Saturday 30 August 2014

Self, self, self!

Will Self used this week's A Point of View on Radio 4 to launch an attack on George Orwell. 

Yes, George Orwell. 

For Will, Orwell is the "supreme mediocrity", self-geared to serve the needs of large numbers of mediocre English people. He was also an elitist. (Square that if you can).  

Will Self entertained us with a snide impersonation of Orwell at one point, making him sound like a silly 'Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells' type, which was surely intended to provoke, to grate and irritate. 

Will is nothing if not a showman. Even on radio his flair for out-Kenneth Williamsing Kenneth Williams in terms of facial contortions and nostril-stretching comes across loud and clear.

What was he up to in attempting to take down this most sacred of British cows? Being contrarian for sure. 

"What excites me is to disturb the reader's fundamental assumptions," he said of his own writing. "I want to make them feel that certain categories within which they are used to perceiving the world are unstable" - such categories as presuming that George Orwell is a supreme genius whose ideas and novels have reverberated around the world to somewhat great effect than Will Self's. 

And, of course, Will was also surely being Selfish - dissing a writer greater than himself who happened (in one essay) to criticise ways of writing that Will himSelf has made essential facets of his own pleonastic style. 

You had to smile (though with gritted teeth) at his playing of the "Orwell was middle-class" card too - the supremely mediocre irony of a white, middle-aged, middle-class public-school-then-Oxford-educated novelist who turned political and went down and out (for a while) in London (and visiting Paris) before finding fame and working for the BBC proceeding to denounce another white, middle-aged, middle-class public-school-educated novelist who turned political before going down and out in London and Paris, finding fame and working for the BBC, without seeming to spot the obvious biographical similarities. 

What did he use to prove Orwell's 'mediocrity' then? The opening paragraph of a single essay which makes an indisputably duff point about language, giving Will the chance to out-think Orwell on that one point (and drop in some mentions of Chomsky and neuroscience for good measure). 

Now, reading that essay does show that George Orwell could get things very wrong. No great genius is perfect, nor needs to be. Some of the prescriptive passages in that essay do come across as deeply wrong-headed, but - and here's the bit Will Self didn't mention - there's also some highly acute stuff in there about the use of language for political purposes (deliberately dishonest or otherwise), and when it comes to political writing (as opposed to literary writing) I'd say that there's much truth in some of his general points about the need for clarity, concision and the avoidance of jargon and tired phrases. From the sinister abuses of language of tyrants to the robotic mouthings of half-emptied buzzwords from modern party politicians, this under-par essay still gives a lot of food for thought. 

As, for that matter, did Will Self's self-serving talk this week - as you can see.

The reaction on Twitter has been mixed, but mostly hostile, with made a plain English word used to describe Will Self himself by some of the medium's less elitist elements counterpointed by a smaller number of enthusiastic comments by people we should probably call 'Selfies.' A surprising number used the word "brilliant", like that character from The Fast Show. 


  1. Another moment in the slow chipping away at the good elements of British heritage and culture. Are we sure Self declined the BBC's offer to be the intellectual leader of Radio 4?

  2. Horrible man. The moment he comes on air, I switch off. However, since one can generally assume that anything Will Self approves of is either morally wrong or politically ridiculous, it does save time in making up one's mind regarding what to support or oppose.

    1. There are a fair few people like that, Sue - faulty compasses that reliably point you in the exact opposite direction.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.