Orwellian Advice: A Guest Post by the Mere Inkling

cls-orwell1

The title of this post is slightly misleading. In truth, it does contains advice from Eric Arthur Blair (1903-1950) whose pen name was George Orwell. However, because of the impact of his two dystopian classics, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, the author’s name has actually become a true English adjective . . . one that might suggest I’m alluding to futuristic or totalitarian matters.

Or·well·i·an [awr-wel-ee-uhn] means something that resembles his literary work, especially as described in the aforementioned novel and novella. (Within the Christian literary community, “Lewisian” is common shorthand for referring to C.S. Lewis . . . but that word is unlikely to ever find its way into standard dictionaries.)

Despite the enormous (and eternal) differences between Orwell and Lewis, they did have something significant in common. More about that in a moment.

As the graphic I created above reveals (from actual quotations), Lewis had a better opinion of Orwell’s work than vice versa. Orwell disliked Lewis and resented the fact that he was popular among many common people. He particularly disliked Lewis’ traditional (evangelical) Christianity. In his review of That Hideous Strength, Orwell dismissed the biblically based supernatural as a version of “magic.”

Much is made of the fact that the scientists are actually in touch with evil spirits, although this fact is known only to the inmost circle. Mr. Lewis appears to believe in the existence of such spirits, and of benevolent ones as well. He is entitled to his beliefs, but they weaken his story . . .

Orwell was one of those “professing” Christians who is accurately labeled a hypocrite. He was a communing member of the Church of England, and advocated a Judeo-Christian moral code, but did not believe in an afterlife. The following letter, written to Eleanor Jaques in 1932, reveals his hypocrisy.

It seems rather mean to go to HC [Holy Communion] when one doesn’t believe, but I have passed myself off for pious & there is nothing for it but to keep up with the deception.

In a comment to my last post, a good friend of Mere Inkling, Brenton Dickieson at A Pilgrim in Narnia, reminded me of a thought-provoking essay on English written by Orwell. His essay, “Politics and the English Language,” addresses a number of problems with the language. He considers dying metaphors, verbal false limbs, pretentious diction, and meaningless words.

A Similarity in the Two Writers’ Advice

Orwell’s goal is “the scrapping of every word or idiom which has outworn its usefulness. It has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear, or with the avoidance of Americanisms, or with having what is called a ‘good prose style.’”  [As irritating as I imagine most Europeans find Americanisms!] Writers of fiction will enjoy the way Orwell explains the challenge of “showing, not telling.”

What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it.

When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose—not simply accept—the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person.

This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally. But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable.

Students of Lewis will note in the final passage the parallel with advice he provided to a correspondent in 1956. Although the context is different—Orwell’s is a formal essay and Lewis’ a casual correspondence written to a child, the similarities are significant. Lewis would have been familiar with Orwell’s essay, composed a decade before his letter, but the resemblance between their words is better attributed to shared literary philosophies and the self-evident nature of the principles. Lewis identified five important considerations when writing.

  1. Always try to use language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure [your] sentence couldn’t mean anything else.
  2. Always prefer the plain, direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.
  3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”
  4. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful;” make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please, will you do my job for me?”
  5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very;” otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

Whatever the two authors thought about the other, they certainly shared some similar views on the subject of effective writing. And, I think we can assume with confidence that Lewis would concur with Orwell’s final rule. Under no circumstances should we resort to barbarity! For, as Lewis wrote in The Four Loves, “Who does not prefer civility to barbarism?”

____

The “Mere Inkling” is a blog I read every week. You can check it out here. If you are interested in reading Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” in its entirety, you can find it here. This post is part of a series on Orwell and Lewis at the 70th anniversary of Animal Farm and That Hideous Strength. See also:

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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10 Responses to Orwellian Advice: A Guest Post by the Mere Inkling

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

    Like

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    An excellent post – in so many ways! Thank you both!

    I haven’t read widely enough in, or about, Orwell, but have encountered that Jaques letter quotation or other things like it: dumbfounding, and hair-raising!

    How dishonest is his frequently displayed animus towards Christians, how far compounded, perhaps, of guilty conscience of one sort or another? Yet his appreciations are not simply damning with faint praise – there’s some kind of critical honesty jogging his anti-Christian specs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s hard to know how much self-delusion or limitations of self-knowledge covers what we do. I don’t Orwell was very often as honest as in that letter! Who knows who I may be persecuting without any knowledge of my opposition?

      Like

  3. jubilare says:

    I’m gonna be mouthy. 😉

    “It seems rather mean to go to HC [Holy Communion] when one doesn’t believe, but I have passed myself off for pious & there is nothing for it but to keep up with the deception.” Oh how this makes me shudder for his sake! Better to never take Holy Communion than that: “For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.” It makes me want to plead with him across time to refrain, even if he didn’t believe in such “magic.” >_<

    On Orwell's writing philosophy, my opinions are mixed. I don't dare compare my intellect or refinement of style to him, but I'm contrary enough to be willing to disagree with my betters. I like his idea of paying attention to the abstract, first, then finding words. However:
    1. Sometimes a common metaphor or simile is warranted. I could write essays on this.
    2. I pretty much agree with this one, though, again, there are exceptions
    3. mmm… it really depends on the word, the context, the intent and the style.
    4. Yeah. Right with him on this one
    5. most of the time, but again, there are exceptions.
    6. I never have been sure what he meant by this one, but I like that he added a "break these rules" clause.

    Part of my divergence with him on this may be related to the kind of fiction I write. My chosen light is closer to Lewis's, and so I agree with his list a little more, though I still dare to disagree where I disagree. I don't know how Orwell would react to my challenges, but I like to think Lewis would be willing to debate me over a cuppa despite his superior learning, intellect, and lucidity.

    1. Unless ambiguity is intentional. There are times when it's my purpose to leave room open for interpretation. Of course, that's in fiction. In apologetics, he's absolutely right.
    2. Mostly
    3. I agree with this one.
    4. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!
    5. heck yeah.

    Like

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Nicely qualified!

      But what about those of us who like “more clotted glory” from Williams, or Eric Voegelin’s delight in elaborating technical vocabulary (to take two examples)? Hopeless Cases?

      Like

      • jubilare says:

        I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t read any Williams, yet, but I hear it’s quite an experience. I can’t answer the question, though, without context. I’m also unfamiliar with Voegelin. But I am a lover of George MacDonald, who breaks these rules with great gusto, so suffice to say that they’re not absolutes. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

    • Well, I like your “mouthy” jubilare, and if you can’t disagree across time and space, how are you supposed to disagree across the table?
      The cliche-metaphor conversation in his “Politics” piece was one I resisted. I like mixing metaphors, recovering dead ones, filling others with life or even gas–I like playing with word pictures. It is probably something that maturity in me will curb a bit. Certainly my editors do!
      I think E.B. White (Strunk & White) has a “break the rules” clause, isn’t that right?

      Liked by 1 person

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