“In prose, the worst thing you can do with words is to surrender to them.” — George Orwell
The word has a ring of the classroom about it–the act of learning and not doing. That’s how the Greeks themselves defined it–the word theoria meaning “a looking at, viewing, beholding”–and as Wikipedia says, it’s more about “contemplation or speculation, as opposed to action.” I remember many a piano lesson having to go over my theory homework when all I wanted to do was start in on the actual pieces I’d practised. This didn’t end when I started taking music classes in college. MUSI 331–Music Theory I–often left me wondering how obscure modes and diatonic scales applied at all to the pop songs I wanted to write.
I find myself in a similar predicament now that I’ve started my master’s at Kingston. Although my Tuesday evening Writer’s Workshop is everything I’m used to–in which everyone takes turns reading and critiquing each other’s writing–my Thursday afternoon lecture leaves me slightly more unsure of how it relates to travel writing: Critical Writing for Creative Writers. The very words–“critical” and “creative”–seem almost opposed to each other. Instead of reading up on current trends in travel writing, I’ve been spending every Wednesday reading theory. Liberal humanism, structuralism, deconstructionism, poststructuralism, the list goes on and my brain begins to shake at anything ending in “ism.” What exactly does this have to do with me, I feel like asking selfishly…
Thankfully, though, we’ve also been assigned an equally theoretical but slightly more interesting essay to read every week by famous writers I’m more familiar with–Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot and, this week, George Orwell. My borderline obsession with 1984 meant I was looking forward to reading some of his non-fiction essays–which, I shamefully admit, I didn’t realize even existed until this class. “Politics and the English Language” deals with Orwell’s concern over the demise of writing and our [mis]use of words and metaphors… and to think that this was written in 1946, well before the age of texting, tweeting, and instant messaging.
However tempting it is to simply copy-and-paste the essay in its entirety here for you, I’ll refrain. The essential thing to get in Orwell’s argument is that writers have stopped thinking about the words they use. Great writing has been hijacked by dead metaphors, meaningless words, pretentious diction–all adding up to a kind of verbal fluff that, despite its many-syllabled words and impressive-sounding turns of phrase, actually doesn’t get around to saying much at all:
“The concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed. Prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.”
Ouch, right? He goes on:
“Modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.”
The problem with this, Orwell says, is that this kind of writing is easy–both for the reader and the writer. It will take an astute, disciplined writer to think deliberately before using any word or phrase to sort of “take back” writing for the purposes of great literature and effective communication. To help this happen, he gives four questions a “scrupulous writer” should ask of themselves:
1. What am I trying to say?
2. What words will express it?
3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
All in all, a challenging read, but the amazing thing was that no sooner had I finished Orwell’s essay when I came across an article by David Miller on Matador’s Travelers Notebook titled “Notes on Codification and Commodification in Travel Writing.” While the suffixes in the title were almost too much for my theory-saturated brain to handle at the time, the article proved well worth the extra mental energy. Miller starts by discussing codified language, which is, just like Orwell’s tacked-together phrases, “interchangeable”:
“Codification begins when a narrator suggests something without actually declaring anything or referring to anything that exists in concrete reality…That’s the whole point of codified language–instead of actually reporting unique perceptions of unique places or experiences, writers are essentially relying on (as well as propagating) a common frame of reference.”
Orwell couldn’t have said it better himself. Wikipedia defines codification (in terms of linguistics) as “the process of standardizing and developing a norm for language.” Could you think of anything worse for travel writing? Prose that is nothing more than standard? Prose that utilizes only clichés and banal descriptions that have been there and done that?
Obviously, I’ve had to truncate much of both arguments. Orwell’s ultimately links to the current state of politics and how politicians’ need to hide the ugly truth behind flowery, overdrawn language has aided the decline of language. Miller’s connects to the commodification of travel writing and how the hackneyed phrases of many articles end up sounding like nothing more than the stuff of travel agency sales pitches.
But, as I commented on the Matador site, it was such a coincidence to have come across Miller’s article right after the Orwell essay. Uncanny, even–a serendipitous literary discovery that seemed to assure me, maybe all this theory stuff isn’t as arbitrary as I think. Honesty, clarity, and fresh, vivid metaphors are as crucial in great travel writing as they are in any other genre and Orwell’s advice rings true even today, sixty years later:
Keep it fresh.
Say what you mean.
Think before you write.
And above all else…
Make every word count.