Orwell the book reviewer

Friday 13 July 2012

A guest post by Paul Anderson One of the funniest of George Orwell’s many columns for the left-wing weekly Tribune is ‘Confessions of a book reviewer’, published on 3 May 1946, with its dismal depiction of the procrastinating writer struggling to churn out the words on the latest books: “He is a man of thirty-five, but looks fifty. He is bald, has varicose veins and wears spectacles, or would wear them if his only pair were not chronically lost. If things are normal with him he will be suffering from malnutrition, but if he has recently had a lucky streak he will be suffering from a hangover. At present it is half-past eleven in the morning, and according to his schedule he should have started work two hours ago; but even if he had made any serious effort to start he would have been frustrated by the almost continuous ringing of the telephone bell, the yells of the baby, the rattle of an electric drill out in the street, and the heavy boots of his creditors clumping up and down the stairs…” It is, of course, satire. The package of books the reviewer has to review in a single article comprises five ludicrously incompatible titles – “Palestine at the Crossroads, Scientific Dairy Farming, A Short History of European Democracy (this one is 680 pages and weighs four pounds), Tribal Customs in Portuguese East Africa, and a novel, It’s Nicer Lying Down, probably included by mistake”. And the reviewer is an utterly shameless hack. When he finally gets down to writing, “All the stale old phrases – ‘a book that no one should miss’, ‘something memorable on every page’, ‘of special value are the chapters dealing with, etc, etc’ – will jump into their place like iron filings obeying the magnet, and the review will end up at exactly the right length and with just about three minutes to go.” All the same, ‘Confessions of a book reviewer’ is a self-portrait of sorts – though not of the Orwell of 1946. By then, he had long left behind the years of turning out freelance reviews to pay the rent while he worked on bigger projects. Four years of steady employment followed by the success of Animal Farm had given him a security he had not enjoyed since leaving the Indian police service in 1927. He still wrote reviews, but they were mainly for big newspapers that paid properly, the Observer and the Manchester Evening News, and he had the status that allowed him to choose what he reviewed. Most of his writing about books was in essay-length literary criticism rather than reviewing. From 1930 until 1941, however, book reviewing had been Orwell’s main means of subsistence. He turned out pieces week-in, week-out – particularly for the Adelphi, New English Weekly and Time and Tide but also for others, including, latterly, the New Statesman and Tribune – while working on his own books of fiction and reportage, none of which, with the exception of The Road to Wigan Pier, was a commercial success at the time. The editor of Orwell’s Complete Works, Peter Davison, estimates that Orwell reviewed some 800 books in the last 20 years of his life. And for the first 10 of those 20 years, he was as poor and as put-upon as the hapless writer in ‘Confessions of a book reviewer’, if never quite so cynical (and never bald). Few of Orwell’s book reviews can be counted among his best work: they are jobbing journalism produced to order for money. But they are well-constructed and clearly written models of the reviewer’s craft that anyone reviewing books today should read – though the chances in 2012 of making even the meagre living from book reviewing enjoyed by Orwell in the 1930s are close to nil. Paul Anderson is the editor of Orwell in Tribune: ‘As I Please’ and other writings 1943-47


We will be hearing more from Paul on Monday at the Buxton Festival where he and Stuart Evers will be supporting Orwell in our Orwell vs Kipling debate over who was the greater writer. There for Kipling will be Jan Montifiore and Charles Allen. The great Tony Wright will chair. Last chance to buy tickets here or standby for a forthcoming coverage on our website.

From the archive

In the days leading up to our Orwell vs Kipling debate we have thought of Orwell’s own view of his contemporaries. He writes about many greats of the 19th century including Dickens and Tolstoy as well as those of his own era like Miller and Kipling. Orwell’s piece ‘In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse’ addresses the controversy stirred when Wodehouse broadcast from Nazi Germany. Of course Orwell wrote about very many books too like ‘Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali’. Then there’s also the aforementioned ‘Confessions of a book reviewer’ where Orwell writes about writing about books.

From elsewhere

  • This week Vanity Fair published ‘The Importance of being Orwell’, a modified introduction by Christopher Hitchens to the forthcoming Diaries, by George Orwell
  • If you’ve been following the developing story on Rangers FC with interest you should have a look at the Orwell Prize winning blog Rangers Tax-Case
  • This week Zoe Williams, who was longlisted for this year’s Orwell Prize for Journalism, wrote an impressive piece for The Guardian on how family planning is affecting Nepalese society
  • On Wednesday Orwell appeared in an Evening Standard piece reflecting on seven decades at Bush House. He worked at Bush House as a talks producer for the Eastern Service from 1941 to 1943
  • The wartime diaries

    This week’s entry was published on 10th July 1942. Next week’s entry will be published on 22nd July 1942. Don’t forget our other Orwell Diary blogs: his Hop-Picking Diary and The Road to Wigan Pier Diary. If you’ve got any suggestions about our website(s), we’d love to hear from you – email us on katriona.lewis@mediastandardstrust.org. You can also follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook.