English literature is no stranger to long-running spats. Gore Vidal, famously acid-tongued, once declared that the three saddest words in the English language were “Joyce Carol Oates”. This is a man who, after an evening antagonizing rival Norman Mailer across the table on a chat show, then received a nicely timed headbutt from Mailer by way of response. It seems that the tradition is alive and well, if mutterings from London are anything to go by.
Earlier this month, the novelist Will Self argued that George Orwell was a “supreme mediocrity”. Self, whose gifts for verbosity, obfuscation and tangentiality ought to earn him Nobel laureate status, attacked the absolute master of stripped down prose, sparingly constructed sentences and the sworn enemy of cant and hypocrisy. In his broadside, Self argued, in a Guardian interview originally adapted from the BBC’s A Point of View:
“The curious thing is that while during the post-war period we’ve had many political leaders, we’ve got by with just a single Supreme Mediocrity – George Orwell.” Self added, “Orwell – it’s said by [his] disciples – established once and for all in this essay that anything worth saying in English can be set down with perfect clarity such that it’s comprehensible to all averagely intelligent English readers”
Beyond a clash of literary styles, Self’s salvo highlights the intellectual journey the British Left has taken since Orwell was in his pomp, penning classics such as 1984, Animal Farm and The Road to Wigan Pier. Self is emblematic of a kind of modern internationalist who eschews patriotism and is openly disdainful of national institutions, yet, paradoxically, like Martin Amis, often conflates “England” with “London”. Orwell, conversely, though skeptical of many national institutions, was equally contemptuous of the sanctimony of the English intellectual. Though an avowed socialist, Orwell was also a patriot. Of the Metropolitan intelligentsia, he had this to say in his “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English genius” published in 1941:
“In intention, at any rate, the English intelligentsia are Europeanized. They take their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow. In the general patriotism of the country they form a sort of island of dissident thought. England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God save the King’ than of stealing from a poor box”
Orwell was speaking of “England” here when he really meant “Britain” – an error which was an essentially imperial conflation, nowadays thankfully obsolete. However, it seems that the modern parlance of the intellectual is to speak of “U.K.” when what is really meant is “London”.
Pretension was Orwells’ real target and maybe this is what so pricked Self. The man formerly known as Eric Blair may have left us 65 years ago, but his observation that a self-selecting elite drawn from a narrow talent pool is at odds with the rest of us remains as true today as it did when he first penned those words in 1941.