Orwell’s great reach

For all the differences between ideological groups in the political identity survey, they had one thing in common: for all of them, George Orwell was the most read writer.


Perhaps this is partly because he was one of only two writers on the survey list who is most famous as a novelist (though he was a very fine essayist as well), and not even the greatest treatise writers can absorb readers in the way novelists can. But clearly it is not simply the fact of being a novelist – the other novelist, Ayn Rand, came fifth even among libertarians.

Orwell’s cross-ideological appeal is presumably some mix of his skills as a stylist and observer of life, and the capacity of people from all political backgrounds to find something that appeals to their beliefs.

As James Wood wrote recently in The New Yorker, Orwell remained a socialist, though as Wood argues one who was far clearer on what he wanted to get rid of (the deprivations and humiliations of poverty, the British upper class) than the detail of how this would be achieved. These dislikes resonate for Wood, as I expect they do for others.

Those on the right have always liked Orwell’s powerful novelistic attacks on communism. Indeed, that Orwell was a socialist doesn’t stop some people on the right claiming him as one of their own. Norman Podhoretz, a prominent first-generation neoconservative, argued in the early 1980s that Orwell would have been one of them if he had lived (the essay is in this book).

Though of course unprovable, Podhoretz’s argument wasn’t entirely ridiculous. Most of the first generation neocons were ex-leftists who, like Orwell, were strong anti-communists and who, like Orwell, had an aversion to the left intelligentsia. (“The mentality of the English left-wing intelligentsia can be studied in half a dozen weekly and monthly papers. The immediately striking thing about all these papers is their generally negative, querulous attitude, their complete lack at all times of any constructive suggestion” as Orwell wrote in ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’.)

Or maybe Orwell would have ended up like his fan Christopher Hitchens, lining up with the right on key issues while not making the full ideological switch. (We can imagine what Orwell, advocate of clear writing, would have made of the way the academic left tortures the English language.)

Whatever Orwell would have become politically, his popularity persists even with those in the survey too young to remember the communist domination of eastern Europe and the passionate disputes between anti-communists and the ‘anti-anti-communists’, the leftists who claimed to oppose totalitarianism but could never bring themselves to take a firm stance against the USSR and for the West. Orwell is again the most read thinker for the 24 and under group in the survey, and only 7 percentage points below the other groups (and with time to catch up).

orwell by age

If you haven’t yet read Orwell, I recommend you do. Animal Farm, 1984, and the Penguin essays are the places to start.

23 thoughts on “Orwell’s great reach

  1. There may be another reason. Orwell is on many school sylabii. He’s relatively deep, his stories are good and his writing is excellent.

    It’s hard to think of other C20 writers who was are as deep who also wrote such good stories. Camus comes to mind, but few 14 year olds would enjoy many of his tales. 16 years olds do, mind you. Rand fails as an awful writer and someone with ideas with the depth of a puddle. Huxley might come close with Brave New World, but Huxley’s story isn’t as good and his ideas are more subtle.

    Perhaps there is a lesson, good, fairly short tales with some ideological depth resonate well with almost everyone.


  2. I can’t remember who the other writers in your fun survey were, but Orwell was unavoidable when I went through high school and university – that could be why he’s way out front.


  3. About 99% Orwell is somewhere in my daughter’s near future as part of NSW senior English. Animal Farm I think it was.


  4. I just looked at the WA English curriculum and have to admit to being astonished at what’s on it. George Orwell makes the list twice: Animal Farm and 1984. John Pilger has FOUR books on it – so that’s good. And Naomi Klein is there as well. Good writers all.


  5. Russell – Do you have a link to the curriculum? Having two propagandists on the list is pretty bad.

    The Victorian English curriculum was an attempt at indoctrination even when I did it in the early 1980s, but at least the books were by serious academics rather than propagandists like Pilger and Klein (on the other hand, one of the books we did wasn’t very well written, so it should have been excluded for that reason).


  6. Apart from 1984 Orwell’s novels are pretty ordinary but his essays and commentary are engrossing. Sadly he had no economics and he was a lifelong socialist for all his keen eye for abuses of power.

    Pilger and Klein look like a carryover from the ALP regime in WA which got into trouble on account of their plans in public education. Forget the details.


  7. “Does anyone know if he has been on school reading lists in recent years?”
    You probably need to consider what percentage of kids have actually read his books too if you are interested in how many people have read some of his books due to school (that’s serious, incidentally!).
    “Apart from 1984 Orwell’s novels are pretty ordinary”
    I enjoyed Down and Out in Paris and London, although I’m not exactly a scholar of English literature!


  8. I don’t remember any books by propagandists when I did VCE English in 1989. We did Black Boy, My Place, The Accidental Tourist, Fly Away Peter and I can’t remember the rest.


  9. Orwell was a constant opponent of the misuse of authority and the revision of history etc… I think he remains popular for the simplicty with which he writes on these important themes, both of which appeal to persons of all political persuasions. Harper Lee did much the same thing in ‘To kill a Mocking Bird’. That book demonstrates the evils of racism in such an engaging way that is accessible to all ages.

    Animal Farm and 1984 present complex ideas in an accessible format for younger readers. Even better, they can still be re-read successfully by adults. Similar themes can be explored in his non-fiction writing.


  10. Andrew,
    I went here and from the menu across the top chose Senior Secondary –> Courses –> English –> Syllabus –> Suggested text list for English course 2008-2009. It has nearly 400 books on it.

    Having two propagandists on the list is not bad – given that they’re both popular authors, it’s exactly what you hope teachers will analyse with students. Comparing Orwell with Klein would be a good exercise for students. This is English, not English Literature, the aim of the course is that “students learn about the English language, how it works and how
    to use it effectively.”


  11. Andrew,

    I have noticed in each of the postings about this survey, you only report the %, even though you are reporting subsets of cross-tabs. It’s really very poor form to fail to report the n. There is no way for the reader to interpret what you are reporting.

    If it was a % of total sample, then OK. But when it is 70% of the subset of respondents who identified as ‘other’ or ‘conservative’ or an age-group or whatever, we need to know what sort of number (or at least proportion of the sample) that is. For eg. one age-group might represent 80% of the total sample and another just 3%. We could be looking at two sets of 70%, one representing 800 people and the other representing just a handful. But we have no way of knowing, so there is no way of legitimately inferring anything at all from the results.

    When you say that the young group of readers is only 7% below the other groups, it’s quite meaningless.

    And always essential to know is how many people did not respond to a particular question, or chose ‘other/don’t know’.

    This is really social science 101. If you don’t have the basic skills to do it, maybe you should outsource your survey research to someone who does.


  12. Ben – All the n numbers were in this link in one of the earlier posts, and the relevant n numbers were reported in all the posts comparing the various ideologies.

    I have also noted concerns about low numbers, particularly for women and the conservative subcategories (so I merged them and ignored certain issues in my post on conservatives).

    I stopped reporting them in the last few posts on quirky topics from the survey mostly to save me time, but also because most of the numbers were already available to the people who had read previous posts on the survey and because I figured that these posts on marginal topics were less likely to trigger the negative responses to the substance that often come out in the form of a methodological dispute.

    I’ll probably do an article on some of the results, which will put all the relevant information in one place. A series of blog posts is obviously not ideal for reporting results, because the author gets bored of repeating the methodological detail, but the readership fluctuates and some miss the earlier detail. I do know social science 101.


  13. By all means begin with 1984 and Animal Farm, but make sure to read Orwell’s original intended preface to the latter and the actual preface published with the Ukrainian edition


    I would also recommend reading Homage to Catalonia and Road to Wigan Pier in order to gain a deeper understanding of what he was saying in Animal Farm and 1984.

    As to where Orwell might have finished up politically, I think that he would have remained a maverick who would never have been able or willing to acquire a taste for the smelly little orthodoxies which can be found in any long-term political home.


  14. Thanks Paul. From Orwell’s preface:
    “But now to come back to this book of mine. The reaction towards it of most English intellectuals will be quite simple: ‘It oughtn’t to have been published’.”
    Makes you think of Ian Plimer’s recent book!


  15. PS “The Road to Wigan Pier” is a worry, I re-read it a year or two ago and he strongly advocated socialism as the only possible solution to poverty and disadvantage.


  16. Rafe #18, touche! However it is worth bearing in mind Bertrand Russell’s point that there are countless ways in which one can disagree with an orthodoxy, and that the ways which are wrong will tend to outnumber the ways which are right.


  17. I personally see Orwell as an “anarcho-communist” or “voluntary communitarian” in his absolute ideology. He was obviously very suspicious of the state and believed that people had to remain constantly vigilant against government. But at the same time he was broadly supportive of redistribution of wealth and the notion of shared profits.

    In Animal Farm he seems to speak glowingly of the original revolution, but seems to largely condemn the animals that didn’t do anything to stop the pigs’ rise to power.

    What I get out of reading Orwell is the great importance of vigilance. We need to constantly fight against apathy otherwise power structures- whether the state, big business or the church- will run out of control. Power corrupts and not even the well intentioned are beyond its reach.


  18. I am always on the look out for someone who agrees with my dislike of 1984. I just don’t think it was well written. (It’s the same with Tolkien. There are some authors or books it is very lonely to dislike.)


  19. If anyone is interested, these are my three (1,2,3) posts related to 1984.

    Please note that the Catallaxy discussion was undertaken while under the influence of amphetamines, and Google have fixed their ‘site search’ capability.

    Also, just a random question: why has eating a coles chicken given me a headache twice in a month?


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