- The Unsung Artistry of George Orwell: The Novels from Burmese Days to Nineteen Eighty-Four
For the past few decades, much Orwell scholarship has focused on his nonfiction. Many academics argue that this, rather than the novels, is his most significant achievement, and of his fiction only Nineteen Eighty-Four has received sustained critical attention. Despite the continued popularity of his final two books, few of his novels are taught in universities, and he occupies a relatively marginal place in accounts of twentieth-century literature, which tend to emphasize his texts' historical rather than artistic significance. Even his distinctive voice is widely regarded as being most fully realized in his essays and journalism. This emphasis on his nonfiction is partly a consequence of Bernard Crick's influential biography and criticism, which helped to define the parameters of much current scholarship. Crick insisted upon the importance of Orwell as a writer and political thinker, but was clear about what he viewed as the flaws of his fiction. It is also, though, informed by Orwell's assessment of his own writing. In a letter to Julian Symons, written less than two years before his death, he questioned his status as a "real" novelist, insisting that his own voice tended to intrude in his narratives and that he was continually tempted to incorporate accounts of experiences that interested him even when they did not fit the design of a novel. He was particularly dismissive of his early writing, and in his notes for his literary executor described A Clergyman's Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying as "potboilers" that should not be republished.
Despite this, Orwell continued to write novels. When he died, he was working on a new book, provisionally entitled A Smoking Room Story, and he argued that his focus on political nonfiction was determined largely by the period he worked in. His commitment to the novel is informed by a modern literary hierarchy that privileges fiction, drama, and poetry over autobiography, reportage, and the essay, identifying art with conspicuously imaginative creation. It also, though, demonstrates his awareness of the novel's particular capacity to engage with the experienced complexities of social practices and values, and the difficulties of representing these. It offered distinctive interpretative as well as aesthetic possibilities, and as such formed an integral part of Orwell's political and literary work. As the title of her book suggests, Saunders argues that he was a more skilled and successful novelist than has been generally recognized. She interprets his own skepticism about his achievements as, in part, a result of a "very English tendency for groundless self-deprecation" (4), and that of his critics as a failure to recognize the subtlety, humor, and formal sophistication of his writing. The Unsung Artistry of George Orwell sometimes overstates its arguments and there are a number of sections which would benefit from a more detailed analysis of the historical conditions within which he worked. However, Saunders's perceptive analysis of Orwell's narrative method, her sensitivity to the texture of his prose, and her account of the way in which his work responds to that of predecessors such as George Gissing make this a useful contribution to Orwell scholarship. Her book may even convince its readers to revisit texts such as A Clergyman's Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and to see them as more than the early digressions of one of the twentieth-century's most important essayists.
Although The Unsung Artistry of George Orwell considers the full range of Orwell's fiction, and indeed his book-length documentaries, it is tightly focused, concentrating primarily on his technique. Saunders's emphasis on artistry enables her to engage with the texture of Orwell's prose, even in this relatively short critical study, and she is at her best in her close readings of specific passages, which expose [End Page 286] the varied, often sophisticated methods Orwell employs to achieve particular effects. She is especially illuminating in her analyses of his use of free...