Thursday Interview: Mr. Roberts

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– Mr. Roberts, you were my first English teacher, or rather the first who showed me the joy to be had from reading. In fact, I see you as the sum of all the teachers who nurtured my love of reading. What made you choose that profession?

– The desire, simply, to transmit my own love of reading to my pupils. There are many, I know, who never responded as I hoped, but even if I succeeded with only a few, it was worth it.

– And where did your own love of books come from?

– A teacher, just as yours did. People can discover books on their own, but young minds benefit from guidance, and I was fortunate to have an excellent teacher myself. The first book to astound me, transport me to a world I knew nothing of, was The Grapes of Wrath. After which I devoured the whole of Steinbeck. Without a teacher, I might not have discovered it till much later. Teachers also introduced me to Hemingway, Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and on this side of the Atlantic, Aldous Huxley, E.M. Forster, and of course, George Orwell.

– And I remember you speaking to us about them. But the book you chose to draw us in with was The Catcher in the Rye.

– Of course! And it worked, didn’t it?

– I read everything Salinger wrote after that. Such a shame he didn’t publish more!

– It was a set text in schools the world over. But despite its phenomenal success, it’s come in for huge criticism too. Consider this from Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post:

Why is Holden Caulfield nearly universally seen as “a symbol of purity and sensitivity” (as The Oxford Companion to American Literature puts it) when he’s merely self-regarding and callow? Why do English teachers, whose responsibility is to teach good writing, repeatedly and reflexively require students to read a book as badly written as this one? That last question actually is easily answered: The Catcher in the Rye can be fobbed off on kids as a book about themselves. It is required reading as therapy, a way to encourage young people to bathe in the warm, soothing waters of resentment (all grown-ups are phonies) and self-pity without having to think a lucid thought. […] The Catcher in the Rye touches adolescents’ emotional buttons without putting their minds to work. It’s easy for them, which makes it easy for teacher.

– Harsh indeed. And what’s your answer to that?

– I stand by my choice. The book isn’t badly written – the voice captures the adolescent thought process brilliantly. And it didn’t make it easier for me, on the contrary. I tried to get you to look at Holden critically, not simply identify with him. And that was a challenge with boys your age.

– Yes, I’m not sure I managed the critical bit. But I’d like to thank you anyway, you and teachers of literature all over the world, for doing all you could to open our minds to other worlds and ways of seeing, to the power and the magic of stories. And not just from the English speaking world, of course. There’s a great initiative here that invites us to read a book from every continent in 2015.

– You’re most welcome. Long may the power of stories continue.

The Thursday Interview: George Orwell


Down and out in Paris and London, 1933

– Mr. Orwell, you’ve been dead for over 60 years. My readers, I’m sure, would be eager to know your impressions on the afterlife.

– I’m afraid they’re of no interest. During my life, I was far more concerned with the conditions of living people than in whatever might happen to them after they die. And on that point I haven’t changed. I actually had more religious belief than some give me credit for, but you mustn’t forget it’s guesswork at best. If it diverts attention from the life that goes on around us, I have no time for it.

– But for you it’s not guesswork. You’re there.

– It would only worsen matters if I told you. What counts is the life you live and the lives of the people around you.

– All right, we’ll leave it at that. A shame – it would have been quite a scoop! But let’s move on. You’re remembered most for your last two books, Animal Farm and 1984, but while I agree they’re both powerful, it was actually your documentary writing that had a more profound effect on me – Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Peer. Would you say that’s a fair judgement?

– They’re difficult to compare. I do think it was important to have written 1984. It might have turned out better if I hadn’t been dying from TB at the time, but still, it’s a decent effort, given the circumstances. Down and Out was less far-reaching but I was still cutting my teeth as a writer and as a piece of reporting it’s not entirely without merit, if I say so myself.

– You saw 1984 not as a prediction but as a warning, a bleak prophecy of what might happen if we’re not careful. Looking at today’s world, what do you think?

– To a large extent, you have, mercifully, heeded the warning – on the whole, totalitarianism has declined. But I spot the seeds of a different danger now – not so much governments as big business, although often they go hand in hand. I wrote in 1984, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” But you could shorten that now to “Who controls the present controls the future.” I believe that’s what companies like Google are setting out to do. And although you may be better off materially, it hasn’t made people any happier. That doesn’t surprise me – I often found I was happiest in conditions of extreme hardship. But it’s only natural for people who have nothing to envy or resent those that do, and if it’s not sorted out, the gap I see today between rich and poor, both within countries and between them, can only spell trouble for the future.

– Yesterday I posted your rules for effective writing, which attracted quite a few comments. Is there any other advice you could give to those of us who like writing?

– Is this your blogging 101 assignment? I thought you were supposed to elaborate on a comment you made on someone else’s blog.

– I know. But I didn’t make any comments. I replied to the ones I received, though. And I put links to other blogs in my post.

– I see. A sneaky way out of it, but still. I can’t really criticise, I was sometimes the same myself. Advice to writers? If it’s what you really want to do, don’t give up! But don’t expect to make any money either. The first book of mine to sell in any quantity was Animal Farm, by which time I had only a few years to live. But I knew from an early age that I would write, and I’m happy that I did.

Nuts and bolts and good old words

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Hmm… Which one should I choose?

I always knew there were two things to writing: writing and promoting. But like many who write, I thought if I did the first, the second would take care of itself. Not so – as I’m now discovering. So this blog will cover both aspects, from the point of view of someone learning how it all works. Which means I have no pretensions to offer advice of my own – whatever I know has been learnt from other people. So I’ll always acknowledge my sources, and I apologise in advance if what I say seems obvious to some. If that’s the case, so much the better – it simply means you’ve thought about it already.

The writing first – promoting will be for another post. And because this is a record of my personal journey, I’ll start with what I read years ago, and have tried to follow ever since: George Orwell’s rules for effective writing (from Politics and The English Language, 1946).

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

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

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

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

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Not everyone agrees, of course. Will Self thinks these rules have resulted in an ‘Orwellian language police’. But compare a text by Self with one by Orwell and make your choice. I know where I stand on the matter.

It’s not always easy to follow the rules, especially in the first draft. Rule (i), for example, refers to figures of speech we’re used to reading, and because we’re used to them, they come to us easily. It’s what linguists call the frequency effect – the more often a word, or combination of words, occurs in the language, the easier it is to access in our minds, both in comprehension and production. And then they become clichés, which no longer amaze the reader the way original word combinations do. Of course, in a novel, not all words can startle – that would be pretty tiring after a while. But in poetry, for example, yes – that ‘Wow!’ effect is part of what makes a great poem great.

But we’re not too worried anyway about the first draft. It’s just a way to get the ideas down. It’s on the second, third and nth drafts that I try to bear the rules in mind. And it’s not just fiction Orwell is talking about, but all written texts. Including blogs? In our 1984, they didn’t exist, and in his 1984, they wouldn’t have been allowed (except for propaganda). But although we don’t have the time to submit our posts to umpteen drafts, even a quick revision, applying those simple rules, can bring about some improvement.

So there you go – my first post on the nuts and bolts of writing. And now you know who you’re dealing with: a highfaluting, grandiloquent, Orwellian bobby on the beat 🙂

Finally, today’s blogging 101 assignment. Naturally I’m attracted to blogs that have similar aims and content, so here are a couple of links to ones I follow, the first having already self-published and the second thinking seriously about it. Two other blogs I like for their content, the first for its original perspective (an Indian in Doha), the second for its humorous, entertaining accounts of daily life. Which isn’t to say there’s not a lot more out there which is interesting and inspiring – there is! And I’ll get round to mentioning others I’ve come across, I promise 🙂