I discovered this collection of Orwell’s literary critiques at a good time. I took a class in graduate level literary theory and criticism and one of the things I discovered about the last hundred years’ crop of theorists and critics is that splitting hairs now constitutes theory and criticism.
Critics have gone from declaring what literature should be to just picking it apart like a bunch of brainy vultures. Everything that can be picked apart (and just left that way) has been: motivation, message, language, form, subject matter, the author. Roughly, the French, the Russians (can’t even be shocked at that), and one Viennese are to blame. And as we got further into the 1900s, nothing was about literature anymore. It became all about psychology, the scientific method, politics, feminism (politics), 3rd world voices (politics), linguistics, anthropology, abstractions disconnected from their creators one after another in a cycle of ever-increasing distance from the beauty of the word. Truly, once some rebellious critics declared that literary writing no longer had to be beautiful, it was just a hop, skip, and jump to total literary theory anarchy.
To be fair, though, new ideas were needed because writers experimented with form and language to the extent that storytelling has undergone several metamorphoses since the 1700s. To handle new storytelling styles, new theories of creation are needed. And also since the 1700s, so many fields of science have developed that critics have found could be applied to storytelling and poetry. Do you know any people who learn something new on the computer and then feel that they have to use it for everything? I guess it’s kind of like that.
Who even has the guts to say anymore what literature should be? Well, Harold Bloom still is pretty open about what he likes. I’m sure there’s others. Trilling, maybe. I’m developing a fondness for Trilling because he still talks about literature as f____ LITERATURE, as does Bloom! And of course, George Orwell. He’s not a literary theorist, per se, but holy shit, neither are a bunch of the people we studied in class. They were a lot of social scientists, linguists, psychologists, cultural scholars, political scientists. No f____ing wonder literary theory is, at its worst, all about justifying victim status or a complete lack of storytelling talent. Funny though, we never studied Bloom, Trilling or Orwell in class. Mostly third world scholars and Eastern Bloc types. And the French. LoL!
But Orwell, he’s an essayist extraordinaire. Politics and The English Language –life-changing! Why I Write – why I keep writing! The art of the essay is so pure and beautiful when handled by G.O. So this bloke, yeah, George Packer, has assembled several of Orwell’s essays about authors and literature in general that show, according to Packer, the development of Orwell’s essay-writing artistry from early to later, instead of the usual “best of” collection compilers are prone to do.
From the Foreword:
It’s possible to imagine a kind of tragedy to Orwell’s style. He was a writer who saw both sides to every issue, and argued with himself about them, but whose style could only come down on one side at a time. You can imagine him trapped in that style, even as he used it to slash through cant and falsehood.
Great thing about a book like this is you don’t have to read it cover to cover. You kind of pick out the bits you like and get around to the rest whenever. And something so rare, I almost can’t believe it: it has an enjoyable Foreword (Packer) and…AND… Introduction (Keith Gessen). Wow! Two parts of a book that are usually total wank, but these are well-good. Perhaps they’ve been blessed by the spirit of Orwell.
Orwell is funny! Who knew! I knew he was witty, but funny-haha, too. Here’s a bit from an critique of the “penny dreadfuls” wherein they shamelessly (and shamefully) metonymize foreigners for the convenience of little boys who have never been anywhere. Check it —
FRENCHMAN: Excitable. Wears beard, gesticulates wildly.
SPANIARD, MEXICAN, etc. [etc.???]: Sinister, treacherous.
ARAB, AFGHAN, etc. [again, with the “etc.”]: Sinister, treacherous.
CHINESE: Sinister, treacherous. Wears pigtail.
Hilarious! It’s like a casting call for a bad movie from the 1940s. The only one remotely redeemable is the Frenchman. Sad thought, that.
The ones I’ve read so far:
- “T. S. Eliot”
- “Good Bad Books”
- “Politics and The English Language”
- “Confessions of a Book Reviewer” (Damn, there goes my “books that start with “Confessions of…” all suck! theory!)
- Other posts that mention Orwell: