After reading some judicious Orwell quotes selected by Kate of Kate’s Book Blog posted a while ago, I decided to buy the Everyman’s Library edition of his Essays—all 1363 pages, excluding end notes. What a delight: many speak with the economy of a journalist, the depth of a great philosopher and the practicality of an executive, and their topics range over a host of ideas, many of which are as relevant today as they were 60 years ago. In Defense of the Novel is particularly timely; Orwell writes about the problems of book reviewing: many books are not necessarily bad but fail to rouse the love or even curiosity of the critic: “[…] the chances are that eleven out of twelve books will fail to rouse in him the faintest spark of interest.” But professional critics have to review them, judge them, and establish some kind of scale. If Shakespeare is a 10 and Orwell a 7, very few books looks good in comparison. But if one starts comparing only modern books to each other, they start to look better, and one finds something redeeming in bad books, and then one starts raving about the indifferent books, and, as Orwell writes, “There is no way out of it when you have once committed the initial sin of pretending that a bad book is a good one. But you cannot review novels for a living without committing that sin.” Maybe—but I think he leaves some nuance out of his description.
I don’t review novels for living, but I still know of what he writes and understand the problems inherent in judging books. Orwell is also too harsh or cynical because he neglects to realize that most reviewers are not trying to pretend that a bad book is a good book, but rather that most—well, many—books contribute something. Otherwise they would never have reached print at a major house. They would find no readers, with or without the critic’s help. So they must fulfill some need, particularly because anyone who buys a book chooses it out of a sea of literally millions of other books in English alone. I, for example, didn’t love Martin Amis’s latest novel, House of Meetings, but I still wrote about it because I realized that it is a good book in its area, even if it was a book that did not move me greatly.
Not all of In Defense of the Novel applies to me—I am paid nothing to write about books and so can write about whichever ones I please in whatever way I please. But I consequently avoid many bad, mediocre, or uninteresting books because most of the ones I choose are recommended some way: through bloggers, or reviewers, or essays, or the like. They have survived the rigorous pruning by agents, editors, and often fellow bloggers like me, who have no particular affiliation and seldom receive recognition, let alone money, for our efforts. Most of the books I’ve been reading lately have said something useful, even if I do not have enough passion to spare for all of them, and it’s worth trying to describe what useful thing they say. Passion is a curious and individual thing, and even if a book doesn’t move a reviewer, it might move someone reading the review, and many books published deserve at least that fair hearing. Orwell is still, as usual, more right than he is wrong, and in reading his essays I find myself much changed—just the effect I hope for when I crack a fresh spine.
Oh, and Essays? Brilliant. It and Graham Green’s The End of the Affair have made my reading life. I can go through a lot of less than perfect books to find two like these.