Katha Pollitt, George Orwell, Essayists and Posterity

For a couple of days now, Katha Pollitt’s obit/remembrance of Christopher Hitchens has been making the rounds to near-universal adulation. For good reasons; the piece is well worth a read, especially as it highlights aspects of Hitchens’ writing and personality that few have seen fit to focus on (especially not by his drinking buddies, whose cliche-ridden remembrances will be chuckled over by many for years to come).

But toward the end of the article, Pollitt throws in the following:

Posterity isn’t kind to columnists and essayists and book reviewers, even the best ones. I doubt we’d be reading much of Orwell’s nonfiction now had he not written the indelible novels 1984 and Animal Farm.

Pollitt seems to be trying to establish the following thesis (roughly): Even the best non-fiction writers only get read by future generations if they are lucky enough to have written some quality best-selling fiction. I disagree. (Notice, incidentally, that Pollitt has thrown “essayists” into a group that includes “columnists” and “book reviewers”; I do agree that “columnists” and “book reviewers” are more inclined to be creatures of their age who risk rapid obscurity unless they write more substantive and possibly popular work. I’m also aware that “non-fiction” is too broad a category in my purported thesis above but I think it is clear what Pollitt and I are aiming at.)

The simplest way to refute Pollitt’s assertion is to dredge up examples of essayists whose place in posterity is secure without their being famous through the fiction they wrote: Michel Montaigne, Edmund Burke, Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, Samuel Johnson, Matthew Arnold, Susan Sontag, Jacques Barzun; the list goes on. (Standard caveat: to really settle this dispute check back in a couple of hundred years). We can disagree plentifully about how well posterity is treating every single member on the list we would generate, and about its definitive membership, but when the smoke would clear, we would still list many essayists to whom posterity has been “kind” without requiring that they have written a best-selling novel or two. Indeed, in some cases, it would be clear their literary fame has been achieved not because of the fiction they wrote but in spite of it (I think this is especially true of Sontag, whose fiction I simply could not stand).

But there is another problem in Pollitt’s assertion given its reliance on the case of Orwell. Would Orwell simply have slipped into obscurity had he not written those “indelible” novels? Well, fiction is always more likely to reach a broader market than the non-fiction a writer puts out. And popularity in that genre can have the salutary effect of attracting a broader readership to the rest of a writer’s corpus. And yes, Orwell’s writings became famous only after he wrote his best-selling novels (I’m inclined to think that 1984, incidentally, is a not-very-good novel whose fame was ensured by a particular set of historical contingencies). But is a large readership what Pollitt means by being treated kindly by posterity? Or would posterity still be kind to a writer if critical acclaim for the writer’s non-fiction corpus were to endure through the ages? If the latter, then since Pollitt is trading in hypotheticals, let me do so too. I think anyone that wrote Homage to Catalonia, The Road to Wigan Pier, Decline of the English Murder, How the Poor Die, Shooting An Elephant, Why I Write, or Politics and The English Language would have found enduring critical, even if not popular, fame.

Lastly, slipping a mention of Orwell into a remembrance of Hitchens shows that Pollitt has succumbed to the temptation to lump the two together. Please. Cease and Desist.

15 thoughts on “Katha Pollitt, George Orwell, Essayists and Posterity

  1. Excellent point, Samir. Though one minor corrective: Arnold, Barzun, Burke, and Bacon are not known and remembered primarily for their essays; they have other bodies of work that we mainly remember them for. You’re right about Montaigne, Johnson, and Sontag, and I’d also throw in Hazlitt, Chesterton, maybe Benjamin, and James Baldwiin.

    1. Corey,

      You are right of course. Re: Arnold, Barzun, Burke and Bacon, I think the broadness of “non-fiction” caught up with me. I wanted to list all those other folks you mention but didn’t want the list to grow too long. What about Trilling and Belloc?

  2. Hello, thank you for discussing my piece. I didn’t say NO columnists, essayists, book reviewers etc are read for a long time after their death, and essayists are indeed my weakest category. Montaigne is obvious counterexample (but he practically invented the modern essay–it helps to be first.) You have to admit the post-death falloff in readership is pretty steep for most, though, although a few pieces survive in anthologies and syllabi. IMO a novelist or even poet at the Hitchens level of fame and cultural centrality has a better chance of being read and discussed in 20 years (although not a good chance — most writing of any sort falls out of the discourse pretty quickly, even wonderful, hilarious, moving writing–that’s why publishers do series that reprint once-celebrated texts, like NYRB Classics, or back in the day, Virago.)
    Topical writing, opinion, journalism dates very quickly–not just the references, but the frames of reference. And book reviews? I would say the best reviewer’s chance of having the best piece he ever wrote endure beyond his death are minuscule–far less, say, than that of the best poet’s best poem. I love Randall Jarrell’s reviews — but his fame as poet and novelist are what keeps them in print (if they are in print!). As for Susan Sontag, let’s check in with each other in twenty years. but the example of Edmund Wilson (who?) is not encouraging.
    As for Orwell, I’m not saying his reporting and reviewing and opinionizing weren’t really good. I’m just saying it is 1984 and Animal Farm that has kept us going back to it, and has made him an iconic figure — so iconic that Slate is currently discussing his advice on how to make a cup of tea. If you think of the bits of Orwell that have gone into our language — Big Brother, “everyone is equal but some are more equal than others,” 1984 as shorthand for totalitarian panopticon, the very adjective “Orwellian” — it’s all from those two books.

    1. Katha,

      What a pleasure to see you here. Thanks for stopping by. I think we are in agreement about essayists as compared to “Topical writing, opinion, journalism”, (which was the basis of most of my examples). And I do think too, that given the barrage of writing these days, what it is going to take to get remembered is going to need to be a bestselling book, followed, preferably, by a hit movie (or HBO show, perhaps). I agree, the only way to settle this is going to be time-travel in a machine made for that purpose!

      As for Orwell, I think the popularization of those novels because of the particular times in which they were published certainly broadened his fame and made his corpus available to many people who wouldn’t have read him otherwise. Once that was done, I think other parts of his oeuvre have become iconic: his advice on writing (window panes anyone?), his personal history of the Spanish Civil war, the soldier with his pants down, or even the descriptions of coal-mines in England, and the poverty in Paris and London. The bits that have passed into popular lingo certainly come from his novels, I agree.

      Once again, thanks for stopping by. Hope to see more of you down the line.

  3. The examples you give of essayists who did not write fiction are problematic. Ben Jonson, of course, wrote brilliant plays (Volpone!) and poetry as well as essays. Matthew Arnold wrote brilliant poems. Hitchens did not write plys or poems.

    1. Hi; thanks for the comment. I agree; when I started, I began with too broad a classification and roped in several writers who easily straddled genres. To make the discussion sharped, I should stick to those generally considered essayists a la Montaigne.

  4. I think Katha Pollitt’s right, Samir. The only book of short non-fiction pieces I’ve read that seems immune to the death of its author, is Borges’s Other Inquisitions and Borges has other claims on posterity: his poetry and short fiction. It’s hard to generalize but we can be certain that the generic ‘literary’ essay that is the stock-in-trade of the NYRB and its imitators, has the shelf-life of fresh produce. Or fish.

    1. Mukul,

      Good to see you here. Sorry about the late moderation. I’ve been traveling and didn’t get to the console till today. I’ll put you down for the No Fame Without Fiction camp. Let’s grant that thesis for a second (I don’t agree, and on my return, plan to defend it more carefully): why would that be the case? Fiction just is more memorable? More accessible, therefore garners more readers?

      Sorry for the rushed comment. I have to get back to my vacation, but I’m happy you’ve shown up!

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