14 February 2007

Dear George Orwell

Full disclosure to start. I'm not a great fan of your fiction. In both 1984 and Animal Farm the broad, bold strokes of your ecriture degree zero don't seem to me to be supplemented by sufficiently complex inner life on the part of the characters to avoid cartoonishness. This is perhaps more forgiveable in the case of Animal Farm but there the allegory is so blunt as to constitute assault. Who really likes allegory anyway? More on this later, perhaps.

Your non-fiction is much more satisfying because you've no need to strain for the plausible or the well-rounded; you can allow the stupidity of the real to stand untrammelled. You need neither to exaggerate nor contextualise the flaws or the crazes of the people you observe: and you have the freedom to sometimes not know. Given the trends in fiction when you were writing, the authority of yours is striking and just a little untrustworthy.

No such problem with the non-fiction: I just read Homage to Catalonia for the first time. And like so many people, aside from spurious musings about the two sides of Orwell, I can't help but wonder how you'd react to the world of today.

God, but that's a tedious and well-worn thought! And yet: who have we got today reporting like you did? Polly Toynbee's Hard Work goes some way toward being the Road to Wigan Pier of its way, except it's not as good: a bit too prim, a bit too much awkwardness and cant. Robert Fisk has the passion but none of the balance; likewise John Pilger. Christopher Hitchens doesn't know whether he most wants to be you or Tom Paine, but there are plenty of reasons he can't touch either. Noam Chomsky I like, but he doesn't get out enough. I could go on, but it's all a bit too depressing: and these are the radicals. I hate to come over all Medialens on you, but there really is an appallingly small range of opinion in the mainstream press.

But wait! You said just that in 1937: and not only about the mainstream press. Yet where you were feted, Medialens are broadly considered ridiculous. Despite their having as firm an evidentiary basis as you ever had, and as patient a style of argument, there's no question of their being the 21st Orwell. Perhaps this is because, like Chomsky, they don't get out and about actually reporting much; perhaps it's because they're a bit sententious. It's also because there doesn't seem to be any space for the rational left these days: the only remotely radical leftie voices that get heard in the papers are the hysterics:they may be right, but they give nobody a good name and persuade no-one who wasn't already persuaded. Medialens are a bit of a relic of days when the left were taken seriously. They need to be taken seriously. But most of all we need someone like you to calmly shock us into seeing why. If you can't help, I'll try Tom Paine later.


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