10 June, 2013Issue 22.4LiteraturePolitics & SocietyWriters

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Neutralising Orwell

Calum Mechie and Simon Morley

The Orwell PrizeThe Orwell Prize
15 May 2013
Church House, Westminster





In Homage to Catalonia George Orwell moans, a lot, about the ancient weaponry with which much of the Spanish Civil War was fought. This seems to have been a problem faced by both the Fascist and the Republican sides and to have become something of a trench joke: “There was said to be one old shell with a nickname of its own which travelled daily to and fro, never exploding”. Launched back and forth from Left to Right, Orwell has been used a lot like this legendary shell. As the two sides fought with him and over him, Orwell never exploded. Now, it seems, he’s not going to. No longer a weapon at all, Orwell stands instead as a symbol for “good” prose; evoked, at the Orwell Prize ceremony last month, as the writer who travelled from Mandalay to Wigan and declared: “What I have most wanted to do […] is to make political writing into an art”.

Orwell’s official biographer, Sir Bernard Crick, inaugurated the Orwell Prize in 1994 with a less arresting assertion. The prize, wrote Crick, would seek “to encourage writing in good English – while giving equal value to style and content, politics or public policy, whether political, economic, social or cultural – of a kind aimed at or accessible to the reading public, not to specialist or academic audiences”. “Bernard,” said current Prize president Jean Seaton, “was a difficult man”, who left us, she might have added, with a difficult set of instructions. The clunkiness of Crick’s criteria is obvious; the larger crime is that the inelegance does not yield specificity. To give “equal value to style and content” is to treat them as discrete elements within a piece of writing, but for Orwell style was a revelation of content—leaden prose convicted its author of thoughtlessness. “Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style,” he mused in “Politics and the English Language”. Again, what distinction could Crick have had in mind between “politics” and “public policy”? And to what subject does the list of adjectives at the end refer? What topics, if any, do they exclude? There are difficulties beyond the dashes too. “To encourage writing in good English […] of a kind aimed at or accessible to the reading public” offers only the broadest definition of journalism. Really, the first clause is the sentence’s only definite instruction and even that can be reduced to a single word: “good”. The Orwell Prize rewards “good” writing. Fine, but as Orwell well knew, “goodness” is a very difficult thing to measure: “In reality there is no kind of evidence or argument by which one can show that Shakespeare, or any other writer, is ‘good’,” he wrote in “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool”.

The complaint that the judges have been left with pretty meaningless criteria against which to draw up their shortlists may seem trivial. They are presumably qualified to know good political writing when they see it. There did appear to be quite a bit of uncertainty though. Journalism judge Chris Mullins remarked of Reuters’s Tom Bergin’s jointly prize-winning work that “tax accounting is not the most obvious subject to be a winner of the Orwell Prize” and then raised the loudest cheer of the night for James Meek by quoting his piece for the London Review of Books explaining how Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation of Britain’s energy supply means that its future “now hinges on state-owned French companies”. This, it seems, is the kind of thing the audience wanted to hear and that at least one of the judges wanted to read. But Meek was not on the shortlist. As it was, the Journalism Prize was shared between Bergin and The Times’s Andrew Norfolk. Orwell claimed that he wrote “because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing”. Bergin’s work, uncovering the complex and often illegal tax arrangements of many large companies, achieves this aim and so does Norfolk’s—he broke the story about the operation of a grooming gang in a Rotherham children’s home. But is this “political writing” as Orwell understood it? Orwell embraced a broad array of suitable subjects including the “Common Toad” and “Boys’ Weeklies”, but these disparate topics are united in his oeuvre by an unwavering polemical impulse: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism”. Regardless of where you’re placed on the political spectrum, it’s not difficult to feel outraged at flagrant corporate tax evasion or at police and social workers turning a blind eye to rapists. Although Norfolk and Bergin’s articles may have instigated a good deal of polemical writing by other writers, they are not themselves polemical, like Meek’s celebrated attack on neoliberalism. It’s worth pointing out also that Orwell made strident protests throughout his life against the monopolisation of the Press. Reviewing a London P.E.N. conference of 1944, he complained that “hardly a single speaker could give Beaverbrook or Rothermere the sort of kick in the pants that they would be likely to feel”. There was no pant-kicking here either; instead, Orwell’s stern countenance looked on in silent benediction as Norfolk thanked News International.

The source of a piece of writing is part of its political makeup. There are political factors involved in the decision to award the Orwell Prize to a Times journalist—even if the work itself seems to have no particular ideological axe to grind. But, as with Meek’s failure to reach the shortlist, these issues lurk in the background. Perhaps Meek’s absence had something to do with the fact that leftie stalwart Mullins had been teamed up with Nick Timmins, an enthusiastic supporter of the Tories’ attempt to privatise the NHS. Perhaps Norfolk’s eligibility for a political writing award was discussed and the propriety of an Orwell Prize being bestowed by proxy on a Murdoch organ was contested. We can’t know because, already unable to understand the judges’ criteria, we haven’t been made privy to their discussions. The suspicion remains that the final decision was reached through compromise rather than debate. In “Why I Write”, Orwell explains: “My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice”. The problem with the prize that now bears his name is that it has quietly become bipartisan.

Can the existence of prizes of this kind be justified in any case? They do nothing to stimulate the conscientiousness or integrity of a writer. Like inflated bonuses for company executives, their allure does not motivate potential recipients to behave any better than they would have done otherwise. It’s a safe bet that no journalist has ever been inspired to a greater degree of truthfulness and stylistic mastery by the thought of winning an Orwell. The only way it can perhaps be defended is on the score of bringing to the public’s attention excellent work that might otherwise have suffered neglect. With that in mind, the omission of an award for blogs this year is especially disappointing. Seaton explained that the political blog as a genre had “grown up” and no longer required anyone’s patronage, but this argument would be more pertinently made in regard to print. Laudable though it may be, Norfolk’s work is hardly in need of further promotion—having already won the Paul Foot Prize for Investigative Journalism, it has, if anything, received a little too much—while many excellent bloggers find no way of making their presence felt on the newsstands or the BBC. The Leveson fallout, dwindling profits for news organisations, and the resultant job insecurity make this a bad time to be a journalist in Britain, so that the cold shoulder given to the new media smacks of territorial defensiveness. One of the things that we have learnt from Nick Davies’s exposés on his own profession is that journalists have a tendency to regard themselves not as individual seekers after truth, but as a guild with a code of honour and silence, unwilling to be on the receiving end of the scrutiny which it directs towards others. Whatever the rationale might have been for excluding blogs from consideration, this decision makes the already clannish atmosphere seem all the more insular.

Award ceremonies are largely unsuccessful attempts to generate backslapping among people who in all probability cherish an intense dislike for each other. There is a dishonesty inherent to the enterprise with which one cannot reconcile the name of George Orwell. This is not to diminish the achievements of the winners of the Orwell Prize—alongside Bergin and Norfolk was A.T. Williams, whose book A Very British Killing shed light on the death in British custody of the Iraqi civilian Baha Mousa, and a special award for Marie Colvin, the exceptionally brave war correspondent who died in Syria last year. But it has to be remembered that what makes Orwell’s work exemplary of “good English” is the passionate convictions that motivated it. It was polemical to its core—he intended it to provoke violent disagreement. The Orwell Prize, on the other hand, serves to neutralise political writing. Under its aegis, the Orwell for whom writing was always a form of action has become a passive symbol of establishment approval.

Calum Mechie is reading for a DPhil in English at St Catherine’s College, Oxford. Simon Morley is reading for a PhD in English at Trinity Hall, Cambridge.