Why I Write

In deference to my educated audience I will remark that “Why I Write” is, of course, the title of an essay by George Orwell which was published in 1946, the year I was born. As Orwell did I will acknowledge that there are many instrumental reasons why people write. You write because you have to produce the essay to get the certificate without which no progress can be made. If you choose an academic career this goes on pretty much all your life because you have to have something (several things, actually) for the next research assessment or because it has been intimated to you that one more half-decent monograph and the chair is yours. You write because the editor of this or that magazine wants an article and he will pay relatively well for it. You might even write to see your name on the cover of a book or so you can say, “Actually, I’m a writer” to pretty girls at parties – though I don’t think this works very often and hardly ever if the genders are reversed.

But all these are trivial and passing reasons to write, even if they do cover the overwhelming majority of cases. The only serious and abiding reason to write is because you have something to say and you have to say it. The will is blind, as Schopenhauer put it; it is not about consequences. Let us call this polemical purpose; the test of whether you have a polemical purpose is whether you are motivated by imitation or opposition. If you read what other people write and think, “That’s very good – I wish I’d written that” then you should carry on reading. But if you rise from your chair thinking, “This demands my immediate response: what is written here, though slick and plausible in its way, is not just nonsense but dangerous nonsense”, then you should write because you have a proper purpose. A polemical purpose can concern anything you think it is worth making a statement about regardless of whether it is generally considered to be an important subject or not. For example, if you were to rate subjects for the quantity of drivel talked and written about them then, surely, “multi-cultural society” would rank very highly, but so would wine.

Orwell, it will be remembered, does not talk about a polemical purpose; he calls it a political purpose. But, as he says, he was living in “evil times”. He imagined himself as an eighteenth century clergyman, still writing, but producing poetry about ducks and horses and goldfinches, subjects which seem too trivial when you are living through the great depression, the rise of Nazism and the Spanish Civil War. If I think about my life in comparison with Orwell’s I just have to reflect how lucky I am: love, money, longevity, progeny and pretty much anything that matters – I got the good deal and George/Eric the bad one. Since our backgrounds were not all that different this is mostly about being lucky enough to be born in 1946 rather than 1903. There has been plenty of evil about in my times, but I wouldn’t call them evil times.

Even in evil times Orwell sometimes managed to write lyrically, in praise of the good things in life like the prose of P.G.Wodehouse, the postcards of Donald McGill and English roast dinners though, being Orwell, he saw different degrees of political meaning in all of these things. Polemical writing may be the most important, but lyrical writing should be the most enjoyable for the reader and the most satisfying to write. And in a sense even saying how life is good and specifying what is good about it has an element of the polemical, given how many dogmatically miserable buggers there are in the world. But whether you are writing “In opposition to . . ” or “In praise of . . . ” writing is thinking: you only truly know what is good when you have to choose words to describe it, whether it is the irresistible look of angled winter light on a mature landscape or a successful new interpretation of Bottom the weaver. Talking, you can burble, shift and contain multitudes; if you write properly you must commit.

I don’t like the word “writer” for two reasons. Firstly, writing is not like painting or making music because we nearly all write and many people do it well and in their own way. Writing has been re-democratised; in the twenty first century we are more like the letter writers and the pamphleteers of the eighteenth century than like the writers of a century ago because we don’t have to worry about the absolute distinction between “published” and “not published”. The second reason is that “writer” seems to imply novelist. Novels are a relatively new form of writing compared with poems, plays and (short) stories, but the form has established a kind of hegemony, like that of the symphony in music, which encourages the belief that novels are what serious writers write. Much as I would like to pull off Orwell’s trick in Coming Up For Air, Animal Farm and 1984 by writing stories that have a powerful polemical effect I don’t think I’m equipped to do so – though I do intend to try.

I prefer the term “essayist”. Essays vary enormously, but they must have proper form and arrive at a proper destination. Essays must be both truthful and honest: they must try to say what is the case, but they must also reveal the author as he or she really is – they are the opposite of the novel in this respect. Essays are reflections on life, but they are not the purpose of life. My model essayists are Orwell and the philosopher David Hume; behind these stand the likes of A.G. Gardiner and Neville Cardus, both operating in a kind of golden age when it was possible to write a proper essay in a daily newspaper. I should also add Michel de Montaigne, the supposed inventor (actually, moderniser) of the essay, but the truth is I did not read Montaigne until fairly late in life, by which time I had already written many essays. Both Hume and Montaigne remarked that the charm of writing essays was that it does not take all day and leaves room for living life.

Finally, it is important to accept that the “purpose” of an essay can exist on multiple levels. Orwell said that everything he wrote was intended to assist the achievement of “democratic socialism”. Well, we don’t have democratic socialism anywhere so far as I can see. And how could it ever happen?: socialism, surely, if it ever existed at all, would require the kind of transformation of human nature, taking generations, which was supposedly attempted in the Soviet Union. Whereas democracy is people: greedy, impatient, ignorant. And if that is contentious, what is demonstrable is that Orwell is quoted and revered far more in circles which call themselves “conservative” than by anyone on the left, because 1984 and Animal Farm are such powerful anti-Communist polemics. But that does not make him a failure because the essay has a higher and less conscious purpose as well as an immediate one. Thus Orwell could be both a great writer and a (pretty) complete failure.