“Political” Writing

I write because there is some lie I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.  But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience–George Orwell

I recently re-read Orwell’s 1946 essay Why I Write, and it reminded me again why write.  Orwell posits “four great motives for writing.”  The first three are “sheer egoism,” “aesthetic enthusiasm” and ” historical impulse.”  The fourth, and the true reason for great novels like Animal Farm and 1984, is “Political purpose–using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense.”

For Orwell, political purpose is a “desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. . . [N]o book is genuinely free from political bias.  The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

But notice in the quote at the top–Orwell also required an “aesthetic experience” that goes beyond politics.  Before he understood that, he was only a “sort of pamphleteer.”  Later, “even when [his work] is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant . . . So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.”

As I’ve said many times before, a great novelist turns an idea–something meant to influence his reader or at least make her think–and turns it into art.  It requires a deft touch, and George Orwell certainly had it.


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