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Orwell in others’ eyes

A literary immortal or a talented mediocrity?

Simon Willis | February 6th 2015

George Orwell, as Robert Butler wrote in his cover story for our January/February issue, is bigger than ever. More copies of “1984” and “Animal Farm” are being sold in more languages than at any time since they were published, and the film and theatre adaptations keep coming. But among other writers he has detractors as well as fans. As Butler notes, Orwell’s friend and fellow writer Malcolm Muggeridge thought him “no good as a novelist”. Here’s a selection of other writers’ views: 

“His style as a writer places him in the category of the immortals, and his courage as a critic outlives the bitter battles in which he engaged.” Christopher Hitchens

“The word ‘Orwellian’ is a daunting example of the fate that a distinguished writer can suffer at the hands of journalists.” Clive James

“The Orwell...the English have sanctified is a descendant of the stone-kicking, beef-eating, commonsensical Dr Johnson.” Julian Barnes

“I often feel that I will never pick up a book by Orwell again until I have read a 
frank discussion of the dishonesty and hysteria that mar some of his best work.” Kingsley Amis

“I cannot resist the idea that Orwell’s intellect and finally his spirit, too, were broken by the horrors of the age in which he lived.” Salman Rushdie

“In my opinion, ‘1984’ is so popular because it’s trivial and because it’s about our enemies. If Orwell had dealt with a different problem—ourselves—his book wouldn’t have been popular...It probably wouldn’t have been published.” Noam Chomsky

“I like Orwell’s writing as much as [that of] the next talented mediocrity.” Will Self

“He is popular because he is conservative, because he is a pessimist who doesn’t much like women and who knows little about the working class.” Beatrix Campbell

“[He had] the remarkable ability to achieve what every journalist and essayist seeks. He could tell the truth.” Jeremy Paxman

“He could not blow his nose without moralising on conditions in the handkerchief industry.”
 Cyril Connolly

“I am forever grateful to Orwell for alerting me early to the danger flags I’ve tried to watch out for since.” Margaret Atwood

Read more Robert Butler on why Orwell is bigger than ever. Plus a selection of Orwell's funniest, spikiest and most relevant maxims

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