Don't be beguiled by Orwell: using plain and clear language is not always a moral virtue

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

Orwell season has led me back to his famous essay “Politics and the English Language”, first published in 1946. It is written with enviable clarity. But is it true? Orwell argues that “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words.”

I suspect the opposite is now true. When politicians or corporate front men have to bridge a gap between what they are saying and what they know to be true, their preferred technique is to convey authenticity by speaking with misleading simplicity. The ubiquitous injunction “Let’s be clear”, followed by a list of five bogus bullet-points, is a much more common refuge than the Latinate diction and Byzantine sentence structure that Orwell deplored.

We live in a self-consciously plain-spoken political era. But Orwell’s advice, ironically, has not elevated the substance of debate; it has merely helped the political class to avoid the subject more skilfully. The art of spin is not (quite) supplanting truth with lies. It aspires to replace awkward complexities with catchy simplicity. Successful spin does not leave the effect of skilful persuasiveness; it creates the impression of unavoidable common sense. Hence the artifice becomes invisible – just as a truly charming person is considered nice rather than “charming”.

There is a new puritanism about the way we use words, as though someone with a broad vocabulary or the ability to sustain a complex sentence is innately untrustworthy. Out with mandarin obfuscation and donnish paradoxes, in with lists and bullet points. But one method of avoiding awkward truths has been replaced by another. The political class now speaks as it dresses: in matt navy suits and open-necked white shirts. Elaborate adjectives have suffered the same fate as flowery ties. But this is not moral progress, it is just fashion.

The same techniques have infiltrated the literary world. Popular non-fiction has evolved using quotidian prose style to gloss over logical lacunae. The whole confessional genre relies on this technique. “Gladwellian”, properly defined, is the technique of using apparently natural, authentic and conversational style to lull readers into misplaced trust: disarmed, we miss the sleights of hand in the content.

As a professional cricketer, I learned the hard way that when a team-mate said, “Look mate, I’ll be straight with you because nobody else will”, he was about to be neither straight nor my mate. The most consistently dishonest player I encountered spent much of his career beginning conversations with engaging declarations of plain-spoken honesty. His confessional, transparent manner helped him get away with years of subtle back-stabbing. When another team-mate thanked him for sitting him down and saying, “Look mate, I’ll be straight with you because nobody else will”, I felt a horror of recognition: another one duped.

If I’d studied Shakespeare more closely, I wouldn’t have been so easily fooled. Othello’s tormentor, Iago, is seen as an honest and blunt man (though he does confess to the audience that “I am not what I am”). His public image derives from his affectation, his sharpness of speech. Iago is believed because he seems to talk in simple truths.

In King Lear, Cornwall and Kent argue about the correlation between directness and authenticity. Cornwall (wrong in this instance but right in general) argues that straightforwardness often masks the most serious frauds: “These kind of knaves I know, which in this plainness harbour more craft and corrupter end than twenty silly-ducking observants that stretch their duties nicely.”

Using plain and clear language is not a moral virtue, as Orwell hoped. Things aren’t that simple. In fact, giving the impression of clarity and straightforwardness is often a strategic game. The way we speak and the way we write are both forms of dress. We can, linguistically, dress ourselves up any way we like. We can affect plainness and directness just as much as we can affect sophistication and complexity. We can try to mislead or to impress, in either mode. Or we can use either register honestly.

Philip Collins, the speechwriter and columnist, has written a book about how to persuade an audience. The Art of Speeches and Presentations is a superb primer, full of erudition and practical wisdom. Collins holds up Orwell’s essay on politics and language as a model of sound advice. But deeper, more surprising truths – contra Orwell – emerge from his arguments. He explains how using simple, everyday speech is effective but he also quotes Thomas Macaulay’s argument that “the object of oratory is not truth, but persuasion”. Following this logic, there is, unavoidably, a distinction between ends and means. Whatever the moral merits of your argument, it is always best to present it in the clearest, most memorable style. Disarming linguistic simplicity is a technique that can be learned. But how you deploy that technical mastery – the authenticity of the argument – is quite a different matter.

There is a further irony about “Politics and the English Language”. Orwell argues that the sins of obfuscation and euphemism followed inevitably from the brutalities of his political era. In the age of the atom bomb and the Gulag, politicians reached for words that hid unpalatable truths. By contrast, our era of vague political muddle and unclear dividing lines has inspired a snappy, gritty style of political language: the no-nonsense, evidence-backed, bullet-pointed road to nowhere.

Orwell’s essay is rhetorically persuasive. And yet it makes little attempt to prove its central thesis. The reader, having nodded at a series of attractive and catchy stylistic observations, is tempted to accept the central thesis. In fact, Orwell’s combination of masterly style and under-examined logic is the perfect refutation of his own argument.

 

An image from the 1965 adaptation of Orwell's "1984". Photograph: Getty Images

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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