You can read In Defence of the Novel online here.
In the same month that Orwell published his essay Bookshop Memories, in which he drew on his own experiences working in the Booklover’s Corner bookshop in Hampstead, he also wrote this essay, In Defence of the Novel, which was published in two parts in the New English Weekly magazine, on 12th and 19th November 1936.
Bookshop Memories is a very personal, and rather snobbish, account of his opinions of the bookselling trade. He’s quick to criticise and condemn those who want to read books that he simply finds beneath him, alighting on his bête noir Ethel M Dell for particular derision, even though she sold in massive numbers, so was obviously pleasing some people somewhere.
In Defence of the Novel takes his critical view of bookselling one stage further, by attributing what he calls the “extremely low” “prestige of the novel” to hack reviewers praising poor quality writing to the nines. As a result, he argues, “if you write novels you automatically command a less intelligent public than you would command if you had chosen some other form.” He doesn’t believe that the novel is “a contemptible form of art” but believes “to salvage it you have got to persuade intelligent people to take it seriously.”
It’s a curious opinion to blame what he perceives to be the novel’s poor reputation on the industry’s reviewers, rather than the quality of the writing itself. However, he quotes from the previous week’s edition of the Sunday Times, “if you can read this book and not shriek with delight, your soul is dead.” There’s no denying – that’s a trashy piece of reviewing! As Orwell also points out, “novels are being shot at you at the rate of fifteen a day, and every one of them an unforgettable masterpiece which you imperil your soul by missing. It must make it so difficult to choose a book at the library, and you must feel so guilty when you fail to shriek with delight.”
Equating the quality of a novel with the quality of its reviews sounds nonsensical. However, Orwell examines the problem closer and explains that reviewers themselves won’t get published or paid if they describe a book as a load of tripe – and reviewers have mouths to feed just as writers do. It’s the commercial structure of needing a good review to sell a book (and to sell advertising) that by necessity brings the quality down. Obviously, all publishers want their books to sell, so all publishers want good reviews. But Orwell points out that “even if there were no question of bribery, direct or indirect, there can be no such thing as good novel criticism so long as it is assumed that every novel is worth reviewing.” As a result, Orwell questions whether it might “be possible to devise a system, perhaps quite a rigid one, of grading novels into classes A, B, C, and so forth, so that whether a reviewer praised or damned a book, you would at least know how seriously he meant it to be taken.”
What is surprising to the reader of today is that Orwell should have this opinion of the novel; because from our perspective, there’s nothing particularly wrong with 1930s novel writing. William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, John Steinbeck, Aldous Huxley, Scott Fitzgerald – not to mention Orwell himself – were all writing memorable and highly regarded novels that have stood the test of time. Maybe when you’re operating within a system, like Orwell was, it’s sometimes difficult to see the wood for the trees and take a pessimistic view of the future. Here’s the conclusion to the essay:
“Various people have prophesied that the novel is doomed to disappear in the near future. I do not believe that it will disappear, for reasons which would take too long to set forth but which are fairly obvious. It is much likelier, if the best literary brains cannot be induced to return to it, to survive in some perfunctory, despised and hopelessly degenerate form, like modern tomb-stones, or the Punch and Judy Show.”
To be honest, it’s an appalling over-reaction on Orwell’s part. Whilst there may be a glimmer of truth in his argument, he takes it too far. “Look for instance at the fourpenny novelettes that you see piled up on any cheap stationer’s counter. These things are the decadent offspring of the novel, bearing the same relation to Manon Lescaut and David Copperfield as the lap-dog bears to the wolf.” That may be true, but it in no way prevents future Lescauts or Copperfields being written. Counterbalancing the Ethel M Dell books of his time are Brave New World, Rebecca, The Hobbit; it’s easy to produce a list of stand-out 1930s novels for yourself.
Nevertheless, it’s an Orwell essay, and as usual demands that you pay attention and listen to his argument. Written with clarity and authority, it’s an entertaining read and it’s always fun to admire him communicate his beliefs – even if you might not agree with him! By the way, a few months ago I read an article in The Stage that complained that over-enthusiastic reviews for a play that doesn’t deserve them can be as harmful as a bad review – so maybe Orwell was right all along!
Next in my George Orwell Challenge is The Road to Wigan Pier, a full-length non-fiction book about the bleak living conditions of working class people in Lancashire and Yorkshire, and an examination of the British attitude to socialism. I remember enjoying this book thoroughly when I read it in my early 20s and I look forward to reading it again soon – and I hope you read it too!