I find it quite surprising that George Orwell said this, the writer who told the “truth” about a lot of things. He lived the truth. He fought in the Spanish civil war against the Fascists, unlike Hemingway who did more meddling than actual fighting, or Henry Miller, who didn’t even show up. How can a writer so associated with telling it like it is (Road to Wigan Pier, Down and Out in Paris and London, Homage to Catalonia) hold the belief that truth is not as important to a writer as some ephemeral idea like “emotional sincerity”?
The quote comes from Orwell’s 1940 essay “Inside the Whale”, an essay I consider required reading for any aspiring writer. He is actually writing about Henry Miller, the writer now considered to be a rather quaint dabbler in literary smut. Miller refused to be political, and instead wrote from a position of “emotional sincerity,” as Orwell puts it. In fact, good writing depends on “emotional sincerity.” This is what makes Edgar Allen Poe so great, Orwell says; not truth in the literal sense, but a kind of sincerity:
…there exist 'good' writers whose world-view would in any age be recognized as false and silly. Edgar Allan Poe is an example. Poe's outlook is at best a wild romanticism and at worst is not far from being insane in the literal clinical sense. Why is it, then that stories like The Black Cat, The Tell-tale Heart, The Fall of the House of Usher and so forth, which might very nearly have been written by a lunatic, do not convey a feeling of falsity? Because they are true within a certain framework, they keep the rules of their own peculiar world…
(I love that: “not far from being insane in the literal clinical sense.”)
During the rise of fascism in the 1930s, Orwell further contends that there was a lack of good writing (prose fiction, specifically). This was because most fiction writers were involve in politics in one way or another, too concerned with telling the “truth” about politics. Henry Miller being the exception, of course:
I first met Miller at the end of 1936, when I was passing through Paris on my way to Spain. What most intrigued me about him was to find that he felt no interest in the Spanish war whatever. He merely told me in forcible terms that to go to Spain at that moment was the act of an idiot. He could understand anyone going there from purely selfish motives, out of curiosity, for instance, but to mix oneself up in such things from a sense obligation was sheer stupidity. In any case my Ideas about combating Fascism, defending democracy, etc., etc., were all baloney.
Orwell seems to have, shall we say, a grudging respect for this point of view.
The title of the essay, “Inside the Whale,” comes from the story of Jonah; swallowed by a whale, he is protected from what is happening in the outside world, relatively comfortable inside all that warm blubber. However, soon he will be vomited up on the shores of reality, whether he likes it or not. This stems from Orwell’s own peculiar world view: he assumed the world was quickly sliding into fascism, and that people like Miller, apolitical to a fault, would not much longer be able to stay on the sidelines. The ability to stay on the sidelines, however, is what enables great literature to be made in the first place, and why great books are rarely produced by those who vehemently believe in any sort of dogma or doctrine, political, religious, or otherwise. (Although, ironically, Orwell may be an exception.)
Good literature has nothing to do with pushing some point of view. That’s called propaganda. Good literature comes from this idea of emotional sincerity, an engagement in the things that can be known personally, subjectively. It is very hard to write good fiction (or at least get it published) at a time when political orthodoxy, whether right or left, red or blue, fascist or communist, is the order of the day:
Good novels are not written by orthodoxy-sniffers, nor by people who are conscience-stricken about their own unorthodoxy. Good novels are written by people who are not frightened.
What are they not frightened of? Sincerely expressing their version of reality, full of angst and emotion and humanity, even if it doesn’t fit the larger orthodoxy of the time.
I’m not sure how to go about this, myself, but I think it has to do with those nagging little voices I hear in my head as I’m writing: “what will people think if you write that? What will your grandmother think of you? Won’t people think you are a leftist/racist/sexist/socialist/capitalist/you-name-it-ist?” etc. These thoughts paralyze the creative writer.
But I think that if we write honestly, sincerely, emotionally, then we begin to approach the larger “truths” of the human condition, which is what literature is all about in the first place.