Monday, May 12, 2014

`To Feel Strongly About Prose Style'

Orwell’s books, as books, are never entirely satisfactory. He is at his best not as a long runner but a sprinter, in brief passages formed sentence by sentence, most often in the essays and letters. I couldn’t reread Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty-Four on a bet, but some of the essays and parts of Homage to Catalonia and The Road to Wigan Pier I reread in irregular rotation. Take one of his best-known pieces, the 1946 essay “Why I Write.” The editors of Gangrel, a short-lived literary journal, asked writers to explain their choice of occupation. Orwell begins, inevitably given the subject, with straight autobiography: 

From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.” 

Many of us resolve to write before we have anything to say (and some never progress beyond that point, which doesn’t slow them down). “To be a writer” is not the same as “to write,” and sometimes the two are mutually exclusive. The first is a romantic whim; the second, hard work. As Orwell explains it, he was the real thing but distrusted it before consciously accepting and applying his “true nature.” This sounds like an eminently healthy strategy. When he writes that “from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued,” we shouldn’t assume that every maladjusted introvert has it in him to write, or that writing is somehow therapeutic. The urge isn’t the actuality, and one wishes that more of life’s wallflowers chose more productive careers as podiatrists or millwrights. 

We don’t think of Orwell as an eminent stylist, perhaps because the mature Orwell, the Orwell we know and respect, had already given up the wish to write books, as he says, “full of purple passages in which words were used partly for the sake of their own sound.” That decision to eschew verbal pyrotechnics and much is the mark of a seasoned, dedicated writer. He has already given up on empty flash, and instead is actually saying something in as concise and precise a fashion as he can. See how he describes the pro in action: “It is his job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, in some perverse mood; but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write.” Like everything else done well, writing is a balance among competing tensions. Immaturity spells self-indulgent mush; an exaggerated version of its opposite, imaginative desiccation.     

Near the conclusion comes one of Orwell’s greatest hits: “Good prose is like a windowpane.” This is true but incomplete and not terribly helpful, as is Swift’s “Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of a style.” Some good prose is “like a window pane.” Some is translucent rather than transparent. Some appears to be window-like but on closer inspection proves not to be, for better or worse. Some is transparent but brightly colored, and the prose shades the world like a filter on a camera. It all depends on the job at hand, though it’s fair to say that intentional opacity can never be enjoyed or admired. Here is the Orwell I treasure, the fallible man and the hard-working, sometime conflicted writer: 

“So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.”

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