Greater Minds: Why George Orwell Wrote

  • Orwell wrote Why I Write just before starting work on 1984.
  • He said a writer’s motives come from their early development.
  • He listed four reasons for writing: egoism, aestheticism, historical impulse and political purpose.
  • Orwell likened the struggle of writing a book to a painful illness.

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George Orwell (The New Paradigm [CC / Flickr])

‘All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery’.

So said George Orwell in his 1946 essay, Why I Write. Speaking as a vain, selfish and lazy writer who will never reach a stature comparable to his, I can only agree and wish I could have put it as well. But Orwell was far too insightful to leave it at that.

Letters from a low point

He opens his essay with a description of his childhood and his early life, which included five years in the ‘unsuitable profession’ of the colonial Burmese police before returning to Britain, and ‘poverty and a sense of failure’. He describes his past because as he puts it, ‘I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development’.

What can’t have been as clear to Orwell in 1946 as it is in retrospect was that he was at a particularly interesting point in his career, although there were very few dull moments in Orwell’s life. He was about to start work on 1984, the novel that did most to make him a household name today, but he must have felt he was in a rut.

Personally, his health was failing as the tuberculosis that would kill him took hold. Two years earlier, he had lost his house to a V-1 ‘buzzbomb’. The year before, his wife Eileen died during what should have been routine surgery.

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(Ben Templesmith [CC / Flickr])

Professionally, he was a prolific journalist and essayist but his last two books had not been well received. Homage to Catalonia, his memoir of the Spanish Civil War, had yet to achieve the classic status it enjoys now. At the time, it received very little recognition other than to get him shunned by his friends in the socialist movement and his publisher, Gollancz.

Suppressed by the Ministry of Information

His latest novel, Animal Farm, was a more direct attack on Stalin and the state of socialism that had proved very difficult to get published. At the time, Stalin’s Soviet Union was allied with Britain against Nazi Germany. The British establishment, normally no friends to Stalin, were not keen to sanction a polemic against their ally by a well-known writer. Animal Farm was accepted by Jonathan Cape only to be rejected after a visit from Peter Smollett, head of the Ministry of Information section charged with distributing pro-Soviet propaganda.

In a later age, such suppression of inconvenient literature might be described as Orwellian.

Decades later, it would emerge that Smollett was a Soviet agent, so Animal Farm was in fact suppressed by the long arm of the same NKVD that sent Solzhenitsyn to the Gulag. However, Orwell did not know that at the time. As far as he knew, it was the British establishment, once so opposed to Stalin, that was no suppressing Orwell’s opposition to him.

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Senate House, where Orwell was based when he worked for the BBC 1941-1943 (ScottSimPhotography [CC / flickr])

For a novelist like Orwell, nothing is ever a complete loss. It is not hard to see how the Ministry of Information informed 1984’s Ministry of Truth.

In fact, there was only about a year between Orwell’s finishing Animal Farm and its publication in August 1945. By the standards of the modern publishing industry, that would be a very fast turnaround. However, publishers in the 1940s did not move at the glacial speed of their modern counterparts and Orwell must have been deeply frustrated to find it so hard to get a novel published in the midst of illness and personal tragedy.

When the editors of Gangrel magazine asked Orwell for an essay on why he wrote, his first thought may well have been that he wished he knew. Yet he took up the challenge and produced an essay that is both deeply personal but which speaks to anyone who has ever taken up a pen or pounded a keyboard. As he says, ‘above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations’.

Orwell’s four reasons

He lists four different reasons for writing:

1/ Sheer egoism.

2/ Aesthetic enthusiasm.

3/ Historical impulse.

4/ Political purpose.

I can put my hand up to all four of those, though not necessarily in everything I write.

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An egoist (MattysFlicks [CC / Flickr])

From the author who has used fiction to discuss politics more successfully than any other in the English language, it’s perhaps surprising that Orwell makes no claim for intentionally political writing. Rather, he says ‘no book is genuinely free from political bias’. For Orwell, politics was everywhere.

His view contains a word of caution as well. If it’s impossible to avoid politics finding its way into our writing, Orwell reminds us to be aware of what those politics are.

To anyone who believes their writing is apolitical, Orwell says, ‘the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude’.

A versatile master of letters

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(Luca Cerabona [CC / Flickr])

By the time he wrote Why I Write, Orwell had a long track record and mastered many different types of writing. My own view is that his non-fiction was better than his earlier novels. Memoirs like Homage to Catalonia and The Road to Wigan Pier stand the test of time far better than Burmese Days or Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and the arguments he makes in Politics and the English Language are as true now as they have ever been. It was only with Animal Farm and 1984 that his fiction caught up with his journalism.

Perhaps we see his versatility as a writer reflected in his statement, ‘I find that by the time you have perfected any style of writing, you have always outgrown it’. Orwell may be remembered best as a great novelist, but he did not see himself in that way. His statement shows he saw writing as an ongoing learning process. It was also, as anyone who has tried it seriously will know, very hard work:

Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows, that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s personality.

Orwell’s last painful struggle

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George Orwell (Paul Vera-Broadbent [CC / Flickr])

 Soon after he wrote Why I Write, Orwell was to embark on another exhausting struggle both with his next novel, 1984, and simultaneously with a painful illness as his tuberculosis progressed. He would spend much of the rest of his life on the island of Jura of the West coast of Scotland, escaping both the distractions of London life and the smog of the London air, which irritated his inflamed lungs.

He would win the struggle with the book, seeing 1984 published in 1949. He would lose his struggle with the illness, succumbing a year later at the age of 46.

1984 shows us that Orwell had mastered the art of the novel, but not outgrown it. We will never know where his pursuit of mastery might have taken him had his life not been cut so short.

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Posted in Greater minds, Wednesday Pontification, Writing
2 comments on “Greater Minds: Why George Orwell Wrote
  1. Terry Kidd says:

    Politics in fiction?

    I would suggest that a piece of fiction can only be significant if it has a political aspect to it. SF can generally accommodate observations drawn from the real world and extrapolated.

    Fantasy, of the sword and sorcery style never can, I’d say, and will ever be just for the fun of it.

    • DJ Cockburn says:

      I agree with everything you say in the second paragraph, but I’m not so sure about the third. I think Orwell’s saying it’s impossible to completely remove politics from a work of fiction. It’s reflected in the choice of protagonists and antagonists, and how sympathetic they are, and in the type of tribulations the antagonist encounters. A work of fiction may or may not comment on politics, but it can’t help but be influenced by them.

      I think that applies to epic fantasy as much as anything, though it’s not a genre people look for political commentary in. Even in ‘Lord of the Rings’, there’s a clear morality tale which I imagine Orwell would have regarded as a form of politics. It’s fairly obvious what Tolkein was thinking about when his hobbits set forth from the rural idyll of the Shire to fight against a dark force that threatened everything decent in the world, especially as the experience changed Frodo so much that he was unable to settle in the land he’d fought to protect.

      Most of the characters in GRRM’s Song of Ice and Fire are all caught up in that politicking against each other when they should be organising themselves against the impending apocalypse. The apocalypse is even accompanied by a change in the climate, just in case anyone misses the point.

      That more or less exhausts my knowledge of epic fantasy. If only Orwell had lived long enough to give his views on Lord of the Rings!

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