War, Fascism, concentration camps, rubber truncheons, atomic bombs, etc., are what we daily think about, and therefore to a great extent what we write about, even when we do not name them openly. We cannot help this. When you are on a sinking ship, your thoughts will be about sinking ships.
The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. 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.
Thing is, just like with code, you write good comments by throwing away bad ones. The writing of the bad ones is not optional.
What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years 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. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. 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. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.
I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.
Meaningful writing has a purpose beyond that of simple entertainment or of generating conversation. Its purpose is to improve society, to improve our life, by teaching us certain truths that the author has learned. John Ruskin puts it well in his essay on books, Of Kings' Treasuries, by saying that good books give us sight. By teaching us what to look for, and the value of those things, we learn to tell apart the good from the bad, to pass better judgements using our sharpened vision. We grow and become wiser. And that is the only sort of writing that ever improves us as people because all the rest, information and entertainment, it just passes by and leaves us in the same state that we are when we first come into contact with it.
Your stuff will start to puff up. Your paragraphs will start to get rotund with all the things you could say if you really wanted, but you can only hint. That's bad. It's bad intellectually and I think it's bad morally. It means that you become.. your contract is no longer with your readers. What I try and do, and the reason I write in longhand and write in isolation, is to say "The only person I have a deal with is the person who might read this. And I'll give them my best, and I don't care what the editor thinks, the advertising department thinks, friends and colleagues think." You try and live, as it were, as if none of these people counted. "What's the best account I can give for customers of this." Most of Washington punditry is nothing of the kind, it's... private letters written to other pundits and appearing in public space.
Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book does not shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we'd be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.Letter to Oskar Pollak, January 27th 1904
Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows.
The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.
If there's a book you really want to read but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.
If one is prostrate to the truth, then rebuttals to opponents simply write themselves. Largely, they just consist of paraphrases or 1 or 2 logical steps.
You don't write those books because you hope those things will happen. You write those books because you think they might happen.. but you'd rather they didn't.
Q: Why do the police always travel in threes?
A: One to do the reading, one to do the writing, and the other keeps an eye on the two intellectuals.
I make a statement. Then another. Soon, more follow; truncated by pauses, commas, contemplative line breaks. The flow is shallow, stagnated. The words stop as quickly as they start. Another sentence. They are interminable, needlessly pithy reminders of a point I'm trying to bore into your skull. They are obtrusive. Some time later - though not so much later, in this instance - I break my cadence with a qualification blocked in hyphens. It is expository, important, essential to the rhythm of the piece. You can tell that this is intentional. Another sentence. Then another. This one, slightly longer, though not much. My points are considered; important. Take heed of this gravitas.
When books or pictures in reproduction are thrown on the market cheaply and attain huge sales, this does not affect the nature of the objects in question. But their nature is affected when these objects themselves are changed rewritten, condensed, digested, reduced to kitsch in reproduction, or in preparation for the movies. This does not mean that culture spreads to the masses, but that culture is being destroyed in order to yield entertainment.
The result of this is not disintegration but decay, and those who actively promote it are not the Tin Pan Alley composers but a special kind of intellectuals, often well read and well informed, whose sole function is to organize, disseminate, and change cultural objects in order to persuade the masses that Hamlet can be as entertaining as My Fair Lady, and perhaps educational as well. There are many great authors of the past who have survived centuries of oblivion and neglect, but it is still an open question whether they will be able to survive an entertaining version of what they have to say.
If people cannot write well, they cannot think well, and if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them.
Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.