The Orwell Prizes takes as their starting point the following passage:
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
Each of the Prizes is judged by a panel of independent judges, usually comprising 3 or 4 members. Since the first annual Orwell Prizes were awarded in 1994, many distinguished figures from literature and journalism have served on its judging panel. Read about this year’s judges.
Previous judges include Carmen Callil, Bonnie Greer, David Hare, Richard Hoggart, Lisa Jardine, Penelope Lively, Andrew O’Hagan, Tom Paulin, Esme Percy, Lynne Truss, Marina Warner and Samira Ahmed.
Sir Bernard Crick, the Prize’s founder, was Chair of the judges until 2006, with Professor Jean Seaton taking over as Director of the Prize in 2007. The Director is no longer on the judging panel. The judges are appointed each year by the Board of Trustees and the Director of The Orwell Foundation.
Judging the Orwell Prize was an invigorating experience. Reading the dozens of books and articles submitted, one realised just how potent Orwell’s spirit and example still are in inspiring the best authors and journalists. The prize celebrates this enduring influence – and, I think, helps to perpetuate it.
Francis Wheen, Judge (2007 & 2017) and Book Prize Winner 2003
Orwell was a self-conscious writer: he 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 to writing and journalism today as it was when he was writing, and as such, should underpin the prizes awarded in his name.
‘Political’ is defined in the widest sense; as Orwell wrote in ‘Politics and the English Language’:
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.
When judging the Orwell Prizes, the judges take into account the following criteria:
- Artfulness and clarity of writing
- Quality of critical thought
- Public and educational benefit
- Contribution to the quality of public discourse
In addition, entries should show:
‘Political’ is defined broadly. Orwell puts it best in Why I Write when he writes:
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.
The prizes do not promote the political purposes of any particular writing and takes no account of the political orientation of the writing. ‘Political purpose’ does not presuppose any particular orientation along ideological or party-political grounds.
Artfulness and clarity
As Orwell wrote in Why I Write, ‘Good prose is like a windowpane’.
Entries should show:
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).
Entries should avoid:
staleness of imagery… [and] lack of precision… by using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself (Politics and the English Language)
Above all, entries should share Orwell’s ambition to ‘make political writing into an art’.
Intellectual courage and critical thought
Orwell wrote that “intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face… If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear” (Proposed Preface to Animal Farm).
He believed that “when there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink” (Politics and the English Language) and that “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).
As Orwell wrote in the proposed preface to Animal Farm:
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.