From Lists of Note:
In 1946, George Orwell published ‘Politics and the English Language,’ an essay in which he criticises the bad habits of many writers and promotes the use of clear, unfussy language wherever possible. Towards the end of the essay, Orwell provides the following list of rules for writers.(Source: Politics and the English Language; Image: Orwell at work, via.)
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
In the February 1935 issue of Esquire magazine, an article by Ernest Hemingway appeared that was titled ‘Remembering Shooting-Flying: A Key West Letter.’ In it, Hemingway reeled off 17 books, all of which he “would rather read again for the first time [...] than have an assured income of a million dollars a year.”
That list can be read below.
Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
Far Away and Long Ago, by W. H. Hudson
Buddenbrooks, by Thomas Mann
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë
Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert
War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
A Sportsman’s Sketches, by Ivan Turgenev
The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Hail and Farewell, by George Moore
Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson
La Reine Margot, by Alexandre Dumas
La Maison Tellier, by Guy de Maupassant
Le Rouge et le Noir, by Stendhal
La Chartreuse de Parme, by Stendhal
Dubliners, by James Joyce
Autobiographies, by W. B. Yeats
Early-1966, believing its contents to be “immoral,” the Hanover County School Board in Virginia decided to remove all copies of Harper Lee‘s classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, from the county’s school libraries. As soon as she was alerted, Lee responded perfectly by way of the following letter, written to, and later published in, The Richmond News Leader.
Also sent, as mentioned in the letter, was a contribution to the Beadle Bumble Fund — a project set up by the newspaper in 1959 to highlight/compensate for “official stupidities,” and which subsequently gave away copies of the banned book to all children who asked.
Editor, The News Leader:
Recently I have received echoes down this way of the Hanover County School Board’s activities, and what I’ve heard makes me wonder if any of its members can read.
Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that “To Kill a Mockingbird” spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners. To hear that the novel is “immoral” has made me count the years between now and 1984, for I have yet to come across a better example of doublethink.
I feel, however, that the problem is one of illiteracy, not Marxism. Therefore I enclose a small contribution to the Beadle Bumble Fund that I hope will be used to enroll the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice.
Late-1914, an aspiring young writer named Max Fedder sent a copy of his manuscript, “A Journal of One Who Is to Die,” to Jack London, the author responsible for such works as The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and, most relevantly, Martin Eden — the bleak story of a young man battling to become a writer.
The brutally honest response he received can be seen below.
(Source: No Mentor but Myself: Jack London on Writing and Writers; Image: Jack London, via Answers.)
Oct. 26, 1914
Dear Max Fedder:
In reply to yours of recent date undated, and returning herewith your Manuscript. First of all, let me tell you that as a psychologist and as one who has been through the mill, I enjoyed your story for its psychology and point of view. Honestly and frankly, I did not enjoy it for its literary charm or value. In the first place, it has little literary value and practically no literary charm. Merely because you have got something to say that may be of interest to others does not free you from making all due effort to express that something in the best possible medium and form. Medium and form you have utterly neglected.
Anent the foregoing paragraph, what is to be expected of any lad of twenty, without practice, in knowledge of medium and form? Heavens on earth, boy, it would take you five years to serve your apprenticeship and become a skilled blacksmith. Will you dare to say that you have spent, not five years, but as much as five months of unimpeachable, unremitting toil in trying to learn the artisan’s tools of a professional writer who can sell his stuff to the magazines and receive hard cash for same? Of course you cannot; you have not done it: And yet, you should be able to reason on the face of it that the only explanation for the fact that successful writers receive such large fortunes is because very few who desire to write become successful writers. If it takes five years work to become a skilled blacksmith, how many years of work intensified into nineteen hours a day, so that one year counts for five-how many years of such work, studying medium and form, art and artisanship, do you think a man, with native talent and something to say, required in order to reach a place in the world of letters where he received a thousand dollars cash iron money per week?
I think you get the drift of the point I am trying to make. If a fellow harnesses himself to a star of $1000 week, he has to work proportionately harder than if he harnesses himself to a little glowworm of $20.00 a week. The only reason there are more successful blacksmiths in the world than successful writers, is that it is much easier, and requires far less hard work to become a successful blacksmith than does it to become a successful writer.
It cannot be possible that you, at twenty, should have done the work at writing that would merit you success at writing. You have not begun your apprenticeship yet. The proof of it is the fact that you dared to write this manuscript, “A Journal of One Who Is to Die.” Had you made any sort of study of what is published in the magazines you would have found that your short story was of the sort that never was published in the magazines. If you are going to write for success and money, you must deliver to the market marketable goods. Your short story is not marketable goods, and had you taken half a dozen evenings off and gone into a free reading room and read all the stories published in the current magazines, you would have learned in advance that your short story was not marketable goods.
Any time you are out here in California, I should be glad to have you come to visit me on the ranch. I can meet you to the last limit of brass tacks, and hammer some facts of life into you that possibly so far have escaped your own experience.
In October of 1949, a few months after the release of George Orwell‘sdystopian masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, he received a fascinating letter from fellow author Aldous Huxley — a man who, 17 years previous, had seen his own nightmarish vision of society published, in the form of Brave New World. What begins as a letter of praise soon becomes a brief comparison of the two novels, and an explanation as to why Huxley believes his own, earlier work to be a more realistic prediction.
Trivia: In 1917, long before he wrote this letter, Aldous Huxley briefly taught Orwell French at Eton.
21 October, 1949
Dear Mr. Orwell,
It was very kind of you to tell your publishers to send me a copy of your book. It arrived as I was in the midst of a piece of work that required much reading and consulting of references; and since poor sight makes it necessary for me to ration my reading, I had to wait a long time before being able to embark on Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Agreeing with all that the critics have written of it, I need not tell you, yet once more, how fine and how profoundly important the book is. May I speak instead of the thing with which the book deals — the ultimate revolution? The first hints of a philosophy of the ultimate revolution — the revolution which lies beyond politics and economics, and which aims at total subversion of the individual’s psychology and physiology — are to be found in the Marquis de Sade, who regarded himself as the continuator, the consummator, of Robespierre and Babeuf. The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it. Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World. I have had occasion recently to look into the history of animal magnetism and hypnotism, and have been greatly struck by the way in which, for a hundred and fifty years, the world has refused to take serious cognizance of the discoveries of Mesmer, Braid, Esdaile, and the rest.
Partly because of the prevailing materialism and partly because of prevailing respectability, nineteenth-century philosophers and men of science were not willing to investigate the odder facts of psychology for practical men, such as politicians, soldiers and policemen, to apply in the field of government. Thanks to the voluntary ignorance of our fathers, the advent of the ultimate revolution was delayed for five or six generations. Another lucky accident was Freud’s inability to hypnotize successfully and his consequent disparagement of hypnotism. This delayed the general application of hypnotism to psychiatry for at least forty years. But now psycho-analysis is being combined with hypnosis; and hypnosis has been made easy and indefinitely extensible through the use of barbiturates, which induce a hypnoid and suggestible state in even the most recalcitrant subjects.
Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency. Meanwhile, of course, there may be a large scale biological and atomic war — in which case we shall have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds.
Thank you once again for the book.
In September of 1848, the incredible Frederick Douglass wrote the following open letter to Thomas Auld — a man who, until a decade previous, had been Douglass’ slave master for many years — and published it in North Star, the newspaper he himself founded in 1847. In the letter, Douglass writes of his twenty years as a slave; his subsequent escape and new life; and then enquires about his siblings, presumably still “owned” by his old master. He even asks Auld to imagine his own daughter as a slave.
It’s a lengthy letter, but perfectly written and such a valuable read. The final paragraph is also exquisite.