George Orwell cared not only about what he wrote, but how he wrote it. His assessment of what makes for good writing – and bad writing – is as relevant today as it was in 1946, when his essay Why I Write was published. The following passage from Why I Write illuminates the central qualities The Orwell Prizes reward:
“What I have most wanted to do is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience…. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.”
‘Why I Write’
The Foundation encourages a broad attitude to what qualifies as ‘political’. In Orwell’s world, politics is defined in the widest sense, and this should be the approach taken by judges in their consideration of entries:
“In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.”
The overarching values that should guide the judges are derived from Orwell’s own writing. Each year, judges are encouraged to reflect, personally and as a panel, on the ways these values can be embodied in the particular genre or medium they are considering:
- Political purpose: “Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.” (Why I Write)
- Clarity of expression: “Good prose is like a windowpane.” (Why I Write)
- Intellectual courage: “Freedom of the intellect means the freedom to report what one has seen, heard, and felt, and not to be obliged to fabricate imaginary facts and feelings.” (The Prevention of Literature)
- Critical thought: “To exchange one orthodoxy for another is not necessarily an advance. The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.” (Proposed Preface to Animal Farm)
- Artful writing: “Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.” (Why I Write)
Above all, the winners should strive to meet the spirit of George Orwell’s own ambition ‘to make political writing in an art’.
The Orwell Prizes are politically independent. They do not promote the political purposes of any particular writing or take account of the political orientation of the writing. Judges are required to put aside any personal political or ideological beliefs and assess submissions purely on their merit and on whether they meet the prize criteria.