Sunday, February 21, 2010

Orwell and Arthritis

Over the last few months, I've often wondered if I was getting arthritis in my right forefinger, particularly, and sometimes in the left. The pain could be most noticeable when I used a computer mouse for any length of time (hence I swap from right to left from work to home), and especially when I did any hard practice on the piano.

But most curiously, the pain seems to have gone the way of many other unidentified pains. It just isn't there any more. Let's hope it stays that way and I don't have to natural arthritis relief (or even any unnatural.)

Pain is a curious thing: I fell over three weekends ago and badly hurt my upper ribcage area - may even have fractured a rib. Coped with it for a week as it calmed down, and then suddenly it was back with a vengeance. Doctor gave me some strong anti-inflammatory tablets, and voila! the pain was gone to a degree that I could once more lie on that side at night.

When I went to the doctor the pain had extended down underneath the original sore area, and around to my back. (Which is why I was getting a little concerned.) After a few days of anti-inflammatories there was nothing except the slightest tension if I squashed my chest area in any way.

And then last Friday, the extra pain came back to the degree that I spent a good deal of the day feeling queasy - even the anti-inflammatory didn't help. Couldn't get comfortable. And yet, yesterday, I woke up feeling fine again and did a day's work in the garden with my wife.

Ain't pain a strange thing?

On another painful front, I've just read in our local paper an article that's been reprinted from the Philadelphia Inquirer, where it's called (rather oddly) The towering George Orwell, 60 years after his death. In our paper it was called, Sixty years on, Orwell's legacy endures, which to my ear has a better ring. The article is by John Rossi, professor emeritus of history (not English) at La Salle University. Regrettably Professor Rossi includes in his article 'six rules of good writing' that Orwell had proposed in an article entitled, Politics and the English Language.

I say regrettably, because I don't for a moment expect that Orwell thought he'd still be being quoted on these 'rules' umpteen years later. And worse, they fit in comfortably to that school of thought which is particularly prevalent in the US of A that thinks these six rules actually tell you something about how to write.

Here they are. They're commonsensical, as Rossi suggests, but they're also limiting. And they smack of Ernest Hemingway, whose own writing followed these kind of rules to such a degree that he cut out anything that might have made his writing interesting.

Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.

Never use a long word when a short word will do.

If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out.

Use the active rather than passive voice.

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Rule number six is typical of Orwell: "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous."

I want to scream every time I hear some writer proclaiming: never use the passive voice, when what they should be saying is: there is a time and place for everything under heaven, the passive voice included. Some of the greatest writers in the language use it without blinking an eyelid.

Equally, cutting out words is the job of an editor in a newspaper, not a writer. Yes, there is a time within your writing when you should go through and chop out extraneous words, but what counts as extraneous is a matter of style - and your style may require that so-called extraneous word.

There's a certain value in being creative with new metaphors, figures of speech. But spending your entire time trying to find new ways of saying things that have been said in every possible way already is time-wasting in terms of getting on with your writing. That 'rule' is a real handicap to a person trying to get a novel off the ground.

Never use a long word when a short one will do. Okay, that's fine if your style is totally circumlocutional. If it's not, a good mix of short and long brings variety, and allows your reader to discover new words.

'Rule' number five is nonsense: jargon is essential in some circumstances; the proper scientific word may be the only one that exactly describes what you're writing about. Foreign languages do have some good words. And considering that a large percentage of our language consists of foreign words we've borrowed over some of the last two thousand years or longer, why fuss about it now? You're going to swap a perfectly good 'foreign' word for an English one? Better make sure the latter really is English, then.

Pooh to Prof Rossi, and pooh to George. Too many rules (even six) makes Jack a dull boy.

Prof Rossi quotes another of Orwell's lines: "Good prose is like a windowpane. It hides nothing." Piffle. Good prose tells you exactly what it wants to tell you. Which may not be everything. And Prof Rossi claims in his article that 'In many ways, Orwell's essays had the greatest impact on modern prose. He almost single-handedly invented a new cultural artifact - the serious essay about a seemingly unimportant topic.'

Obviously Mr Rossi has never read G K Chesterton, who could make an argument out of a straw hat and still wear it home.


bethyada said...

Perhaps the rules would be better with the words "never" replaced with "avoid"? Learn the art obeying the rules, then progressively break them where appropriate and not too frequently as you improve in skill.

Mike Crowl said...

Yes, good idea. The problem is that these rules, and other similar ones have become engrained in the US psyche in terms of writing, which possibly accounts for much of the poverty of everyday writing in the States.