Orwell did not write Dick and Jane books

BBC media editor Amol Rajan has made a prize for best writing and he announced the winners today.

And so we come again to that glorious moment, just ahead of what I hope is a restful festive season for you and your family, when I wheel out my favourite prose of the year, under the auspices of an implicit endorsement from my long dead hero.

You know, to give you a bit of holiday reading when you’ve eaten too many pies.

Welcome to the Russell Prize 2020.

Why Russell?

Before we get to them, I should remind you that the Russell Prize is named for my hero, Bertrand Russell, who together with George Orwell wrote the best non-fiction prose in English of anyone alive in the 20th Century. (Ernest Hemingway wrote the best fictional prose, and if you haven’t read Joan Didion’s 1998 essay on his “mysterious, thrilling” style, you haven’t lived; but we’ll leave that for another day).

No he didn’t. I mean there is no one such person in the first place, but if there were, it wouldn’t be Russell. As for Hemingway…

Russell’s prose united the unholy trinity of virtues that make the best essayists: plain language, pertinent erudition, and moral force. Orwell achieved it in Shooting an Elephant and several other essays; Russell achieved it through most of his work.

Here we see the problem. “Plain” language is not a universal good and un-plain language is not invariably bad. That’s a dumb, wrong, philistine view, and it needs to die. Sometimes simplicity and hyper-clarity are what one wants, but not always.

Other truly great, even canonical, essayists often have two out of three. For instance, Christopher Hitchens’ best essays combined pertinent erudition with moral force, but lacked plain English, (the moral, intellectual and artistic case for which Orwell himself made peerlessly).

This is where that silly view takes you: thinking Hitchens didn’t write as well as he could have because his English wasn’t plain enough. Puhleez. What he had to say wasn’t always sayable in short words, and what he said in long words is not necessarily the worse for them. Also Orwell did not write 100% “plain” English – far from it.

But the reason I saw this is another story. His #3 winner is JK Rowling for That blog post.

JK Rowling is almost certainly the greatest writer of English children’s fiction of her generation, and a remarkable humanitarian. It turns out she writes exhilaratingly powerful prose too.

(Sometimes. Her adult fiction is not all that well-written, at least the examples I’ve read aren’t, which is why I haven’t read more of it.) (I don’t like anything about Harry Potter.)

In a blog about the transgender debate, she offended many people. Offence is the price of free speech. Those offended felt she was questioning their identity and even attacking their human rights, which they argue is a form of discrimination or hate speech.

I take absolutely no view whatsoever on the issues that she raises.

I do take an issue on abuse and trolling, and Rowling has achieved the inglorious honour of topping many a league table for those. The deluge of hatred that she faced before writing this blog made it brave, and it was nothing compared to what came after. Talking about bravery, so too, by the way, was Suzanne Moore’s engrossing, long, personal essay for Unherd on why she left the Guardian.

Which, also by the way, was not written in particularly plain English. A random paragraph to illustrate:

Maybe they were steering me away from certain subjects because they thought they were dealing with some mad old bint, or maybe they were scared and had been indoctrinated into the cult of righteousness that the Guardian embodies. At its best, the paper deserves to see itself as a beacon of the Left, but lately it has been hard to define what the Left consists of beyond smug affirmation. During the Corbyn years the paper had a difficult job to do: support Labour but to be honest about Corbyn and his cronies’ monstrous failings.

It’s a mixture, as good writing generally is – “mad old bint” followed by “indoctrinated into the cult of righteousness.”

We should all applaud bravery in writers – even those with whom we disagree. And Rowling’s essay contained moments of both real beauty and piercing honesty, as when she revealed that she is a survivor of domestic abuse and sexual assault.

What the judges – that is, the voices in my head – most admired about the writing was the plain English. It is an interesting fact about rhetoric that if you want people to understand something, plain, mono-syllabic words are usually your best bet: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”.

Yes the words are short, but what of this “ask not” business? That’s not how we usually say that – we usually say “don’t ask.” The plain English is not as plain as the short words might suggest. It just is not true that the most effective language is the most like a grocery list or dentist’s reminder.

Or think of the final line from Enoch Powell’s most notorious speech: “All I know is that to see, and not to speak, would be the great betrayal.”

I’m not endorsing the argument; but the rhetorical power of that line comes from the fact that there are 16 words, the first 15 of which have one syllable, and the last of which has three.

But that’s not where the rhetorical power of that line comes from – if indeed it has any great rhetorical power, which I’m not convinced it does. The power comes also from the words themselves, as opposed to their number of syllables. This simple-minded “always write short words” doctrine gets on my nerves.

Anyway – that aside, good about the award.

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