Will Self has declared war on George Orwell, anointing him the “Supreme Mediocrity” in a mediocre essay distinguished only by its needless use of the word “lucubrations.” For those of you Americans out there who know of Orwell but have never heard of Will Self (I wonder how that came about?), Self is a novelist who is something of a darling of the British “lovie-liberal” inner city late-sipping champagne socialist set (and Guardian readers, where those two don’t overlap), who is famous for a pretentious writing style that uses too many fancy words. If you doubt the quality of my judgment, try anything from this extract from his new book:
Claude experiments, turning his whole head because his eye sockets …are filled with gritty sand, – he sees the sea green to aquamarine to cobalt blue to silver blue to silvery to silver white then vanish completely as …I push my head up her skirt… Mm–mm, finest ear-protectors a fellow can get – flesh-filled nylons fitted snug to the head and dried with talc… The kid is maybe forty feet down now, yet his dancing plummeting body can still be clearly seen
Unadulterated bullshit, or quality literature? You be the judge.
Will Self, of course, is emblematic of a vanguard of … how can we put this nicely? … dickheads who have managed between them to kill much of the joy of the English novel over the past couple of decades. Over that time I’ve met a few people – some literature majors – who have told me they’ve basically given up on reading novels, because for example “I couldn’t give a toss about another rich white person’s shallow imaginary world,” or because “it’s all showmanship and self-importance, there’s no joy in it” or just because “Oh my god what a pack of tossers the literary world has become.” The Man-Booker prizelist is an example of this: supposedly composed of the best writers of English in the Commonwealth, it is actually a shortlist of writers to avoid if you want to read a good book, and for all the reasons those who eschew the modern novel have given me. The Man-Booker prize winners are a small clique of stuck-up novelists who write to impress each other, rather than to extend the joys of the English language. That’s fine, soggy sao is a fine public school tradition and if that’s what gets you off then by all means, do your worst … but must you demand a prize for it? Will Self, of course, has been shortlisted for the Man-Booker, and if he keeps randomly resampling his thesaurus, eventually he’ll win. He’s a pretentious writer who knows how to use long words and wide vocabulary to hide a lack of ideas or talent.
In short, the antithesis of everything George Orwell stood for. With a new book out, so of course it’s a prime time to lay the boot into one of his dead idols.
It’s telling that Self opens the essay with a quote from Chesterton, an author who would very much fall into Orwell’s camp where opinions about pretentious writing are concerned. He then lays out a rather petty theory of why British people laud mediocrities, against all the evidence that the real heroes of the British are not mediocre at all (Churchill and Thatcher, mediocre? “Individuals who unite great expertise and very little originality – let alone personality”?). This is an example of the kind of theorizing a vapid writer-at-large can pull out of thin air, gloss with a few fancy words and toss about without regard for truth or sense, but it is certainly no kind of comment on Britain or how the British construct their idols. So from this lead-in to the conclusion that Orwell is a mediocrity, we have a logical failure built on a failed premise. He then manages to find two paragraphs of his entire essay to actually discuss what might be wrong with Orwell’s work, though again here he bandies his opinion about without any evidence or logic. No support for the claim of “obvious didacticism” and no discussion of what makes an “unadorned Anglo-Saxon style,” or indeed what might be wrong with such a thing. Make no mistake, this is how famous people troll – with fact-free assertions they can get away with because they’re given free rein over the BBC’s essay pages.
But it’s from this piss-poor effort at criticizing Orwell’s actual written work that Self then goes on to make his biggest fail in this essay. Citing Orwell’s famous essay on straight English, Self spends several paragraphs showing exactly the extent to which he failed to understand that essay. He says first of all that it is wrong, and then explains why: because language grows and mutates, and is defined by how people use it and why they use it, and attempts to dictate centrally how language should be used are morally wrong, whether enforced by George Orwell or the Ministry of Truth.
The thing is, Orwell’s essay has nothing to say about how language mutates or is reformed, he doesn’t give a toss about “African American Vernacular English” (oh Will, why did you choose such a pathetically PC-baiting example?!) or how much English consumes other languages and reconstitutes them to feed its voracious needs. His famous essay is about the dangers of using whatever language is at your disposal in disingenuous or deceptive ways, to hide what you mean rather than to say it. Furthermore, the primary value of the essay is not in what it says to authors and fiction writers, but to all those other users of English who are clearly beneath Self’s gaze: scientists, bureaucrats, business people, journalists, politicians and the like. Of course Will Self doesn’t have to actually work, except inasmuch as he is overpaid for occasionally dressing up shallow and simple ideas so that they look interesting. But for the rest of us – those of us for whom English is important to express to others the content of our real jobs – the ways in which English can be abused to hide meaning are very important and require a lot of skill to grasp.
For example, if you’re going to be paid a crapton of money to talk about some dude watching a kid drown while imagining going down on his nanny, it frankly doesn’t matter how much florid language you use, you’re just trying to make a dumb non-sequitur look interesting. But if you’re writing a textbook on Bayesian statistics and you have to explain the interpretation of a Bayesian credible interval compared to a frequentist confidence interval, you already have a lot of jargon to juggle and you need to think very carefully about how to calibrate your prose so that it is comprehensible between all the technical language. If you have to polish your language down to a couple of thousand words expressing a huge research task, you need to be very careful about when and how you embellish your language. And conversely, if you want to reassure the American public that you aren’t water-boarding innocent people when in fact you are, but you don’t want to be caught lying, you need to very carefully use language deceitfully in order to get away with it. Orwell’s concern is not with whether someone lies in the Queen’s English or Ebonics; his concern is with the deceitful use of language to lie or obfuscate, or the accidental embellishment of language in a way that makes it incomprehensible.
That Will Self didn’t understand this fundamental point of the essay he presents as evidence for the mediocrity of Orwell’s writing style would be hilarious if it weren’t so pathetic. And roping in a poorly-understood version of Chomsky to help in the task of getting it wrong is really not a good look either. Nor is mistaking the clear elucidation of a terrible dystopia as “didacticism” just because you think that making a thing clearly understood is the same as talking down to someone like an authoritarian teacher. This says more about Self’s insecurities than it does about Orwell’s writing style.
Self finishes his ignorant little rant by talking about how poorly he views “those mediocrities who slavishly worship at the shrine of St George.” For a lot of people, Orwell’s essay on how to use English has been a guiding light in a world of business jargon, weasel words, dissembling and deceit; many of us work in jobs where English is important for expressing the actual content of our work, rather than as a way of dressing up our shallow, imbecilic imagination for a sycophantic crowd of fellow-travellers. For us, work like Orwell’s essay on politics and the English language is a clear guide on how to improve our writing so that we can express complex ideas clearly and accessibly; and also a workbook on how to identify when people are lying to us through creative use of language. To Will Self, however, we are “mediocrities.”Faced with a choice between the “Supreme Mediocrity” and an advanced thesaurus-user who can’t even win the Man-Booker prize, I think I’ll stick with Orwell for future writing advice. And I suspect that 50 years after Self’s death, the majority of the English-speaking world will be making the same decision as me.