In The Mating Season, P.G. Wodehouse – perhaps George Orwell’s only rival as the century’s greatest English writer – puts this piece of advice into Bertie Wooster’s gormless gob:
‘In dishing up this narrative for family consumption, it has been my constant aim throughout to get the right word in the right place and to avoid fobbing the customers off with something weak and inexpressive when they have a right to expect the telling phrase. It means a bit of extra work, but one has one’s code.’
Orwell, I think, would have approved of Bertie’s code. If Will Self – who recently put out an essay describing Orwell as ‘the supreme mediocrity’ – has a literary code, it seems to be nearer Aleister Crowley’s ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’.
Self’s line is that Orwell’s ‘solid virtues of homespun Englishness’ left with him an inhibited prose style from which he was never able to liberate himself. Reading Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying, whose hero chucks in his job at an advertising agency to write poetry, it’s hard not to see some desire on Orwell’s part to break free from his own somewhat self-imposed constraints and let his imagination go where it will. He had none of Self’s gift for the absurd, never mind the deranged. He rarely cracked a joke that made you laugh out loud.
But while Self’s stuff about Orwell’s innate cultural conservatism hobbling his prose is a legitimate line of attack, what follows really isn’t:
‘Orwell and his supporters may say they’re objecting to jargon and pretension, but underlying this are good old-fashioned prejudices against difference itself. Only homogenous groups of people all speak and write identically. People from different heritages, ethnicities, classes and regions speak the same language differently, duh!’