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George Orwell, The prevention of literature (#Review)

June 4, 2021

One of the reasons a work becomes a classic is its timelessness, its continued relevance to each period in which it is read. This is certainly why many of George Orwell’s works are seen as classics. Scarily, there is nothing more relevant now than his writing on the impact of totalitarianism – of which his 1946 essay, “The prevention of literature”, is one example.

The essay starts by responding to a PEN meeting that was held on the tercentenary of Milton’s Areopagitica. Milton defends, Orwell writes, “the freedom of the press”, and he was concerned that not one of several hundred people present “could point out that the freedom of the press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticise and oppose”.

Orwell continues to say that there are two main threats to “the idea of intellectual liberty”: the theoretical enemies, or proponents of totalitarianism; and, the immediate, practical enemies, bureaucracy and monopoly. He spends little time on this latter, but I’ll mention it because it is as valid now as it was then. He sumarises it as:

the concentration of the press in the hands of a few rich men, the grip of monopoly on radio and the films, and the unwillingness of the public to spend money on books.

I’m not sure how the last of these stands now, but I believe Australians are buying books, and particularly did so during the pandemic. However, his first two points are certainly still valid concerns, eight decades later.

Orwell’s prime focus, however, was the impact of totalitarianism on intellectual freedom, and thus on literature. He spends some time discussing attacks on freedom of thought and the press. He argues that

in the foreground the controversy over freedom of speech and the press is at bottom a controversy over the desirability or otherwise of telling lies. What is really at issue is the right to report contemporary events truthfully, or as truthfully as is consistent with the bias and self deception in which every observer necessarily suffers.

I love this qualification, but I think you can see where this is going in terms of my opening paragraph. I’m not going to write a treatise on this, but Russian-American Masha Gessen wrote a response to it in The New Yorker, in 2018, which is well worth reading for their historical understanding of where Orwell was coming from as well as for their commentary on its relevance to how. They wrote that:

We live in a time when intentional, systematic, destabilizing lying—totalitarian lying for the sake of lying, lying as a way to assert or capture political power—has become the dominant factor in public life in Russia, the United States, Great Britain, and many other countries in the world. When we engage with the lies—and engaging with these lies is unavoidable and even necessary—we forfeit the imagination. But the imagination is where democracy lives. We imagine the present and the past, and then we imagine the future.

What Gessen is referring to here is, first, the point that Orwell makes about totalitarianism’s “disbelief in the very existence of objective truth” – its lack of interest in “truthfulness” – and, second, its quashing of the “imagination” which is fundamental to literature.

Orwell argues that totalitarianism engenders instability, that totalitarians alter their perspectives at a moment’s notice to suit the prevailing situation. Such a society, he writes, “can never permit either the truthful recoding of facts, or the emotional sincerity, that literary creation demands”. You don’t have to be in a totalitarian state for this to happen, he adds. This problem can also occur wherever there is “an enforced orthodoxy – or even two orthodoxies”, where you cannot write sincerely. This point, I think, is worth considering in terms of “rules” about who can write what. I am certainly sympathetic to the concern about people’s stories being appropriated and, more problematically, being over-ridden, but there are many stories and “truths”, and sincere (I like this word) writing about them should be welcomed and respected. We learn about ourselves through the give-and-take, the conversation, that the arts facilitates. It is truly positive that we are now hearing more voices – this is what we must encourage and protect – but it would be dangerous if all these voices were confined to boxes.

Related to this is Orwell’s understanding of literature. He writes that “above a quite low level, literature is an attempt to influence the viewpoint of one’s contemporaries by recording experience”. For him, essentially all literature – particularly “prose literature” – is political in some sense. He says “there is no such thing as a genuinely non-political literature, and least of all in an age like our own, when fears, hatreds, and loyalties of a directly political kind are near the surface of everyone’s consciousness”. It sounds very much like our time.

Finally, after some other fascinating discussions – some of which made sense, some less so to me, such as his discussion of verse – he concludes that “a bought mind is a spoilt mind” and that “the imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity”.

“The prevention of literature”, although written at a very particular point in world history, turned out to be more relevant than I would have hoped possible. It raises many questions about the threats we are currently facing to intellectual liberty and freedom of expression, and thus, to “truthfully” reporting, to “sincerely” questioning, what we see happening.

Previous reviews of essays from this book: “Books v. Cigarettes“, “Bookshop memories“, and “Confessions of a book reviewer“.

George Orwell
“The prevention of literature” (orig. 1946)
in Books v. cigarettes (Great Ideas)
London: Penguin Books, 2008
pp. 21-41
ISBN: 9780141036618

Available online at the Orwell Foundation.

22 Comments leave one →
  1. June 4, 2021 17:07

    Ah George, a giant intellect who could convey the most complex of ideas in plain, unadorned prose.

  2. June 4, 2021 17:17

    Brava, WG! Bravissima! Thanks for posting this particular commentary. It’s why I have largely given up on the mainstream press (though I still cast my eye over it – and relish the Letters pages – SMH/The Age) apart from The Saturday Paper, Independent Australia, The Guardian and subscribe to more wide-ranging and independent commentators/sources – and, yes, literature! And you were not wrong to select from Blair’s writing-as-Orwell! Clairvoyant? Or he understood well that the past is never really finished with – it is here now – and lies yet still into our future

    • June 4, 2021 19:10

      Thanks Jim. Not clairvoyant I think though he did guess that there could be mechanical writing in the future! And we know they’ve tried computers writing novels.

      BTW I love The Saturday Paper and other mire independent news sources.

  3. June 5, 2021 00:22

    Good points. I think the little digs some people make about how we shouldn’t go to space before we end every single problem here on earth is related to what Orwell says about failure of imagination, too.

  4. June 5, 2021 02:06

    That Orwell is still so relevant in so many ways is both scary and sad. I’m afraid things are going to get worse in some ways before they (I hope) get better.

  5. June 5, 2021 04:14

    It was my spouse who got me to read Animal Farm and 1984 a few years ago. I did not read these books alone; he read them aloud to me. And oh, how awful I felt. I still feel traumatized by the scene in which Baxter the horse, a character with which I identified at time (I was an adjunct professor always endeavoring to work harder), is hauled off to the glue factory and get upset thinking about him — even now as I type this.

    I was surprised by how much of the craziness in 1984 could make sense. Just tip it a bit, see the concept in a different light, and despite being wrong it was so convincing.

    When I was still teaching, one paper was a report of information, and my advice to students always chose a topic that you do not know much about and are not passionate about already. If they loved the topic and argue for one way or another, the paper is a failure. However, reading news today shocks me because if I can tell how the reporter feels about the topic, that means their bias is showing. Is their information biased based on their own feelings, or did they really get in there are find the facts and give them to us viewers/readers without a personal opinion?

    • June 5, 2021 08:38

      Thanks Melanie for this comment. It’s a long time since I’ve read those two Orwell novels – Animal farm was probably 1969 or 1970 in my last year or so of school, and 1984 rememb er specifically because I read it in 1984! We Had more of his books, more nonfiction, since then. He never disappoints really.

      I love your point about “report” writing. I think you are right about a lot of news today being biased. What bothers me over here is that the Right claims Left bias , and vice versa, but don’t necessarily see the bias on their side, that is, their side is light, and the other side is biased. Well, your own side might be “right” according to your values, but its reporting may not be unbiased, and that’s a worry because you want to know your views are on sound ground, don’t you?

      • June 6, 2021 09:21

        I used to teach rhetoric to college freshmen, and we would look at various news sources and debate whether they could tell how the author felt about the topic. The one sources that always won out as the least biased was NPR.

        • June 6, 2021 10:28

          What a great class. Students need more of that. I loved NPR when I lived in the US, and still occasionally catch a podcast.

        • June 6, 2021 12:34

          How did I not know you lived in the U.S.? Which state were you in?

        • June 6, 2021 17:56

          I don’t know! Maybe it’s because I haven’t told you? Anyhow, I lived in Northern Virginia for 2 years (1983-85), and Southern California (in the city where Richard Nixon was born!) for three years (1990-1993). We had wonderful times there, and have been back to the USA for holidays a few times since then.

  6. June 5, 2021 06:45

    Nope.
    Too intellectual for me.

    • June 5, 2021 08:39

      Not really, M-R, you are probably just not interested in engaging like this these days.

  7. June 5, 2021 08:29

    Thanks for the link to the Orwell Foundation – looks like a treasure trove of ideas.

    • June 5, 2021 08:43

      Yes, thanks Brona. I plan to espbre it more.

      BTW, I realised the other day that I wasn’t getting advice of your posts. I thought I had resubscribed when you changed over, but something had happened. Anyhow, I’ve resubscribed again. I’ve clearly visited some of your posts by other means but I realise I’ve also missed many! Sorry.

  8. John Clanchy permalink
    June 5, 2021 17:04

    Thank you, Sue. What a splendid resource whispering gums is! I thought I had read all of Orwell, having long been a devotee of his writing – novels, essays, political pamphlets… but having somehow missed The Prevention of Literature altogether. Isn’t it a joy to have a favourite author whose work you’ve loved over a long time – and, having thought you’d every word, only suddenly then to find ‘No, there’s something more.’ His voice and mind are still reaching you/us with something fresh from – what? – 70 odd years beyond the grave. Whether you agree with him or not, Orwell is always stimulating – and relevant: he could be writing some of these ideas about today, speaking both about a worrying drift towards totalitarianism (from the Right) and, ironically, its potential hand-in-glove assistant ‘cancel culture’ (from the Left). I have re-read 1984 and Animal Farm in the past few months, and expected to find both books dated… in fact I approached them a bit reluctantly, thinking I’d maybe only find the experience a trip down nostalgia lane to a time, long past, when I’d first read them. I feared they’d both have to feel very dated now. They did. But the date they felt like was 2034.

    [By way of aside] One thing I’ve never agreed with Orwell over is his insistence that the writer’s goal should be to write with such clarity that it’s as though we were looking at the thing being written about through plain glass – as if words were simply the invisible instrument through which we (the reader) see the ‘reality’ of the world without filter or impediment. I think that’s a chimera. In my view, every word we write, or read, comes with the weighted, historical freight of colour, nuance, implication… you name of it… of the ways in which others, over time and within cultural contexts, have used it before us. For me, the reader looks at ‘reality’ through the stained glass of the writer’s words. That’s what makes it literature, rather than, say, journalism.
    .
    You see how provocative it is just to raise Orwell’s writing and thinking. Thank you for doing so!
    John Clanchy

    • June 5, 2021 17:16

      Always lovely to hear from you John, and I’m really glad you took up his view of what literature is. I felt it was a bit limited, but it probably does have something to do with his times. He was SO political, and probably couldn’t see much else. However, I agree with you regarding words. Few if any words can have that perfect clarity for the reasons you give.

      BTW It’s lovely hearing your response to recent rereadings of those two books, because I have been feeling I’d love to reread them again and have wondered what I’d find.

  9. buriedinprint permalink
    June 14, 2021 02:32

    “We imagine the present and the past, and then we imagine the future.”

    This could be applied to how we approach (and avoid) the climate emergency too: imagination is essential.

    Every time I see something like this, I think I must read more GO (I’ve only read AF and 1984 a couple of times each, but years ago now) but…then…I don’t. So. Many. Books. But maybe I could just select one.

    Not sure just how interesting you would find this, but I am freshly fascinated by it:
    https://ground.news/

    It points out the blindspots on either end of the spectrum of polarized reporting. Not being American, it is not AS applicable for me as for some, but I still find it instructive in general ways and find myself checking every other day or so and whenever some major event erupts.

    • June 14, 2021 09:16

      Oh I’ll read that Buried. And I’m sure you’d love Orwell, if you could find the time.

      And yes, absolutely re climate change.

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