The Criticism of George Orwell

Among the ranks of novelists who are also critics, George Orwell was one of the more well known. Included in his work is a number of essays about criticism itself, including the scathing "Confessions of a Book Reviewer", in which he derides hacks churning out reviews of books they have no real interest in for coin, and the faintly back-handed "Good Bad Books", in which he explores why a good entertaining novel is better than a bad "serious" one. One thing that's significant about this last essay is its complete lack of any discussion of "genre" at all; that Arthur Conan Doyle can be talked about in the same breath as George Meredith is never questioned. Books had not yet been cordoned off into different "niches" that artificially separate them from one another in the name of marketing.

For a really fascinating read, one can find nothing better than Orwell's early essay "In Defence of the Novel," first published in 1936.

He begins with a statement that the contemporary reader would find easy to understand.

It hardly needs pointing out that at this moment the prestige of the novel is extremely low, so low that the words 'I never read novels', which even a dozen years ago were generally uttered with a hint of apology, are now always uttered in a tone of conscious pride.

This in 1936! However, his reasons for this state of affairs are utterly alien to us now:

It is true that there are still a few contemporary or roughly contemporary novelists whom the intelligentsia considers it permissible to read; but the point is that the ordinary good-bad novel is habitually ignored while the ordinary good-bad books of verse or criticism is still taken seriously. This means that if you write novels you automatically command a less intelligent public than you would command if you had chosen some other form.

These days one could hardly say that books of verse or criticism are taken more seriously than novels—in fact, they sadly seem to be hardly read at all.

However, Orwell moves on to a really intelligent appraisal of the book reviewer's lot, a lot which can be, I think, identified with by the ordinary reader as well:

Very likely [the reviewer's] own favourite novelist, if he cares for novels at all, is Stendhal, or Dickens or Jane Austen, or D. H. Lawrence, or Dostoyevsky — or at any rare, someone immeasurably better than the ordinary run of contemporary novelists. He has got to start, therefore, by immensely lowering his standards. As I have pointed out elsewhere, to apply a decent standard to the ordinary run of novels is like weighing a flea on a spring-balance intended for elephants.

How many people have I met who only read "classic" novels because they are the only ones one could count on to be of high quality? There may be countless treasures to be found in recently published work, if one hunts for them, but one can hardly blame an ordinary person desirous of a good read for drifting over to the Penguin Classics shelf. Because you already know that Dostoyevsky wrote well.

This problem is all the more relevant considering that the state of book reviewing is even more sordid today than it was in Orwell's time. Orwell criticises book reviewers for overly praising mediocre works which then engenders distrust in the reading public, something he blamed on periodicals sucking up to their advertisers. How much worse is it now that the advertisers actually own the periodicals? (Not to mention the few television shows that even bother to cover novels.) Can it be denied that so much of what passes for reviewing in the mainstream media today is little more than press releases for the novels in question?

Add to this, that within the "serious" reviewing world we have figures like Dale Peck on the one hand, who seems to review books he knows he won't like in ways ways that are unnecessarily cruel and vindictive, which strikes one as both bad-faith and petty, and Heidi Julavits on the other, who seems to think that All reviewers should "practice a certain etiquette" and be nice, which strikes one as encouraging disingenuousness. (Dave Eggers, the publisher of the magazine Julavits published this in, The Believer, has a notion that you don't want to "piss in the fragile ecosystem of the literary world," which seems counter-productive to the project of reviewing; that is, giving readers an honest appraisal of something.)

So what is Orwell's solution to all this? Independent media.

That is to say, there is need of just one periodical (one would be enough for a start) which makes a speciality of novel reviewing but refuse to take any notice of tripe, and in which the reviewers are reviewers and not ventriloquists' dummies clapping their jaws when the publisher pulls the string.

And who would write for such a magazine?

As for the reviewers, they would have to be people who really cared for the art of the novel (and that means, probably, neither highbrows nor lowbrows nor midbrows, but elastic-brows), people interested in technique and still more interested in discovering what a book is about.

And what else?

Incidentally, it would be a good thing if more novel reviewing were done by amateurs. A man who is not a practised writer but has just read a book which has deeply impressed him is more likely to tell you what it is about than a competent but bored professional. That is why American reviews, for all their stupidity, are better than English ones; they are more amateurish, that is to say, more serious.

Frankly, I cannot think of a more rousing defense of lit blogging and small magazines (such as the one you're reading) than that.

At bottom, what Orwell is talking about is having reviewing that the ordinary reader can trust to give her a sincere appraisal of something. Because without sincerity, without earnestness, no book review and no periodical can be worthy of reading by anyone. Let's never, ever forget that.