Arson, bigamy, and chess

What purpose is served by saying that men like Maxton are in Fascist pay? Only the purpose of making serious discussion impossible. It is as though in the middle of a chess tournament one competitor should suddenly begin screaming that the other is guilty of arson or bigamy. The point that is really at issue remains untouched. Libel settles nothing.

—George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

(James Maxton was a Scottish socialist politician and orator of the earlier twentieth century, and the leader of the Independent Labour Party. He was extensively libelled in the Communist press for publishing remarks critical of the Republican side’s conduct in the Spanish Civil War. It should not be necessary to add, but perhaps is, that he was never in Fascist pay.)

If you have followed a link to this page, it’s probably because I tangled with someone on the Internet trying to win an already-lost argument by escalating it to a flamewar, and calling his opponent a Fascist (or equivalent name). I am putting this here so I won’t have to repeat the point ad nauseam in other people’s comboxes.

My own combox, fortunately, is a place where I have never needed to resort to such measures. I thank you, my 3.6 Loyal Readers, for your civility even in disagreement and your warm-hearted support at the other times. You are, each of you, a joy to be prized, and I thank you. A very happy and prosperous New Year to you all!


Marxist critics make the same claim more boldly for Marxist books. For instance, Mr Edward Upward (‘A Marxist Interpretation of Literature,’ in The Mind in Chains):

‘Literary criticism which aims at being Marxist must… proclaim that no book written at the present time can be “good” unless it is written from a Marxist or near-Marxist viewpoint.’

Various other writers have made similar or comparable statements. Mr Upward italicizes ‘at the present time’ because, he realizes that you cannot, for instance, dismiss Hamlet on the ground that Shakespeare was not a Marxist. Nevertheless his interesting essay only glances very shortly at this difficulty. Much of the literature that comes to us out of the past is permeated by and in fact founded on beliefs (the belief in the immortality of the soul, for example) which now seem to us false and in some cases contemptibly silly. Yet it is ‘good’ literature, if survival is any test. Mr Upward would no doubt answer that a belief which was appropriate several centuries ago might be inappropriate and therefore stultifying now. But this does not get one much farther, because it assumes that in any age there will be one body of belief which is the current approximation to truth, and that the best literature of the time will be more or less in harmony with it. Actually no such uniformity has ever existed. In seventeenth-century England, for instance, there was a religious and political cleavage which distinctly resembled the left-right antagonism of to-day. Looking back, most modern people would feel that the bourgeois-Puritan viewpoint was a better approximation to truth than the Catholic-feudal one. But it is certainly not the case that all or even a majority of the best writers of the time were puritans.

—George Orwell, ‘Inside the Whale’

The artist as citizen

In an age like our own, when the artist is an altogether exceptional person, he must be allowed a certain amount of irresponsibility, just as a pregnant woman is. Still, no one would say that a pregnant woman should be allowed to commit murder, nor would anyone make such a claim for the artist, however gifted. If Shakespeare returned to the earth to-morrow, and if it were found that his favourite recreation was raping little girls in railway carriages, we should not tell him to go ahead with it on the ground that he might write another King Lear.

And, after all, the worst crimes are not always the punishable ones. By encouraging necrophilic reveries one probably does quite as much harm as by, say, picking pockets at the races. One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dali is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being. The one does not invalidate or, in a sense, affect the other.

The first thing that we demand of a wall is that it shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp. In the same way it should be possible to say, ‘This is a good book or a good picture, and it ought to be burned by the public hangman.’ Unless one can say that, at least in imagination, one is shirking the implications of the fact that an artist is also a citizen and a human being.

—George Orwell, ‘Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dalí

(Paragraph breaks and boldface added.)

And yet here we are, less than a hundred years later, and the Hollywood elite lionizes and defends the likes of Roman Polanski, who did not quite stoop to raping little girls in railway carriages, but is no Shakespeare, either. I will say it plainly: We live in disgusting times.

For Charlie, but mainly for Baga

Two sayings that, at this moment, are particularly worth bearing in mind:


It needs but one foe to breed a war, not two. And those who have not swords can still die upon them.

—J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King


To survive you often have to fight, and to fight you have to dirty yourself. War is evil, and it is often the lesser evil. Those who take the sword perish by the sword, and those who don’t take the sword perish by smelly diseases.

—George Orwell, ‘Looking Back on the Spanish War

May God be with the Christians of Nigeria in their hour of tribulation, and may He confound Boko Haram and all their evil works. And may the dead of Charlie Hebdo find mercy, and the survivors seek truth.

Who’s afraid? Virginia Woolf!

Over at The Passive Voice, while Passive Guy is away, the guest bloggers have put up the sole surviving recording of the voice of Virginia Woolf. Talking of the poor state of the literature of England in her time, she makes this revealing remark:

Where are we to lay the blame? Not on our professors, not on our reviewers, not on our writers, but on words. Words are to blame.

There is a very old English saying, invented by people who had a far better instinct for the use of language than Virginia Woolf ever had: ‘It’s a poor craftsman that blames his tools.’ At the very time when Woolf (and a lot of other tired English littérateurs) complained about the exhaustion of the English language, a generation of mostly American and Irish writers were making those poor old words do wonderful new tricks, and breathed a whole new vigour into literature. (Then there were Welshmen like Dylan Thomas, and a few Scots. There may even have been a Canadian in there somewhere.)

Of course it was the Americans’ turn to slip into decadence half a century later, when it became fashionable for the darlings of American Lit to blame the failure of their books on the inadequacy of words to express their wonderful sublime ideas. B. R. Myers had a short way with such people, pointing out sarcastically that English words were good enough for ‘a piker like Shakespeare’.

What did the Americans, Irish, and Welsh have in Woolf’s time that Woolf and her English friends lacked? Part of the answer may perhaps be found when we hear Woolf’s accent. It is a very pure and correct ‘educated’ accent, an early form of ‘Received Pronunciation’, the chief purpose of which was to prove that the speaker did not belong to the despised working classes. It was a deracinated English, deliberately divorced from any regional dialect or demotic form of speech; it did not even have the vitality to generate a vivid slang of its own. George Orwell, who was brought up to to speak it, observed:

The ‘educated’ accent, of which the accent of BBC announcers is a sort of parody, has no asset except its intelligibility to English-speaking foreigners. In England, the minority to whom it is natural don’t particularly like it, while in the other three-quarters of the population it arouses an immediate class antagonism.

This is precisely Woolf’s accent; you can hear it in recordings by Noel Coward also, and any number of English politicians of the time. (Not Churchill; as Orwell points out, ‘Too old to have acquired the modern “educated” accent he speaks with the Edwardian upper-class twang which to the average man’s ear sounds ilke cockney.’ This gave Churchill a great advantage as a public speaker: people could hear him without hating him.) In documents of the period, it is often called a mincing accent; it would not be too much to say that it was seldom spoken without fear – fear of seeming ‘common’; fear of being mistaken for a member of the Lower Orders; fear of breaking the innumerable social taboos that ‘educated’ speakers were supposed to obey, and thus revealing (truly or falsely) that the accent was merely an act.

Great literature is not written by people who are afraid to speak freely. So the task devolved upon people like Hemingway, Faulkner, Thomas, and Eliot, who spoke and wrote in their own regional dialects and never felt any need to apologize for it. It is not the inadequacy of words that kills literature, but the fear of being seen to use them differently from other people.

Why I write

From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.

I was the middle child of three, but there was a gap of five years on either side, and I barely saw my father before I was eight. For this and other reasons I was somewhat lonely, and I soon developed disagreeable mannerisms which made me unpopular throughout my schooldays. I had the lonely child’s habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.

—George Orwell, ‘Why I Write

I was not as precocious as Orwell; I did not definitely conceive the idea of becoming a writer until I was twelve, though it was among the many occupations I had played at in earlier childhood. I should have liked to be an urban planner, but I discovered, before I had any opportunity to set out on such a path, that the profession had already become what it has since remained: not a branch of engineering in which one does the interesting creative work of coming up with feasible ways of giving people the kind of towns they want to live in, but a branch of politics in which one plans the kind of towns demanded by the ideology of one’s superiors, and then crams them down the people’s throats. I thought of being a cartographer – the maps in National Geographic, of all things, were nearly my first purely aesthetic experience – but I could not discover any path that would lead me appreciably in the direction of such a career. In any case my formal education was forcibly terminated before I could make any meaningful progress towards those ends.

But writing was something that I could (and can) do, and that nobody could stop me from doing so long as I lived in a relatively free country. In an age of galloping credentialism, when even security guards are examined and licensed by the State, there is to this day no formal credential for becoming a writer – no storyteller’s certificate, not even a blogger’s licence. It is true that the creative writing programs in the universities turn out more graduates than formerly, but so far the only people that have been thereby prevented from becoming creative writers are those very same graduates. Perhaps some of the reasons for this will eventually occur to them, or even to their professors. But I digress—

In Calgary, when I was still a fairly small boy, there was a sort of minor mania for local history that lasted several years. Southern Alberta was one of the last places in North America to be definitely settled. It was only in 1875 that the first permanent building was erected on the future site of the city. That was Fort Calgary, the North-West Mounted Police post, one of several built to shut down the illicit whisky trade out of the United States. The last survivors of the pioneer period, or rather the youngest of their children, were busily dying in the 1970s, and their stories being written up by local historians like Jack Peach and Grant MacEwan, themselves old men. I myself had a second or third cousin who was so old that he had come west by covered wagon, and lived to the age of 105; and my own grandfather took up a homestead on virgin land in the Peace River country about the time my father was born, not long before the arable land ran out and the homestead system was abolished.

It should come as no surprise that my first large creative endeavour sprang out of that environment and those vicarious experiences. Where the young C. S. Lewis (and his brother) had an imaginary country, Boxen, whose history and legends came to be written up in considerable detail, I had an imaginary frontier town. I drew many maps of the place at different periods, but also wrote portions of a connected history of the place and its leading citizens, leading down from the first settlers to the imaginary characters that I and one or two of my friends played at being in the present day. All that stuff was lost long ago, thank God; some of it I destroyed myself, but most was thrown away by my mother, who never saw a piece of paper that she did not detest on sight. The fact that my father was an avid reader and liked to fill up the house with books was, I believe, a constant anguish to her.

I had left that phase behind and was writing ‘future history’ and pastiches of bad science fiction when, at the age of twelve, I abruptly discovered that writing was something one could do as a profession. I have had no measurable success at it since then, but I still persist in trying: partly because one can earn money by it, even (nowadays, through the medium of ebooks) with very small sales, and it is one of the few kinds of work that I can do in my present state of health without expensive academic credentials; but chiefly for another reason. Since that reason has not, in my experience, been much talked about, I propose to say something about it here. [Read more…]

A song of gore and slaughter

#9 in a series, following ‘Sock Puppet, son of Sock Puppet’. An earlier version appeared on LiveJournal in May, 2006.

Prigs, by and large, are euphemists. Although it was Heinlein who invented (or at least publicized) the term speculative fiction, it was the prigs of the field who fastened upon it as their preferred substitute for the indecently descriptive name science fiction. Thirty or forty years later, the prigs of another field, shrinking from the straightforwardness of the word horror, cast about for a suitably pretty substitute and came up with dark fantasy.

Millions of ordinary readers like stories about science, or stories about things that frighten them; they seek them out. To a prig, this will not do; and so he must demonstrate his superiority to the rabble (as Ted Nelson put it) by calling a spade a muscle-powered terrain disequilibration system. Both terms, thankfully, have gone rather out of fashion since their first vogue. ‘Speculative fiction’ was simply too ugly for anyone but a prig to use, and in any case it clashed violently with the older and more useful term ‘writing on speculation’, or ‘on spec’, meaning the nearly universal practice of writing a story before it is sold.

‘Dark fantasy’ was eclipsed for a less encouraging reason: the adjective no longer draws a distinction.  [Read more…]

Style is the rocket

‘Don’t mock the afflicted.’ This is a good rule, but it needs a rider: ‘Unless they choose to afflict themselves, and treat their affliction as cause for pride.’ Colour-blindness is not funny; but a colour-blind man who should proclaim the virtues of his superior eyesight, and sneer at all those who suffer under the illusion that red is different from green, would be the stuff of immortal comedy. He would be laughed at heartily, and have no one to blame for it but himself.

There is a kind of literary colour-blindness which occurs, for the most part, only among highly cultivated people; for such folly in nature is self-correcting. It takes two opposite forms. One is the belief that prose style is all; that a work of literature is only as good as its individual sentences, and that a bland or pedestrian prose style is in itself sufficient to condemn a story as subliterary dreck. The second form I shall discuss later. [Read more…]

Moorcock, Saruman, and the Dragon’s Tail

This essay can also be found in the collection Writing Down the Dragon.

The journalist and historian Paul Johnson has divided all serious writers and critics into two camps, ‘intellectuals’ and ‘men of letters’. Intellectuals are those who, like Shelley, conceive themselves to be ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’; they are the Utopians, the revolutionists, the Angry Young Men; they involve themselves in politics, usually radical, readily form claques, and have a disturbing tendency to write manifestos. Men of letters (the term dates back to less literal-minded times, when ‘men’ could be understood to refer to both sexes) just read things, and write things, and write about what they read. They do not even have a strong tendency to read about what they write: the Platonically ideal man of letters is too comfortable in his ivory tower to care much about reviews and Press clippings. Karl Marx could well stand for the purest form of intellectual, and Emily Dickinson, if you will pardon the Irish bull, was a perfect man of letters.

Of course these extremes are only the endpoints of a continuous line, but most authors show a definite tendency to drift towards one end or the other. Tolstoy was an intellectual, and developed the points of that breed, so to speak, more and more strongly as he grew older, until he gave up imaginative writing altogether in favour of his own weird form of political messianism. Shakespeare was a man of letters, so very much so that it is still hotly disputed what his political opinions were, or whether he ever troubled to form any. Intellectuals have often been quick to dismiss men of letters as reactionary toadies or commercial hacks, and in fact Tolstoy attacked Shakespeare as both in his pamphlet, Shakespeare and the Drama. But for all the fame of both the attacker and the target, that pamphlet would be utterly forgotten today, had it not been preserved by George Orwell’s much more famous rebuttal, ‘Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool’. On the whole Orwell was an intellectual, but he had a very strong streak of the man of letters in him, and his sympathies were very much with Shakespeare.

In our own time, Michael Moorcock could well be described as an intellectual who sometimes masquerades as a man of letters. In The Way the Future Was, Frederik Pohl says that if the Futurians had conquered all of science-fiction fandom, the mere world would have been an anticlimax; and the same quality is distinctly present in Moorcock’s characteristic literary polemics. He takes literature as his battleground, but his weapons and his enmities are drawn from an almost purely political ideology. He seems very much concerned that Utopian writers shall write about the correct kind of Utopia, and his fury with dissenters knows no bounds. J.R.R. Tolkien, on the other hand, was so very much a man of letters that he did not even attempt to publish any of his fiction until a reader at Allen and Unwin chanced to hear of The Hobbit and pried the typescript out of his hands. And while Tolkien seems not to have heard of Moorcock any more than Shakespeare could have heard of Tolstoy, the same kind of bitter one-way enmity has grown between them.

I have before me an essay of Moorcock’s, called ‘Wit and Humour in Fantasy’, first published in 1979. It is ostensibly an argument for the natural and necessary alliance between humour and fantasy (something nobody ever remarked upon before Moorcock); but he makes his argument very badly, partly because it is poppycock, but chiefly because his real purpose is to attack his arch-enemy, Tolkien. In consequence it makes for interesting reading, and I would nominate it for a place of honour beside Shakespeare and the Drama in the canon of foolish diatribes.

[Read more…]


The failure of subversion in imaginative literature

‘Do you believe in God, Winston?’


‘Then what is it, this principle that will defeat us?’

‘I don’t know. The spirit of Man.’

[Read more…]