Ranting is not writing

Why I Write
by George Orwell

I generally like Orwell’s writing in all its forms, but I must admit this essay collection was not, for me, up to his usual standard. It was all a bit too…ranty.

Three of the four essays here are primarily about politics. The fourth is a short piece about a hanging, which surprisingly was by far the best of the lot. It is clever and funny and touching, describing Orwell’s personal experience of observing a death by hanging in Burma. It is an official state execution and Orwell is acting as one of the legal observers. He describes their procession toward the scaffold and how a dog jumps out at them, excited and wanting to play, not understanding why these men try to shoo him away. He describes noticing the condemned man sidestepping a puddle and how that observation brought home to him how this was not a man who wanted to die. A very interesting and surprisingly not gruesome or depressing piece.

The other essays however, are all rants. By and large I agree with Orwell’s points but he is not nearly so entertaining a writer when he has a bee in his bonnet. Which is ironic considering that the last essay here is “Politics and the English language”, an out-and-out attack on political language and its downhill journey. He accuses writers of imprecision, vagueness and using unnecessary foreign words or metaphors in their prose. His recommendations for improving the standards of writing are all familiar. (In fact, this essay’s concluding six rules for good writing are quoted in more than one style guide I have worked with.) But the way he wraps this up with politics is actually a little vague itself.

He has certainly not followed his own advice in the longest essay in the collection. “The lion and the unicorn” is an 84-page meditation on Englishness, the ongoing Second World War and how socialism will answer all ills. Orwell repeats himself, makes grandiose unprovable statements and generally goes on a bit.

Which is a shame because even here Orwell’s writing is wonderful. There are so many quotable phrases I don’t know where to begin picking them out but I certainly annoyed Tim by reading to him randomly.

It is of course the opening essay, “Why I write”, that initially attracted me to this book. While it does diverge into politics more than you might expect from that title, it also provides great insight into Orwell as a person and includes the cracking line:

“Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centred than journalists, though less interested in money.”

Essays originally published 1931–1946.
This edition published 2004 by Penguin Books in the Great Ideas series.

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