The craft of … George Orwell

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Orwell has long been a hero of mine, for a number of different reasons. There’s his personal courage in the Spanish Civil War; his brilliant understanding of the nature and methods of fascism – and indeed all kinds of fundamentalism; and the number of his ideas and phrases that still resonate today: Big Brother, doublethink, “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” and many more. Nineteen Eighty-Four in particular now feels like a primer for the so-called (and how Orwell would have mocked the phrase) war on terror, and Big Brother’s mantra “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength” like an epitaph for the presidency of George W Bush. 

But what makes Orwell particularly relevant to Mastersvo is his dedication to rigorous thinking and clear language. In his classic essay Politics and the English Language Orwell outlined some of the ways in which language can be used as a weapon of persuasion, deception and obfuscation. “If thought can corrupt language,” he wrote, “then language can also corrupt thought”. Good writing, on the other hand, should be “like a windowpane”: you should be able to look through it to see exactly what is being written about. This is especially important in screenwriting, which gives you only very limited verbal tools to bring an entire visual, aural and emotional world to life, and where every image has to count towards the story. So here are Orwell’s six rules towards good writing:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never us a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

You can now read Orwell’s daily diaries as a blog, thanks to the Orwell Trust.

Gordon Burn: Born Yesterday

Gordon Burn’s Born Yesterday is subtitled the news as a novel. Which is, in one respect, exactly what it is: an account of Britain in the summer of 2007, including the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, the resignation of Tony Blair and the fire, floods and foot-and-mouth that greeted the arrival of his successor, Gordon Brown. With forensic attention to detail, and almost supernatural pattern recognition, Burn teases out connections: Madeleine’s distinctive eye and Gordon Brown’s blind one; Gerry’s McCann’s Glasgow accent and have-a-go airport hero John Smeaton’s; links between Bryan Adams, Mick Jagger, Sir Alan Sugar, Tanya Bryon. He’s very good at the way that power attracts power, about the web of connections between business, the BBC and government. The writing, at best, can make you laugh and wince with recognition all at once, like his description of Gordon Brown’s smile, “like the brass plate on a coffin”. And it’s a vivid reminder of how quickly things change, as we can see from this recent undercover video of junior Home Office minister Zoe Donaldson MP:

But the project (we all speak New Labour nowadays) doesn’t really deliver on its promise. It’s a remarkable piece of reportage — at a time when so much journalism feels as if it’s barely an advance on Google it’s thrilling to have so many stories linked together, so many common threads identified — and a logical step for Burn, whose fiction has always been fascinated by the line between celebrity and news. But the news as novel? Well, no. Burn’s fascination remains surface. He never gets beneath the skin of Blair, or Brown. And that’s a shame. Because we need our novelists right now; we need imaginative writers to dig beneath the press releases and the gossip, to sense the underlying stories and emotions of the time, and to bring our public figures into focus. 

There are two related reasons for this. The first is that our politicians are so mediated that it’s hard to make a judgement for ourselves. Politics at the moment feels no less volatile than the stock market, and no less short term in its judgement. One week Brown is a hero, his speeches reported with reverence, his photographs captioned as resolute, determined and unspun; the next he is written up as boring, dithering and shallow, his photo only printed if his mouth is open, or his make-up positively Tango. The second — and the two of course reinforce each other — is that politicians therefore very rarely say anything spontaneous, or speak honestly about themselves. Does anyone really believe that Gordon Brown is an admirer of George Bush? Or vice versa? No. Does anyone really believe that there’s no conflict in the government? No. And yet, night after night, we see press conferences that feel like pantomime, followed by journalists who try to tell us what is really going on. 

So that’s the challenge: in a market ever more dominated by historical and genre fiction, let’s have more writers taking up Gordon Burn’s challenge. Look beyond the political stock market, behind the Westminster gossip and the global spin machine and tell us who these people are, what really drives them, and why we should vote for them. Forget the journalist’s need for the one-line answer, and the nightly news’ simplicity, and embrace the complexities behind the headlines. We need fiction writers more than ever, or we’ll never be able to face facts.