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"The English," GK Chesterton wrote, "love a talented mediocrity."
August 31, 2014 2:14 AM   Subscribe

I don't doubt characterising Orwell as a talented mediocrity will put noses out of joint. Not Orwell, surely! Orwell the tireless campaigner for social justice and economic equality; Orwell the prophetic voice, crying out in the wartime wilderness against the dangers of totalitarianism and the rise of the surveillance state; Orwell, who nobly took up arms in the cause of Spanish democracy, then, equally nobly, exposed the cause's subversion by Soviet realpolitik; Orwell, who lived in saintly penury and preached the solid virtues of homespun Englishness; Orwell, who died prematurely, his last gift to the people he so admired being a list of suspected Soviet agents he sent to MI5.
For the BBC's Point of View series, Will Self tackles the cult of Orwell.
posted by MartinWisse (79 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oo. Burn :)

This is a great quote though: "Reading Orwell at his most lucid you can have the distinct impression he's saying these things, in precisely this way, because he knows that you - and you alone - are exactly the sort of person who's sufficiently intelligent to comprehend the very essence of what he's trying to communicate."

Reminds me of reading the Economist, which has mastered this prose tone and turned it into an art form.
posted by pharm at 2:24 AM on August 31 [9 favorites]


I love Will Self, but this is homeopathically thin gruel as an argument against Orwell's prose.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:31 AM on August 31 [29 favorites]


I read this essay about once a year. Someone spends a few pages tendentiously misinterpreting "Politics and the English Language" or "Shooting an Elephant" or "Animal Farm" to prove that Orwell was pro-Empire, or would have supported the war in Iraq or just to big up whatever their particular pet project is. In this case it's apparently a thoroughly middle class English novelist's ongoing project to prove that he's not, through the medium of attacking someone middle class English people like.
posted by Grimgrin at 2:32 AM on August 31 [13 favorites]


Yeah, it's mildly competent trolling at best.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:38 AM on August 31 [3 favorites]


Fairly Well-Known British Critic: Why George Orwell is A Mediocre Hack Who Ruined Everything


5 SHOCKING REASONS WHY "GENIUS" AUTHOR GEORGE ORWELL RUINED ENGLISH FOR THE REST OF US

1. Experts agree: Orwell was mediocre

2. He sold out his Socialist friends to the British Secret Service

3. Orwell's advice on writing great English? PLAIN WRONG (SAYS SCIENCE)

4. Some of his ideas might have been refuted after his death. Chomsky

5. Orwell was actually a conservative. And probably an elitist racist too.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 2:39 AM on August 31 [19 favorites]


Susan Sontag on Camus mentioning Orwell:
Whenever Camus is spoken of there is a mingling of personal, moral, and literary judgment. No discussion of Camus fails to include, or at least suggest, a tribute to his goodness and attractiveness as a man. To write about Camus is thus to consider what occurs between the image of a writer and his work, which is tantamount to the relation between morality and literature. For it is not only that Camus himself is always thrusting the moral problem upon his readers. (All his stories, plays, and novels relate the career of a responsible sentiment, or the absence of it.) It is because his work, solely as a literary accomplishment, is not major enough to bear the weight of admiration that readers want to give it. One wants Camus to be a truly great writer, not just a very good one. But he is not. It might be useful here to compare Camus with George Orwell and James Baldwin, two other husbandly writers who essay to combine the role of artist with civic conscience. Both Orwell and Baldwin are better writers in their essays than they are in their fiction. This is not true of Camus, a far more important writer.
posted by mbrock at 2:47 AM on August 31 [7 favorites]


Whatever you make of this particular talk, Radio 4's A Point of View Podcast is well worth following. Clive James' many contributions to the slot are pure gold, and many of the other contributors have intelligent, thought-provoking things to say too. My own favourites include Self, Sarah Dunant and AL Kennedy. It's available in the iTunes store, along with many other excellent Radio 4 podcasts, and they're all free.
posted by Paul Slade at 2:50 AM on August 31 [2 favorites]


I'm tired of critics who think Politics and the English Language was about anything other than political writing.
posted by Peevish at 3:05 AM on August 31 [8 favorites]


Sometimes I think Will Self is consciously giving his post-mortem editors something to wrangle with when they finally get round to collecting the complete Self.

*type type type*
"That'll fuck'em."
*cackles*
*continues to type*
posted by aesop at 3:12 AM on August 31 [1 favorite]


Those in glass houses, Will...
posted by Pilly at 3:24 AM on August 31 [6 favorites]


Orwell, in the US, is liked for generally the wrong reasons (i.e. the anti-communism he developed after the second World War) but the accusation that he was a "mediocrity" seems entirely wrong-headed. Orwell's journalistic and autobiographical writing was much superior to his fiction, especially when you consider that 1984 is basically the May Days section of Homage to Catalonia stretched across years rather than days.

Life in Orwell's books develops a searing quality, and the critique is blunt rather than sharp, but "mediocrity" seems like weasel words here. Self wants to denigrate Orwell but can't actually say he's bad, so he prattles on about mediocrity for a while and critiques "Politics and the English Language," which is generally unfortunately read mostly by people who aren't familiar with the type of 1930s political journalism that Orwell was making a critique of.
posted by graymouser at 3:25 AM on August 31 [16 favorites]


Huh, I just read an interview with David Bromwich this morning, who mentioned Orwell as an influence:

"Re-reading Orwell, I’ve found him to be quite an eccentric and disturbing writer, sometimes in ways I don’t find easy to admire. There’s a streak of cruelty in him. I think that was something he recognised in himself. And there’s maybe a streak of cruelty in the desire to tell the truth. He talks about this in his essay “Why I Write”. He realised early that he had an aesthetic interest in words and how to put them together, and a capacity for facing “unpleasant facts”. There’s no American who’s quite his equal. But then again, there’s been no British writer his equal either."
posted by Auden at 3:30 AM on August 31 [5 favorites]


I know that I can pull any of the four volumes of my Orwell's Collected Essays, Journalism, etc., and open any two or three pages at random, and be delighted, either by the content or the easy command of the language, or by both.

If George Orwell is "mediocre", then Self has a very long way to go before he reaches even that.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:32 AM on August 31 [24 favorites]


Self is the most obvious example of the type of person who believes being right is more important than all other considerations.
posted by fullerine at 3:32 AM on August 31 [7 favorites]


"My huge body of quotable sentences," wrote G.K. Chesterton, "will doubtless be used as ass-covering epigraphs for innumerable poorly argued essays."
posted by sylvanshine at 3:46 AM on August 31 [48 favorites]


My favorite example of this sort of asininity is John Dolan's Big Brothers: Hitchens and Orwell Exposed. Like, if your takeaway from "Shooting an Elephant" is that Orwell was pro-Empire, perhaps writing isn't the profession for you.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:47 AM on August 31 [15 favorites]


> I'm tired of critics who think Politics and the English Language was about anything other than political writing.

There are many things to take away from "Politics..." which are still timely and are worth applying to writing in many venues (business writers, I am glaring at you with a stern expression). But yes, inasmuch as he was criticizing that particular thing, the particular thing was relevant sixty years ago, not last week. Still, we want to frame everything in our own contexts, and so it's a natural tendency to infer from his essay an intention to address as much generality is necessary to let us imagine he's writing about something that bothers us, too.

Will Self makes the common mistake of blaming the artist for the faults of his fans, and if he was trying to make a better example of rising above mediocrity, he'd have known better than to do that.

Otherwise, I dunno. It's fair to call Orwell dry and lecturing. He had his causes, he felt them strongly, and I get a sense that much of his personal struggle was with trying to prevent his sense of righteousness from tipping his prose even farther towards haranguing. If he wrote so acutely about language, style, and propaganda, I think it's because he was not a natural stylist so he had the need to concentrate hard on writing well and therefore knew how to articulate what he learned, while somebody who didn't have to think so hard about expressing themselves well wouldn't be as interested in the matter and wouldn't have as much to say about it.

Orwell was making observations about world events and human suffering, and bringing them to a public more successfully than other artists were. If his obsession was, say, English gardens rather than the intersection of politics and humanity, all else being equal he'd probably have been a minor celebrity in his time, better compensated and more quickly forgotten.
posted by ardgedee at 3:49 AM on August 31 [7 favorites]


The BBC’s framing of the piece seems like trolling for clicks, but I don’t think that Self’s piece seems particularly trollish, by his standards. At least I don’t think his trolling is the same as the BBC's.

This reads less as an attack on Orwell and more on a particular kind of English liberal pseudo-intellectualism. These days, they mainly crop up on in my own life as self-declared sceptics, New Atheists, scientistic rationalists and Liberal Democrats. The people I'm thinking of hold beliefs that I often broadly sympathise with, but hold them without understanding how any reasonable person could disagree with them. Hence the closing line: "the clarity they so admire in his writings is simply another kind of opacity, since in the act of revealing one truth it necessarily obscures many others".

Having a go at Orwell is a means to an end here. I happen to think it's a fairly valid end, and so I quite like this piece.
posted by howfar at 4:18 AM on August 31 [10 favorites]


Will Self is that rarest of creatures, a witty, unfettered, worthwhile troll... at least that's what I tell myself as I get overly narked by his pomposity yet still end up reading every article to the end. A pleasure to always be taken with a large spoonful of salt.
posted by protorp at 4:20 AM on August 31 [1 favorite]


If I'm ever sent to Room 101 I expect to find Will Self sitting there with a book of his collected works, ready to begin reading them directly into my ear. I wouldn't last twenty minutes.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 4:25 AM on August 31 [6 favorites]


I find Will Self a grandiose poseur. This time is no different. This is drivel.

When he has contribute one sixteenth of what Orwell gave to literature and politics, he gets a lollipop.

Damn shame Hitch ain't around to roar back.
posted by spitbull at 4:38 AM on August 31 [6 favorites]


I thought Orwell was cutting and insightful with 1984... Until I read the book it was cribbed from.
posted by Popular Ethics at 4:39 AM on August 31


There are many things to take away from "Politics..." which are still timely and are worth applying to writing in many venues (business writers, I am glaring at you with a stern expression).

the kernel of this essay is a critique of "Politics and the English Language," the only weak part of which (IMHO) is the Chomsky shout-out. The problem is that, for Orwell, language is a progressive project, but at the same time he *does* want to put it into a reactionary box of plain, common-sense, bourgeois values.

My favorite example of this sort of asininity is John Dolan's Big Brothers: Hitchens and Orwell Exposed. Like, if your takeaway from "Shooting an Elephant" is that Orwell was pro-Empire, perhaps writing isn't the profession for you.

the thesis isn't that Orwell is pro-empire:
Along with the race hatred, there’s another obvious feature of this intro: the way it dramatizes Orwell himself, a sensitive young white man alone in a crowd of evil aliens. That habit of dramatizing himself never changes. It’s a constant in Orwell’s work; the only difference is that the scene shifts from Burma to Europe, and the hostile crowd consists of fellow intellectuals trying to lure him into one of the orthodoxies they have cravenly embraced.

In “Shooting an Elephant,” his isolation is literal; no other Englishmen seem to be on duty in Moulmein on the day the elephant gets loose. Alone, Orwell succumbs to the crowd’s pressure and shoots the elephant. But he is the real victim, forced to do violence to his conscience.

The argument is contagion. The Burmese are so vile that they infect the hero; he and his comrades should give up Burma simply to avoid infection. Of course, the story hints that they don’t have a choice; the Empire is doomed anyway. In fact, the Empire is an object of pity: “I did not even know [as a young man in Burma] that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it.”
the point is that Orwell retreats to this plain-speaking, common sense English-ism which is so boldly reactionary compared to the surface radicalism, that you tend to edit it out. I think of Orwell as the prototype of the bourgeois radical: someone who thrives of the attention of attacking his parents but who retains their essential values. That he informed on his friends/associates merely confirms this. The reactionary values are plain in his words.
posted by ennui.bz at 4:54 AM on August 31 [9 favorites]


1984 owes a lot more to Koestler's Darkness at Noon than to Zamyatin's We. I found Zamyatin's story to be almost unreadable (in translation) but yes, all three books have a similar theme, and Zamyatin's came first. Orwell's genius was that his future wasn't so very different from his present, and it was solidly rooted in the England he knew. This, the vision of our world slipping away, is something that makes 1984 qualitatively different and (in my opinion) superior to the other two works.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:04 AM on August 31 [6 favorites]


(mind that Dolan is writing in a classic reactionary mold, his critique of Orwell boils down to feeling that Orwell isn't honest in his hate)
posted by ennui.bz at 5:04 AM on August 31


You can pry my Orwell out of my cold dead hands. Lucid and perfect prose. People ask me how I can get dense ideas into 600 words? Orwell is why.
posted by Mistress at 5:15 AM on August 31 [3 favorites]


I always felt with Orwell I was being brought along by an expert tour guide to see something I had never seen - and couldn't properly imagine, whether it was the British Empire in Burma or a poor-persons' hospital in Paris.

I was there, in the place and time, with my guide. Kipling's empire, even in his adult stories, never escaped a school boy's view.

That made Orwell a genius.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 5:32 AM on August 31 [6 favorites]


I find it hard to take advice on literary style from a man who wrote this paragraph:
Over the centuries during which they've held sway these administrators of ennui have built up a sort of pantheon of piffle, comprised of talented mediocrities' productions. There are entire syllabuses full of their lacklustre texts - galleries hung with their bland daubs, concert halls resounding with their duff notes, and of course, radio stations broadcasting their tepid lucubrations.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 5:35 AM on August 31 [13 favorites]


That article is some seriously thin gruel.
posted by AdamCSnider at 5:37 AM on August 31 [1 favorite]


Will Self yanking our chains again.
posted by adamvasco at 5:40 AM on August 31 [1 favorite]


Orwell is a great stylist, without a doubt. The quality of his political and cultural ideas should still be open to debate regardless of the beauty or effectiveness of his prose.

As a few previous posters have suggested, part of the problem is that Orwell's words are forever being misappropriated for present-day political purposes. But Self is also right that Orwell's thinking was limited by his refusal to question certain middle-class orthodoxies of the time, and his derision for anything that didn't fit itself into those orthodoxies.

He rejected what we wold now call identity politics, for example, but in a way that retains "white, bourgeois, Englishman" as the tacit default. And his distrust of radicalism, however well-founded in his own experience, places strict limits on how far any permissible critique of present circumstances could go.

If he has been reappropriated by the American right, it is because of his consistent appeal to classical liberal virtues. Such virtues can rather easily be transformed into pieces of a tradition rather than subjects of living debate, and both Orwell's appeal and the conservative use of same tend to treat them as unquestionable. They also tend to connect civic virtue with a particular kind of middle-class existence and tradition, both of which lend themselves well to illiberal beliefs.

The key point in Self's critique is this paragraph:
Orwell and his supporters may say they're objecting to jargon and pretension, but underlying this are good old-fashioned prejudices against difference itself. Only homogenous groups of people all speak and write identically. People from different heritages, ethnicities, classes and regions speak the same language differently, duh!
He is not attacking Orwell's prose as inelegant, but rather critiquing Orwell's rules for style as a set of boundaries that place culturally exclusionist limits on what constitutes "good prose" or "acceptable ideas" in print.

Self makes his purpose clear in the final lines, where he outright tells the reader that his objections are aimed, not at Orwell, but at Orwell's appropriators. And earlier he notes the "particular genius" of Orwell for stating certain opinions with "a painful clarity." His concern is with the limits Orwellian style and its underlying assumptions place on the range of opinions that may be stated. More specifically, he is commenting on the irony of how easily Orwell's rules have been turned into the citation pads of latter-day language police.
posted by kewb at 5:43 AM on August 31 [15 favorites]


I've been reading Orwell – like most Americans, I only read Animal Farm and 1984 in high school (to learn that communism is a bad thing) – and I've been a little surprised by how often his prejudices show through. There's a surprising amount of homophobia in most of the early books, largely gratuitous:
Nasty old bladder of lard! he thought, watching Mr Macgregor up the road. How his bottom did stick out in those tight khaki shorts. Like one of those beastly middle-aged scoutmasters, homosexuals almost to a man, that you see photographs of in the illustrated papers. Dressing himself up in those ridiculous clothes and exposing his pudgy, dimpled knees, because it is the pukka sahib thing to take exercise before breakfast — disgusting! (Burmese Days, chapter 6)
Was there really a need for "homosexuals almost to a man"? One could put this down as Flory's point of view, though it's indistinguishable from Orwell's caricature of the Fabians in The Road to Wigan Pier; some of the tramps in Down and Out in Paris and London are also disgusting to him because they're gay (though he does, heroically, manage to get over this). In chapter 3 of the latter book, he wishes he could flatten a Jew's nose. And it's hard not to see his portrayals of the Burmese and Indians in Burmese Days as deeply problematic, even when he's squarely against the Empire.
posted by with hidden noise at 5:46 AM on August 31 [2 favorites]


There's a fairly long history of anti-colonial English writing that is nonetheless blithely racist, in much the same way that a sizable body of abolitionist writing in America still caricatures African-Americans. Joseph Conrad is probably the most famous example, courtesy of Chinua Achebe's blistering criticism, but he is not the only example.
posted by kewb at 5:52 AM on August 31 [3 favorites]


There seems to be a certain middle-class type of English person who loves nothing more than to trash all other middle-class English people who display the slightest attempt at writing, art or music.

Just look at the comment section in any Guardian article on music. This seems of a piece with that.
posted by maggiemaggie at 5:54 AM on August 31 [2 favorites]


I realise I'm probably just being skilfully trolled here, but:
as Noam Chomsky's work on universal grammar established
..er, did it? I was under the (perhaps mistaken) impression that Innate Universal Grammar was not taken very seriously as a useful theory these days by anybody studying the acquisition or use of language. I mean, sure, there is a strong innate drive for language acquisition, but I thought the whole idea of grammar being hardwired and the Poverty of the Stimulus argument in particular were interesting theories that just don't stand up to what we observe in the world.
posted by doop at 5:57 AM on August 31 [4 favorites]


Metafilter: is that rarest of creatures, a witty, unfettered, worthwhile troll... at least that's what I tell myself
posted by Fizz at 6:05 AM on August 31 [1 favorite]


Since 1946, when Orwell's essay was published, English has continued to grow and mutate, a great voracious beast of a tongue, snaffling up vocabulary, locutions and syntactical forms from the other languages it feeds on.

Sorry to burst your bubble, but English has long since stopped being characterized as a "borrowing" language. Since 1946, and even for some time before then, English borrowing has centred on marginal vocabulary, such as for specific cultural items. If you look at new vocabulary since 1946, such as in the field of computing, an awful lot is native formed (even if the roots were originally borrowed). Indeed far from feeding on other languages, it has become one of the biggest feeders in the world. If you could see what other language have borrowed from English since 1946 you wouldn't ever liken English borrowing to them.
posted by Thing at 6:30 AM on August 31 [1 favorite]


Up next: "Upton Sinclair- What a bastard, eh?"
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 6:32 AM on August 31 [6 favorites]


Some people gain perspective by standing on the shoulders of giants. Other people comfort themselves by biting the ankles of giants.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:36 AM on August 31 [17 favorites]


Now rereading Orwell's "Why I Write," I find him very similar to another lovely mediocrity, Richard Rorty, especially as he presents himself in "Trotsky and the Wild Orchids." They're both drawn into thinking as a byproduct of an aesthetic impulse. They both discuss their own vanity. They're bookish middle class men. They have a similar dry wit.

Rorty got his political impulse from his parents:
When I was 12, the most salient books on my parents' shelves were two red-bound volumes, The Case of Leon Trotsky and Not Guilty. These made up the report of the Dewey Commission of Inquiry into the Moscow Trials. I never read them with the wide-eyed fascination I brought to books like Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis, but I thought of them in the way in which other children thought of their family's Bible: they were books that radiated redemptive truth and moral splendour. If I were a really good boy, I would say to myself, I should have read not only the Dewey Commission reports, but also Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution, a book I started many times but never managed to finish. For in the 1940s, the Russian Revolution and its betrayal by Stalin were, for me, what the Incarnation and its betrayal by the Catholics had been to precocious little Lutherans 400 years before.
Orwell, from circumstances:
In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties. As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer. First I spent five years in an unsuitable profession (the Indian Imperial Police, in Burma), and then I underwent poverty and the sense of failure. This increased my natural hatred of authority and made me for the first time fully aware of the existence of the working classes, and the job in Burma had given me some understanding of the nature of imperialism: but these experiences were not enough to give me an accurate political orientation. Then came Hitler, the Spanish Civil War, etc. By the end of 1935 I had still failed to reach a firm decision.
I want to make some kind of argument that "mediocrity" is not really a problem for writers like Orwell and Rorty... It's related to how essayists since Montaigne have worked in a style that tries to be no-nonsense, non-ornamental, level-headed, moderately self-doubting, etc. Susan Sontag calls it the "husbandly" aspect of writing. Phillip Lopate writes about it, e.g., some random stuff from his book about nonfiction, To Show and to Tell:
Have you ever seen two writers of medium reputation being introduced to each other for the first time? Each is probably thinking, "How can he be a writer? I am the writer." Each sees himself as the emperor of an unrecognized kingdom. It is like that case of the three mental patients in Ypsilanti State Hospital, each with the unshakable conviction that he was Jesus Christ, even after being put together with the other two who had the same delusion.

Over the years I have learned something that contradicts my prior elevated assumptions about the literary profession. I have met dozens of writers, and some of them are not very bright. But they get by somehow: they have a knack, survivor's instincts, the canny ability to foreground what they do best, an in with the zeitgeist. It turns out you don't have to be that smart to be a writer.

[...]

Not obsession but curiosity. It is my underlying conviction that nonfiction as a practice tends toward reason, calm, insight, order. This temperate, rational inclination is not such a bad thing, but we nonfiction writers sometimes feel guilty about it and want to heat up the form, make it more irrational.

[...]

We also need to recognize that some of our best writers were arguably better at nonfiction than fiction. Though they usually preferred to think of themselves as novelists, none of them ever created a character as vibrant as his/her nonfiction narrator, be it Mary McCarthy, George Orwell, James Baldwin, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, or Joan Didion. So nonfiction has nothing to apologize. It can hold its head up high.
posted by mbrock at 6:39 AM on August 31 [9 favorites]


Since 1946, and even for some time before then, English borrowing has centred on marginal vocabulary, such as for specific cultural items. If you look at new vocabulary since 1946, such as in the field of computing, an awful lot is native formed (even if the roots were originally borrowed).

What are you defining as "English" here? What about the vast amount of new English vocabulary being produced by those English speakers who use it as a second or additional language? "Standard English", whatever one might mean by that, may not borrow in the same way, but I'm unconvinced that English as it is actually spoken globally does not continue to incorporate vocabulary at an astonishing rate.
posted by howfar at 6:48 AM on August 31


"Victor Hugo: Bourgeois Froggy Sentimentalist."


"Tolstoy: Rather A Bit Weird."
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 6:50 AM on August 31 [5 favorites]


What are you defining as "English" here? What about the vast amount of new English vocabulary being produced by those English speakers who use it as a second or additional language? "Standard English", whatever one might mean by that, may not borrow in the same way, but I'm unconvinced that English as it is actually spoken globally does not continue to incorporate vocabulary at an astonishing rate.

Self is speaking about Standard English, the dialect both he and Orwell have written in.
posted by Thing at 7:00 AM on August 31


Since 1946, and even for some time before then, English borrowing has centred on marginal vocabulary, such as for specific cultural items.

This strikes me as question-begging; how many things today are *not* understood as culturally specific in some sense, and how many "culturally unspecific" things require neologisms? Are we counting calques like "brainwashing," "earworm," and "superconductor?"
posted by kewb at 7:12 AM on August 31


Self is speaking about Standard English, the dialect both he and Orwell have written in.

No, I'm pretty sure he's not doing that at all. The piece seems explicit about that.

'In this respect they're indeed small "c" conservatives, who would rather peer at meaning by the guttering candlelight of a Standard English frozen in time, than have it brightly illumined by the high-wattage of the living, changing language.'

'People from different heritages, ethnicities, classes and regions speak the same language differently, duh!'

'simply ask them which variant of English is more grammatically complex - Standard English or the dialect linguists call African American Vernacular English. The answer is, of course, it's the latter that offers its speakers more ways of saying more things - you feel me?'
posted by howfar at 7:13 AM on August 31


There are many things to take away from "Politics..." which are still timely and are worth applying to writing in many venues (business writers, I am glaring at you with a stern expression).

Orwell's essay is great as a rallying point, but Gowers goes into much more effective depth for political and business writers. I'm working my way through The Complete Plain Words, and am starting to think that everyone should have a copy of it.

posted by Lentrohamsanin at 7:27 AM on August 31


Self never really makes the case why Orwell is a very mediocre writer...He asserts it, begins to elaborate with the opening of Politics, and then drifts away.
posted by Postroad at 7:28 AM on August 31 [5 favorites]


doop: as Noam Chomsky's work on universal grammar established
..er, did it?


No, it didn't and you're correct. Here is a nice three page pdf from 2004 about it. "Each researcher [of UG] is simply free to invoke ‘UG’ in whatever form is convenient for the argument at hand."
posted by Pyrogenesis at 7:29 AM on August 31 [2 favorites]


I don't feel precious about Orwell, but I kind of hate this kind of, somehow characteristically English, writing: stir up a weather system of trollish motifs that ultimately never lands anywhere. See also, Martin Amis.

And omygod leave Chomsky out of it!

The bit that begins with Well, in fact, as Noam Chomsky's work... is just not remotely speaking to the bit he just quoted from Orwell, contesting against: language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes. Orwell is clearly talking about civics there--about whether public discourse is inevitably dragged along by more basic sociocultural and political facts or can transcend them in some sense if we work hard at it. Orwell may be wrong about that, but it doesn't have a fucking thing to do with Chomsky's Universal Grammar.
posted by batfish at 7:33 AM on August 31 [5 favorites]


I wonder if he's read Orwell's smaller work - the As I Please columns and so on. I actually like those a lot better - and return to them much more often - than his bigger work and certainly his novels and most of the "big" essays.

For me the main thing about Orwell is that you get such a strong sense of him as a person from his minor work - judgy, an immense jerk about a lot of stuff, kind of sexist, kind of homophobic, kind of racist, and yet for the most part trying not to be those things when he became aware that he was them. And he has a great eye for memorable detail and interesting literary tags - like his short piece about buying the rosebushes at Woolworth's, or the piece about planting walnut trees.

I think he is "mediocre", in a way, especially as a novelist. I haven't really thought about Orwell's novels in a long time because they don't really grab me, but it occurs to me that he wants to work in this very small, very particular late-breaking individualist English tradition - maybe like Gissing with more countryside, or Hardy with less drama?

The thing is, I think you can group radicals into two traditions (only two, of course) - maybe we could call them the cozy and the vicious. The cozy ones basically want to fix society so that everyone can live low-key lives outside of greatness and history - which is what, I think, Orwell really wants. That's "being mediocre" if you like. The vicious ones want to push things to their limits, really see the horrors and contradictions of modernity, not use narrative to cover up what is grotesque or uncertain. They're much more for greatness, oddity and so on. And each side wants to show that the other is awful. But it's much more of a matter of who the reader is - you might say that you've experienced enough horror and uncertainty, and you don't think that peering into the void does any good, and so you find the vicious ones self-indulgent and privileged; you might say that you've experienced horror and uncertainty and therefore you have no patience with the cozy. Orwell's cozy, Self is vicious; Orwell had a much thinner time of it than Self, who is from a solidly wealthy, connected and intellectual family. Never the twain shall meet, but I'd argue that it's a lot easier to be Self after Orwell than it would have been to be a version of Self in, like, 1947.
posted by Frowner at 7:38 AM on August 31 [26 favorites]


The thing is, of course, that Orwell is the old original born with a purpose. He's writing to do things - his big essays are intended as interventions that will achieve something, like his letters to Partisan Review are intended to sway American opinion, and his essays about Englishness are intended to help create a post-war socialist consensus, and his BBC broadcasts are intended both to create some ground for Indian independence and to keep India "on the side" of Britain. And as small as that particular literary/cultural world was at the time, I don't think those were vain ambitions. He's very much a strategist when he's writing his big pieces. This isn't where Self is coming from - he hasn't the scope because he's not the same type of writer and we aren't in the run up to WWII.

The uses of Orwell do give one pause, of course - particularly the Cold War propaganda aspect, and the ways in which "plain" style gets mustered against anything complicated. On the other hand, he's what he aspired to be - a people's writer. As he wrote of Dickens, many people know his stories, phrasing and concerns who have never read his work, and his ideas are part of many people's general intellectual furniture. It's easy for Self, who has no need to concern himself with ordinary people and their dull, mass-production intellectual furnishings, to dismiss this.

Self's essay does remind me a bit of "Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool", though.
posted by Frowner at 7:55 AM on August 31 [12 favorites]


I enjoyed this essay a lot, and its essential validity is proved by the ferocity with which people are leaping to the Great Orwell's defense, descending even so far as the pathetic "Oh so you think you're better, Will Self!!" approach. If everyone were entirely confident of Orwell's greatness, they wouldn't feel he needed defending; they'd just chuckle at that silly Will and move on. Obviously Self is exaggerating for effect, but he's not denigrating Orwell at all; if he were, he would hardly write "I've read the great bulk of his output - at least that which originally appeared in hard covers, and some of his books I've read many times over - in particular The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London" (how many of Orwell's overheated champions here can make that claim, I wonder?). His main attack is on the overfamous, overpraised essay about English, which richly deserves it; in particular, he gets at something essential with "Any insistence on a particular way of stating things is an ideological act, whether performed by George Orwell or the Ministry of Truth. Orwell's ideology is ineffably English, a belief in the inherent reasonableness, impartiality and common sense of a certain kind of clear-thinking, public-school-educated but widely experienced middle-class Englishman - an Englishman such as himself." And of course he wouldn't be a bit surprised to read the responses here:
And while I don't judge Orwell himself too harshly for his talent, I feel less well-disposed to those mediocrities who slavishly worship at the shrine of St George, little appreciating that the clarity they so admire in his writings is simply another kind of opacity, since in the act of revealing one truth it necessarily obscures many others.
Much of MetaFilter can be subsumed under "in the act of revealing one truth it necessarily obscures many others."
posted by languagehat at 8:24 AM on August 31 [13 favorites]


I thought Orwell was cutting and insightful with 1984... Until I read the book it was cribbed from.

1984 is a novel. It's literature. It belongs in the literary universe, and for all of it's political content (love the bits about reducing the vocabulary people can know because it mirrors Fredrick Douglass's essays on how a limited vocabulary limited people (particularly slaves of course) and their power in the world), it follows established literary (speaking of the western/biblical based tradition) plot models, as does Zamyatin's.

It's plot structure is largely that of an ironic fall and redemption of man (see the Bible and Paradise Lost for example) or an ironic felix culpa. Winston effectively falls from grace with Julia, like Adam with Eve or D-503 with I-330. Winston then descends into a world of both psychological and physical torture and pain, like mankind being booted out of paradise into the fallen world which, as we know, is full of pain and suffering (D-503 doesn't suffer too much physically but does mentally).

O'Brien's basically mirrors (ironically of course), if I remember correctly, Gabriel in Paradise Lost who basically puts forth the idea that though the fall of man was caused by essentially breaking the rules, that nonetheless mankind love God not because they have to, but freely, of their own will, that the consequences of not obeying God are irrelevant to mankind loving God freely. O'Brien says essentially the same thing. That the torture of Winston will cause him to say anything O'Brien wants him to say is not enough. The Party is not satisfied with that. Winston has to actually believe in what he says and come to love Big Brother.

In the end, Winston and Julia are "saved" and return to Paradise just before they are executed. Both are aware that they betrayed each other, but that they have redeemed themselves in the eyes of the Party and Big Brother. Their betrayal of what is essentially God is erased by the power of the Party to make them betray each other and their own person hoods as it were.

Literature always takes from itself. I don't agree that 1984 can be said to be cribbed from We because both use metaphors, structure, etc., that have been around for ages.
posted by juiceCake at 8:26 AM on August 31 [6 favorites]


"the anti-communism he developed after the second World War"

Orwell came by his anti-Communism in Spain, watching Stalinists subvert then purge the anarcho-democratic government. Orwell himself was forced to flee the country or be killed.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 8:28 AM on August 31 [4 favorites]


Self's writing is florid and ornamental without ever being beautiful; reading him is like looking over a sale table at the Goodwill: shape and color in abundance, but the overall effect is dreary, and the unjaded reader is soon aware of a faint but pervading and repellent odor of decay.
posted by jamjam at 8:38 AM on August 31 [7 favorites]


Along with the race hatred, there’s another obvious feature of this intro: the way it dramatizes Orwell himself, a sensitive young white man alone in a crowd of evil aliens. That habit of dramatizing himself never changes. It’s a constant in Orwell’s work; the only difference is that the scene shifts from Burma to Europe, and the hostile crowd consists of fellow intellectuals trying to lure him into one of the orthodoxies they have cravenly embraced.

I think that this, while true, is very partial - and gets at something else: why are almost all of Orwell's attackers and defenders men? I know one or two women Orwell-readers (who aren't rabid anti-communists of the "I'm not like other girls" variety) and I am myself a non-man Orwell-reader, but we've mostly approached him through his smaller essays. I think that if you read Orwell predominantly as bougie-reactionary or as heroic radical, you're leaving a lot out of your reading, and I surmise that this is a gendered reading which wants to posit Orwell as all intellect, anger and correct - even if to be deplored - performance of masculinity.

The first Orwell I read voluntarily (we'd read Animal Farm as part of the anti-communist curriculum in junior high) was his essay about his experience as a scholarship boy, "Such, such were the joys". I used to find various English "boarding school was terrible" essays comforting, so I've read quite a few - but this one is unique in that it emphasizes the abject male body (Orwell writes about wetting the bed, being afraid of being beaten, believing that he must smell bad because after all he's ugly and all ugly people smell, mishearing and making stupid mistakes, being forced into filthy swimming baths which occasionally contained human shit) and it emphasizes misery. Every other one I can think of has some kind of spark - the writer is one of the smartest students or part of an artsy counterculture or has some kind of love affair with another boy or knows, somehow, that he is destined for greatness. There's some kind of bodily happiness, too - sex or sports, usually. Orwell writes about being hungry. The only physical happiness in the essay is when he gets away from school and finds he has been given a little too much money for his train ticket and can therefore buy a cream bun. He looks forward to attending Eton - after he's won a scholarship - because he'll have his own space and be able to eat when he's hungry. It's an essay about shame. And misery and loneliness, and the feeling that Orwell is only tolerated by anyone when he's able to do what they want - ie, get beaten and bullied until he wins a scholarship so the school can use that fact in its prospectuses.

Of all the terrible-boarding-school essays I can think of, I've never encountered another one where the writer was so, so deeply convince of his own unwantedness.

For years I was also deeply convinced that I was unwanted, smelly, horrible, ugly, worthless unless I was cooperating - so deeply convinced, in fact, that I didn't think about those facts any more than I thought about how the sky looked blue, or I needed to breathe in order to live. They weren't facts that even needed to be established. I didn't even notice, in "Such, such were the joys", how Orwell's assumptions of his own unwantedness permeate the whole essay even when he's writing from his adult standpoint, because "I am unwanted and that's the way it is" seemed like such a natural aspect of the world.

Now, I find that I read almost all of Orwell in light of this essay - his carelessness of himself in "Down and Out in Paris and London", for instance, or his feeling that he is supposed to shoot the elephant. Above all, when he sets himself apart from other intellectuals, I see him much less as "rebelling" than as recapitulating his own childhood experience of isolation, the feeling that he's already a priori an unwanted outsider.

Most of his work is pretty much "I wish I could love and be loved, but something always gets in the way" - whether "something" is class or blind bad luck or personal failings or Stalinism. There's always this dream that maybe you could get right outside it all - to the countryside, ultimately to Jura - and maybe there, if people would mostly just leave you alone, you could make some kind of relationships and life worth having. But you can't, so there.

I know it's risky to subsume the political in the psychoanalytic, but I still mostly see Orwell - and this is why I like him - as someone profoundly, deeply damaged in his childhood who is perpetually struggling and failing to find a place in the world. Also, I tend to respect straight men who can write abject masculinity with compassion rather than as comedy, satire or grotesquerie, since that's really forbidden.
posted by Frowner at 9:01 AM on August 31 [45 favorites]


Yeah, citing Chomsky's "deep grammar" to build an argument about literary style just shows me that Self has no idea at all of what he's talking about.

This essay was a waste of my time, and makes me think even less of Will Self.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 9:20 AM on August 31 [2 favorites]


how many of Orwell's overheated champions here can make that claim, I wonder?

I wonder even more how many of the knee-jerk Self belittlers have bothered to read any of his novels from the past, say, ten years, which are undeniably first-rate. People seem to respond to Self as if he were just some no-talent enfant-terrible junket-journalist troll, when he's actually kind of a genius — but since you have to read books to know it, the middlebrow Internet seems to get stuck on the clickbait as if it were the central part of his oeuvre.

It's easy for Self, who has no need to concern himself with ordinary people and their dull, mass-production intellectual furnishings, to dismiss this.

This is astonishingly unfair (and untrue to Self's writing). Of the two I really would say it's Self who has the stronger sense of the rich, weird inner lives of "ordinary" people (and the other kinds) as opposed to a sententious, righteous condescension to them/us.
posted by RogerB at 9:47 AM on August 31 [1 favorite]


Here is a nice three page pdf from 2004 about it. "Each researcher [of UG] is simply free to invoke ‘UG’ in whatever form is convenient for the argument at hand."

But the reason that paper exists is that there are still a large number of linguists who believe that some form of UG is true. It's not a "discredited" theory in the sense that miasma is discredited. It's only "discredited" in the sense that there are also a large number of linguists who believe that it's unconvincing and that there are other explanations. Accusations that believers in UG use the term "UG" however they want, whenever they want, is coming from one side of a sometimes acrimonious debate.

For an example of a notable recent pro-UG article, Poverty of the Stimulus Revisited (Berwick et al. 2011) is a good one that shows UG is still going strong.

(I am not necessarily a believer in UG. It's largely irrelevant to my own work. I have had very productive conversations with both anti-UG and pro-UG colleagues, though, which makes me believe that both sides have important things to say.)
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 9:53 AM on August 31 [5 favorites]


I actually like Will Self, even though his writing can sometimes be uneven and awkward, but he also has moments of genius. Here it's kinda like watching two of your friends from different social circles finally meet for the first time and really not hit it off.

Self is mostly just trolling here, but he's kinda right about Orwell's rules for English language, which mostly apply if you want to say something blunt and direct and Saxonish, and maybe don't apply if you want to convey something more subtle or speculative.

Big fave for Frowner's thoughtful comment about Orwell.
posted by ovvl at 9:57 AM on August 31 [1 favorite]


Self's writing is florid and ornamental without ever being beautiful

Yes, this: I found this piece exhausting to read because almost every sentence feels over-decorated and over-long. (Self loves writing sentences as lists, doesn't he?)
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 10:55 AM on August 31 [3 favorites]


...I don't judge Orwell himself too harshly for his talent,....

Yes, well, agreed, someone's having talent is a pretty good reason not to judge that someone harshly, or even too harshly.

Orwell, in the US, is liked for generally the wrong reasons (i.e. the anti-communism he developed after the second World War)....

Seems like a pretty damned good reason to me. What other wrong reasons are there to like him?
posted by IndigoJones at 11:52 AM on August 31


Will Self is great for learning new vocabulary.
posted by alasdair at 12:13 PM on August 31 [1 favorite]


Another cultural critic building a reputation trashing someone who is dead, and greater than the critic. Parasite!
posted by Vibrissae at 12:13 PM on August 31


The only place he tries to back up his point is in looking at the "Politics" essay, which he gets spectacularly wrong. Hint: it's not a rant against "different heritages, ethnicities, classes and regions".

Also, Frowner's "cozy vs vicious" is brilliant and really helpful in explaining why Orwell rubs Self the wrong way (and probably vice versa, if Orwell were still around).
posted by zompist at 2:37 PM on August 31


Orwell doesn't want for defenders. It's always interesting to read a thoughtful critique of a good writer.
posted by empath at 3:59 PM on August 31


I enjoyed this essay a lot, and its essential validity is proved by the ferocity with which people are leaping to the Great Orwell's defense, descending even so far as the pathetic "Oh so you think you're better, Will Self!!" approach. If everyone were entirely confident of Orwell's greatness, they wouldn't feel he needed defending;
Honestly, it's just as easy to generically argue the opposite: "the people who are defending this essay are even going so far as to use the approach, 'if the criticism didn't ring true, nobody would feel the need to defend it!!'."

I think most of the sentiment on this page is responding to the author's noticeably poor follow-through in explaining why Orwell was a {clickbait word}. (If this began as an oral/radio piece, which I'm not sure of, then perhaps it should have stayed that way.) A number of posts here have offered more insightful, specific, and responsible criticism of Orwell than Self has, without the dramatics.
posted by sylvanshine at 4:01 PM on August 31 [3 favorites]


I think most of the sentiment on this page is responding to the author's noticeably poor follow-through in explaining why Orwell was a {clickbait word}. (If this began as an oral/radio piece, which I'm not sure of, then perhaps it should have stayed that way.) A number of posts here have offered more insightful, specific, and responsible criticism of Orwell than Self has, without the dramatics.

His definition of mediocrity is "those individuals who unite great expertise and very little originality - let alone personality. "

Then he says its his small-"c" conservative prose style that marks him out as a mediocrity, then continues with the ideological basis for it, based on his popular essay about English writing.
posted by empath at 4:07 PM on August 31


Pedicabo ego voluntatem. (Google translate)
posted by stargell at 5:15 PM on August 31


I enjoyed this essay a lot, and its essential validity is proved by the ferocity with which people are leaping to the Great Orwell's defense, descending even so far as the pathetic "Oh so you think you're better, Will Self!!" approach. If everyone were entirely confident of Orwell's greatness, they wouldn't feel he needed defending; they'd just chuckle at that silly Will and move on.

Whatever one thinks of the essay, this is some muddled logic right there. Should give pause to anyone nodding in agreement at the criticism of Orwell's certain kind of "clear-thinking".
posted by spaltavian at 5:15 PM on August 31 [2 favorites]


I was always iffy about Will Self, but I lost patience with him after I saw him be a horsecock to Karl Pilkington. Seriously, Self is so creepy and arrogant and needlessly awful in that clip. The kind of awful that ruins a guy, in my eyes.

Also, Orwell is great. If 1984 or Animal Farm were all he'd done, he'd be a talent for the ages. As my dad once put it, you read Orwell and you feel as if you are in the presence of a remarkably sane man.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 10:42 PM on August 31 [1 favorite]


I was always iffy about Will Self, but I lost patience with him after I saw him be a horsecock to Karl Pilkington yt . Seriously, Self is so creepy and arrogant and needlessly awful in that clip. The kind of awful that ruins a guy, in my eyes.

Errr….you really aren't familiar with the way the whole Ricky Gervais/Steven Merchant thing works, are you? They routinely have celebrities play hyperbolically awful versions of themselves on camera. For heaven's sake, Self's second line in the clip is "You sit in this wire chair, and I"ll sit here in this much nicer chair." The he balances a wooden ball on Pilkington's head and claims it's "restricting his thoughts." It's a put-on.

This doesn't mean you have to *like* Will Self, of course.
posted by kewb at 7:44 AM on September 1 [2 favorites]


I could go on.

Not obligatory.
posted by flabdablet at 8:35 AM on September 1


It's always interesting to read a thoughtful critique of a good writer.

As opposed to this tediously contrarian souffle.
posted by flabdablet at 8:39 AM on September 1 [2 favorites]


This is a great quote though: "Reading Orwell at his most lucid you can have the distinct impression he's saying these things, in precisely this way, because he knows that you - and you alone - are exactly the sort of person who's sufficiently intelligent to comprehend the very essence of what he's trying to communicate."

Reminds me of reading the Economist, which has mastered this prose tone and turned it into an art form.


things_that_make_you_go_hmmm.txt
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:40 AM on September 1


That's a very deep reading of Orwell, Frowner, and I think it would be a pity to do no more with it than post it here.

If Self had an appreciable fraction of your insight into the man, he could have mounted a devastatingly mordant critique of Orwell based on your understanding that he ought to be seen "much less as "rebelling" than as recapitulating his own childhood experience of isolation, the feeling that he's already a priori an unwanted outsider" because the necessity of "recapitulating" traumatic experiences so searing they can scarcely be engaged except through re-enacting them really does explain so much that's otherwise very puzzling, such as voluntarily subjecting himself to the abject physical miseries of mine and street in The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London, respectively, as anodyne to the involuntary abuses he suffered at the hands of other boys in school.

And from your wonderful point of view, Animal Farm seems much more persuasive to me as an unconscious parable about English Public School life from the vantage of a small and hungry boy, with the pigs as fat upper formers who actually got enough to eat (and who may have included in their number sexual predators, judging by the venom of your quote from Burmese Days) rather than communist ideologues.

But lacking your empathetic grasp, instead of undermining Orwell by showing how well he can be understood in terms of seeing his awful public school wherever he went and blinding himself to whatever may have been obscured by that inescapable overlay, Self is reduced to chalking a few sneers on the side of the monument and calling it a day.

I think it's delicious that you chose to post that here, but I see small evidence of sufficient Self-awareness to enjoy the irony in a man who could let the second sentence of the following paragraph get past him:
Now, don't get me wrong. I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity. I've read the great bulk of his output - at least that which originally appeared in hard covers, and some of his books I've read many times over - in particular The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London, the long pieces of quasi-reportage that made his name in the 1930s.
And I'd like to know whose decision it was to use photos of Orwell and Self in such similar poses.
posted by jamjam at 3:32 PM on September 1


I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity.

Self is quite plainly aware of what he's doing there. You're laughing with him, not at him.

But anyway...

It seems like a lot of people are not bothering to read this piece with any care at all. They're seeing "Will Self is mean about Orwell" and allowing their preconceptions to do their thinking for them.

The piece is deliberately playful, yes, but I don't think it's so obscure as to give an excuse for the misreading that fuels the belligerent pomposity and scorn of half this thread. Yes, the BBC's framing is kinda pathetic, as I noted above, but MartinWisse was careful to avoid that in the FPP.

Kewb made most of the points I think important, up-thread, but it might be worth me addressing this apparent insistence on not engaging seriously with the piece at all.

Self is simply not trying to establish the Orwell was a mediocre writer, even if he was a "talented mediocrity". He even hints at the possibility that Orwell was not a talented mediocrity at all but "rather genuinely adept and acute". Which is not to say that Self has no beef with Orwell, but it's a genuine argument, not mere sniping.

Self is criticising a notion of language and thought which holds truth to be revealed by a single intellectual method, expressed by a single rhetorical style and a protected by a single ideology. Specifically, he is attacking the hegemony of white, middle-class men. He is attacking those who believe that their intellectualising is common sense, their rhetoric is plain speaking and their ideology a natural law. It is essentially an attack on privilege, reflecting many of the concerns of identity politics and critical theory. And, I might add, reflecting many of the concerns of Metafilter.

Nobody sneering at Self in this thread seems to have engaged, really at all, with his criticism of Orwell's style in general, or of Politics and the English Language in particular. There have been plenty of assertions that he is wrong, but no-one actually seems very keen to explain how or why. If the arguments are so easy to disprove, it seems curious that no-one has actually attempted to do so.
posted by howfar at 4:22 PM on September 1 [3 favorites]


Errr….you really aren't familiar with the way the whole Ricky Gervais/Steven Merchant thing works, are you?

Yes, of course I know about all of that. But I don't think that show was one of those joints. I've seen the rest of that special, and it seemed to be a pretty straightforward thing where Pilkington went around talking to different people about intelligence. The other people that Pilkington visits aren't particularly comedic.

In other words, this show is more An Idiot Abroad than Extras. At the very least, if Self was doing a put-on it was the only one in the episode. And Self doesn't read as a scathing self-satire, here. He just reads as a guy who is genuinely a smug jerk.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 4:44 PM on September 1


In other segments of the special (which was originally a failed pilot for a weekly series), Germaine Greer mocks him by putting on an exaggerated Northern accent and soon after calls him "a tad stupid" to his face. Heinz Wolff mocks him by telling him his evidence of aliens doesn't count because the pictures are "drawn by people like you." Are they horsecocking poor widdle Karl, or is it a put-on? What strikes you as more likely?

It is possible that this is not cinema vérité stuff and everyone is genuinely unaware of who Pilkington is, but it is rather more likely that when Germaine Greer says, "Can I make this fucking bread" in a rather aggravated tone, that she is playing to the cameras and that some or all of this has been arranged by Gervais and Merchant in advance.

The thing begins with a sarcastic voiceover from Gervais, and it's in the context of Pilkington becoming nationally famous as a moron on the podcast and, yes, on shows like An Idiot Abroad; taking anything in it as revelatory evidence of people's real personalities seems rather odd. The British guests certainly know what they're getting into, and they play thing sup accordingly. At least some portions of An Idiot Abroad are scripted as well, most notably the cellphone conversations from all those locations that *don't have good cell coverage*.
posted by kewb at 6:00 PM on September 1


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