The essayist George Packer recently outlined what he believes is one of the most pernicious “enemies of writing” today:
“My students have come of age during a decade when public discourse means taking a position and sticking with it. The most influential writers are those who create a dazzling moral clarity. Its light is meant to overpower subjects, not illuminate them. The glare is so strong that readers stop seeing the little flaws and contradictions of actual life, and stop wanting to – they have only to bask in the warmth of a blinding glow.”
It’s unsurprising that Packer is suspicious of writing cloaked in the dubious sheen of “dazzling moral clarity.” One of his biggest influences is George Orwell (he edited and introduced two collections of Orwell essays), a writer who was always willing to face the darker aspects of his own personality and reveal them on the page.
For example, in essays like “Shooting an Elephant,” Orwell didn’t just acknowledge that he was doing the “dirty work of Empire” as a British colonial policeman in Myanmar (then Burma) – he confronted the ugly psychological effects of the job, like the sadistic impulses he sometimes felt toward the local population. Such an admission would likely get Orwell mobbed on Twitter today, but he was simply trying to be honest with his readers about the psychological consequences of imperialism, even for a man who regarded the “British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny.”
One of the reasons Orwell is worth studying for writers who want to communicate honestly, fearlessly, and independently is the fact that he was unafraid of irony and ambiguity. He was a democratic socialist who wrote withering critiques of socialism; a radical who understood the value of conservative virtues like patriotism; and a writer who’s still celebrated for his clarity of thought and prose, but who was idiosyncratic enough to be invoked by people across the political continuum to this day.
When you read Orwell, you often feel as if he’s speaking directly to you – he isn’t showing off with grandiose language or blinding you with his dazzling moral clarity. Instead, you get the sense that he’s confiding something in you – noticing his own prejudices and preconceptions, and sometimes having arguments with himself along the way.
In “Why I Write,” Orwell explains that, at a young age, “I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts.” He could even face unpleasant facts about himself. But this wasn’t borne of a solipsistic desire to discuss his own feelings all the time – it was a way to illuminate subjects instead of overpowering them. This is why Orwell believed “good prose is like a windowpane.” The writer’s job is to help readers see the world as it really is – not as a kind of morality play in which the heroes and villains are clearly demarcated and all the reader has have to do is bask in the warmth of the author’s righteousness.
We’re living in an era of idle certainties and tribal dogmas – a natural consequence of the surging polarization that has gripped the United States over the past decade and a half. This has created a set of unhealthy incentives for writers – loudly insist on your ideological purity, close ranks around your allies, and expose the heretics in your midst. But these pressures lead to prose like a windowpane with the curtains drawn – prose that’s always filtered through a screen of performative morality and afraid of exposing anything that might fail one of the many purity tests that are administered daily in partisan news outlets, on Twitter, etc.
The result has been exactly what Packer describes: the loss of nuance and texture, a refusal to deal with the messiness and contradictions of real life, and writing that all too often sounds like it was written by a committee instead of an individual. That’s why it’s still worth returning to Orwell again and again: in his writing, you find the thoughts and beliefs and feelings of a real human being who’s unafraid of admitting what it’s like to be one.
Credits: Matt Johnson, writer; Stefan Keller via Pixabay, image.