Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Catching up with George.

By Charlie Kondek

Yesterday, by chance, I found myself headed to the bus stop with nothing to read, so I printed out some essays by George Orwell I had been meaning to get to. You can find them here.

Orwell was a great writer. 1984 was a book I have read and re-read. He had a way with essays that is remarkable; his writing is clear and penetrating. Yesterday I read "A Hanging," "Shooting an Elephant" and "Raffles and Miss Blandish," all marvelous, engaging pieces. While "Hanging" and "Elephant" were about Orwell's feelings on colonialism and imperialism, in "Blandish" Orwell described what he saw as a worrying trend in popular fiction, that of power-worship. Orwell here is covering ground dear to me - crime and detective fiction or as he calls it "crook" fiction. His concern is not so much with right and wrong or the development of a body of writers contributing value to the field, but with the crook story as an expression of the western people's feelings on politics.

The average man is not directly interested in politics, and when he reads, he wants the current struggles of the world to be translated into a simple story about individuals. He can take an interest in Slim and Fenner as he could not in the G.P.U. and the Gestapo. People worship power in the form in which they are able to understand it. A twelve-year-old boy worships Jack Dempsey. An adolescent in a Glasgow slum worships Al Capone. An aspiring pupil at a business college worships Lord Nuffield. A New Statesman reader worships Stalin. There is a difference in intellectual maturity, but none in moral outlook. Thirty years ago the heroes of popular fiction had nothing in common with Mr. Chase’s gangsters and detectives, and the idols of the English liberal intelligentsia were also comparatively sympathetic figures. Between Holmes and Fenner on the one hand, and between Abraham Lincoln and Stalin on the other, there is a similar gulf.

Something to take interest in, right there, and brings into question our long-standing interest, since the Second World War, in the anti-hero rather than the hero, something that interests me in my own writing. Another idea of Orwell's that interested me:

When I first read D. H. Lawrence’s novels, at the age of about twenty, I was puzzled by the fact that there did not seem to be any classification of the characters into ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Lawrence seemed to sympathize with all of them about equally, and this was so unusual as to give me the feeling of having lost my bearings.

I'm not much interested in Lawrence, but I am interested in an author's and reader's sympathies with characters. The idea that they are all of genuine interest in this environment - "good guys" and "bad guys" alike, for I am still very much interested in good guys and bad guys - appeals to me. Another thing to strive for in my own writing.

Incidentally, Orwell was very much influenced by Maugham

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