The Orwell/Self spat: What it reveals about contemporary culture

Richard Lance Keeble explores the recent Will Self/George Orwell controversy and suggests it confirms both the power of celebrity and the narrowing of the media consensus

The recent spat between the novelist Will Self and George Orwell is interesting, in particular, for what it reveals about contemporary culture. Firstly it demonstrates the central place of celebrities (in this case, literary celebrities) in determining the dominant agenda in the media landscape.

The coming together of Will Self – the author of ten novels, a number of collections of non-fiction, his work translated into more than 20 languages – and George Orwell – one of the most celebrated writers of the last century, author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four – is, in terms of conventional news values, nothing short of gold dust. And then for Self to dare to accuse Orwell of being a ‘talented mediocrity’ backed by a present-day ‘language police’ who seek to impose ‘good old-fashioned prejudices’ on a ‘living, changing’ tongue adds just that necessary bit of controversy to thrust the whole kerfuffle high into the headlines.

Another crucial element of the controversy is the speed with which it exploded in the media. Self made his comments in a ‘Points of View’ in the BBC’s News Magazine (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-28971276) on 31 August 2014. In no time, the media was on to the story – reporting the comment directly, seeking reactions from various academics and Orwellians, or carrying responses from opinionated journalists on the spat. And these media reports were quickly commented on by members of the public. For instance, amongst a selection of comments carried on the BBC website was this Orwellian, witty one from Nathaniel Price, of London: ‘All writers are mediocre, but some are more mediocre than others.’

Thus, the controversy confirms the trend towards an ever-narrowing consensus in news values. The BBC reports and immediately the rest of the media (and not just Fleet Street) sheepishly follow suit. Type ‘Will Self Orwell mediocrity’ into the Google search engine and 1,180,000 results are shown. There’s The Independent, The Daily Telegraph, MSN UK News, The Guardian (with 726 follow-up comments), contactmusic.com, http://www.booktrade.info, theweek.co.uk, artsjournal.com, moviecitynews.com and so on. And various blog sites such as beattiesbookblog.blogspot.com, gnayabchohan.wordpress.com join in the fun. Most of these sites carry long follow-up discussions. For instance, on http://www.metafilter.com (which describes itself as a ‘community weblog’) the comments run amazingly to more than 10,700 words.

Moreover, the internet means that this consensus is not just confined to the UK. The controversy quickly spread across the globe. For instance, in the US, Salon.com carried an excellent answer to Self from Laura Miller (http://www.salon.com/2014/09/03/george_orwell_was_not_a_language_fascist_why_we_keep_misinterpreting_his_words/). In Australia, the Conversation website (committed to ‘academic rigour and journalistic flair’) had Howard Mann, a lecturer at Monash University, Melbourne, commenting: ‘We live in an age when permatanned, rich white males shout over one another on television and this counts as public debate’ (see http://theconversation.com/will-self-george-orwell-and-whats-he-newspeaking-about-31239).

Orwell had a great sense of humour, was a maverick constantly challenging groupthink and a master of self-effacement and droll self-criticism. Indeed, he may well have agreed with the late Christopher Hitchens when he wrote: ‘George Orwell requires extricating from a pile of saccharine tablets and moist hankies; since he’s become an object of sickly veneration and sentimental over-praise, employed to stultify schoolchildren with his insufferable rightness and purity.’ A large part of Orwell may well have secretly admired Self’s debunking…

• Richard Lance Keeble is chair of the Orwell Society (orwellsociety.com) and editor of George Orwell Today (Abramis, Bury St Edmunds, 2012)

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