In The Mating Season, P.G. Wodehouse – perhaps George Orwell’s only rival as the century’s greatest English writer – puts this piece of advice into Bertie Wooster’s gormless gob:
‘In dishing up this narrative for family consumption, it has been my constant aim throughout to get the right word in the right place and to avoid fobbing the customers off with something weak and inexpressive when they have a right to expect the telling phrase. It means a bit of extra work, but one has one’s code.’
Orwell, I think, would have approved of Bertie’s code. If Will Self – who recently put out an essay describing Orwell as ‘the supreme mediocrity’ – has a literary code, it seems to be nearer Aleister Crowley’s ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’.
Self’s line is that Orwell’s ‘solid virtues of homespun Englishness’ left with him an inhibited prose style from which he was never able to liberate himself. Reading Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying, whose hero chucks in his job at an advertising agency to write poetry, it’s hard not to see some desire on Orwell’s part to break free from his own somewhat self-imposed constraints and let his imagination go where it will. He had none of Self’s gift for the absurd, never mind the deranged. He rarely cracked a joke that made you laugh out loud.
But while Self’s stuff about Orwell’s innate cultural conservatism hobbling his prose is a legitimate line of attack, what follows really isn’t:
‘Orwell and his supporters may say they’re objecting to jargon and pretension, but underlying this are good old-fashioned prejudices against difference itself. Only homogenous groups of people all speak and write identically. People from different heritages, ethnicities, classes and regions speak the same language differently, duh!’
This is unfair and disingenuous.
First, he lets himself down by tossing the slur of bigotry at a writer who spent the formative part of his career using what he’d seen in the Empire to rail against its injustices and to agitate for the liberation of its subjugated peoples. Would Self, part of the establishment since day one, have had the same courage?
Second, Orwell’s point about plain English is not as Self presents it. For literary prose, you can write whatever the hell you want. Nowhere in Politics and the English Language, or The Prevention of Literature, or Good Bad Books does Orwell argue that there’s anything immoral about creative writers failing to restrain themselves. His target is not novelists, but politicians, bureaucrats, academics and phoney intellectuals: powerful people using language to impose their superiority and hide their intentions from the rest of us.
‘There are more ways of saying more things in English than ever, and it follows perfectly logically that more people are shaping this versatile instrument for their purposes,’ Self continues. But he misses the point that Standard English is a tool of empowerment, a leveller when the cultural or class odds are stacked against you in that arena of personal, official and commercial interaction. When Self emails his local council to complain about the bins not being emptied, does he write in Jafaican? Does he prefer to read the terms and conditions of his broadband contract in poststructuralist psychobabble? To address his accountant in Tok Pisin while she replies in Chinglish? Plain and Standard English might just be the most effective way for all of these people from different heritages, ethnicities, classes and regions to communicate with each other.
Orwell, unlike Self, was a journalist and polemicist first, and a novelist only second. He knew he couldn’t let the charlatans of his own era get away it; he knew their bullshit could only be skewered with careful, precise language – careful, precise language being the only outlet for careful, precise thought. This battle has to be refought in every generation; luckily, we have the armoury he left us to fight it with. And if we can’t take a bullet in the throat against authoritarianism, we can at least insist that those who have power over us speak to us in a way that’s democratic and demotic, so we can work out what they’re up to.
Self slides down the surface of things, seeking ambiguity; Orwell gnaws at the heart of them, seeking truth. He concluded Why I Write by saying: ‘It is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.’ I leave it to you to judge whether Will Self has a political purpose.