By my unscientific count, more words have been written about George Orwell than any other writer in the English language besides Dickens and Shakespeare. But since the flow of publications about Orwell continues unabated, it may only be a matter of time before he overtakes both. To date, there are at least five biographies—although Orwell requested that none should be written—as well as memoirs, letters, essays, and academic studies. There is much more to come. D. J. Taylor, the author of Orwell: The Life, which won the Whitbread prize for biography in 2003 and is rightly regarded as the best of the bunch, has been commissioned by Constable to write what is described as a “completely fresh” second biography to appear in 2023. The publisher, one of several who plan to take advantage of the ending of copyright protection on Orwell’s published writings on January 1 this year, also plans to bring out new editions of Orwell’s five novels in the coming months.
How to account for the enduring interest in Orwell’s life and work? Quite obviously, part of the explanation is that, quite rarely, he has admirers on both the right and left of the political spectrum and that he wrote two of the most influential novels of the twentieth century, containing words and phrases—“Big Brother,” “Newspeak,” “Doublethink,” “Memory hole,” etc.—that have entered the political lexicon, reflecting and shaping the anxieties and fears of his own and subsequent generations. But I do not think this gets to the heart of the matter. Nor does Orwell’s own estimation of his strengths—which he described as the capacity to write clearly combined with an unusual ability to face up to unpalatable truths—provide a satisfactory explanation. There is no doubting the clarity and vigor of his prose, but when it comes to assessing his capacity to face up to grim truths, there is good reason to doubt Orwell’s claims to his having looked reality unflinchingly in the eye and told it like it was. Orwell’s friend Malcolm Muggeridge believed that while Orwell displayed “an almost painful honesty,” his grasp of what was going on in the world was often more than a little tenuous.