A reason to write

Tuesday, June 14th, 2016

By Charlotte Green

In his essay Why I write, George Orwell tells his readers that inside each writer there are four motivating factors. Every writer possesses all factors concurrently but to varying degrees. The factors are:

Sheer egoism

The desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death.

Aesthetic enthusiasm

The perception of beauty. Either of the external world or of the written word. A desire to share that beauty with others.

Historical impulse

A need to find and present the truth to leave it for posterity.

Political purpose

Here Orwell uses the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. For him it is the desire or need to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.

For Orwell the reason these factors vary lies not in the temperament or character of the author, but in the time in which he or she lives. Offering himself as an example, Orwell tells his reader that his own background forced his writing in the direction of politics, despite the first three factors affecting him more deeply. He writes:

Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects.

Orwell goes on to say that for him, political writing became an art form in itself. He combined his need for aesthetic beauty, his desire to leave something of his current age to history, and his compulsion to speak out against totalitarianism, in order to enlighten society and force entire nations towards democracy. He writes:

What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience.

For me, the key sentence here is if it were not also an aesthetic experience. It is Orwell’s desire to combine politics and art that makes his books last. I doubt that pamphlets on the latest EU referendum will make it into libraries or onto GCSE reading lists for years to come, but Orwell’s books will. In this age of digital publishing where it is so easy to get your views heard, is the aesthetic nature of writing still of importance? Or have ego and political purpose won out? In a time when every man, woman, or child with access to the internet can write a blog or tweet about current events instantly, has writing lost its creativity in favour of reporting news?

American short story writer Flannery O’Connor once wrote that the “financial rewards for sorry writing are much greater than those for good writing” and to be fair, she has a point. The nature of writing these days seems to be instant gratification rather than lasting beauty. I heard an author speak yesterday at my local library who told his audience with glee that he published six books a year and had sold over 2 million copies of his 61 books. Is that a good thing? Up until the year before her death, Harper Lee had only ever published one book and had remained silent on that fact her entire life, rarely consenting to give interviews. I imagine the man I met yesterday could only dream of her sales.

At the end of the day it is the world in which we live that dictates who and what we appreciate. It is a rare author indeed who can live by his pen, writing no longer paying what it did. But, for those few who have that rare quality, talent, I beg of you keep writing, and write beautifully, so that art may continue to breathe within your words.

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