen of good writing, disabuse yourself of this folly. It is in fact an excruciating specimen of bad schoolboy prose, written by a man who by that point had, alas, been too often drunk, too often concussed, and too often praised.”
I don’t agree with Hart all the time. He thought Orwell was right to include “a sound admonition against using hackneyed metaphors”. Is that supposed to be ironic? But in this world where all prose must be staccato to be considered readable, I was glad to find someone prepared to say so much against Orwell and the nasty trend he helped embed in ordinary English. If you want to write effectively on the internet, you should often use scientific words, figures of speech you are used to seeing in print, the passive voice, and long words. Look around. Good bloggers are doing these things all the time.
In his essay Bentham, John Stuart Mill wrote this criticism of Bentham’s writing style:
He could not bear, for the sake of clearness and the reader’s ease, to say, as ordinary men are content to do, a little more than the truth in one sentence, and correct it in the next. The whole of the qualifying remarks which he intended to make, he insisted upon imbedding as parentheses in the very middle of the sentence itself. And thus the sense being so long suspended, and attention being required to the accessory ideas before the principal idea had been properly seized, it became difficult, without some practice, to make out the train of thought.
That is the sort of thing Orwell was against and which his rules are still used to try and overcome. That enemy is a strawman today. Bentley Hart was right to argue against the “puritanical nonsense” of all the short, sharp, plain prose we have come to admire. David Perell recently talked about what we lose with the directness of internet writing. I agree with Robert that Hart overdid it a little. But I have read that essay several times and enjoyed it. It is some time since I felt like I wanted to read Orwell. There is a lot to be learned from Hart and a lot to be ignored in Orwell.
I wrote to Robert about this, and we agreed on almost everything, especially Orwell’s inflated reputation. Orwell was so preoccupied with propaganda and corrupted language and all that jazz because he was a man in disguise himself. We are surrounded by obviously middle-class people who insist on their working class credentials today. Orwell was like that, but upper class, and his rules reflect some of that confuscation. It was part of his being an upper-class intellectual that he had to demur his own status.
I’ll give Robert the last word as he said it better than I, or Orwell, could.
I suspect that Orwell’s style rules have been so popular for so long because they paraphrase what almost every serious writer thinks themselves to be doing in any case. But let me not praise Orwell beyond that minimum. Deep down, there was something bogus in that man. Orwell felt torn between the privilege which was his by birth and class and education, and his need to disclaim such privilege as a strategy for writing. He never seemed to accept that, by pretending to write as a poor and insignificant person, he was raising his prestige among rich and interesting people. He was not a great thinker, but he was a good critic, and he meant well.
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