George Orwell on book reviewers



He is a man of thirty-five, but looks fifty. He is bald, has varicose veins and wears spectacles, or would wear them if his only pair were not chronically lost. If things are normal with him he will be suffering from malnutrition, but if he has recently had a lucky streak he will be suffering from a hangover.

At present it is half past eleven in the morning, and according to his schedule he should have started work two hours ago; but even if he had made any serious effort to start he would have been frustrated by the almost continuous ringing of the telephone bell, the yells of the baby, the rattle of an electric drill out in the street, and the heavy boots of his creditors clumping up and down the stairs. The most recent interruption was the arrival of the second post, which brought him two circulars and an income-tax demand printed in red.

Needless to say this person is a writer. He might be a poet, a novelist, or a writer of film scripts or radio features, for all literary people are very much alike, but let us say that he is a book reviewer. Half hidden among the pile of papers is a bulky parcel containing five volumes which his editor has sent with a note suggesting that they ‘ought to go well together’. They arrived four days ago, but for forty-eight hours the reviewer was prevented by moral paralysis from opening the parcel. Yesterday in a resolute moment he ripped the string off it and found the five volumes to be Palestine at the Cross Roads, Scientific Dairy Farming, A Short History of European Democracy (this one 680 pages and weighs four pounds), Tribal Customs in Portuguese East Africa, and a novel, It’s Nicer Lying Down, probably included by mistake. His review — 800 words, say — has got to be ‘in’ by midday tomorrow.

Three of these books deal with subjects of which he is so ignorant that he will have to read at least fifty pages if he is to avoid making some howler which will betray him not merely to the author (who of course knows all about the habits of book reviewers), but even to the general reader. By four in the afternoon he will have taken the books out of their wrapping paper but will still be suffering from a nervous inability to open them. The prospect of having to read them, and even the smell of the paper, affects him like the prospect of eating cold ground-rice pudding flavoured with castor oil. And yet curiously enough his copy will get to the office in time. Somehow it always does get there in time. At about nine p.m. his mind will grow relatively clear, and until the small hours he will sit in a room which grows colder and colder, while the cigarette smoke grows thicker and thicker, skipping expertly through one book after another and laying each down with a final comment, ‘God, what tripe!’ In the morning, blear-eyed, surly and unshaven, he will gaze for an hour or two at a blank sheet of paper until the menacing finger of the clock frightens him into action. Then suddenly he will snap into it. All the stale old phrases — ‘a book that no one should miss’, ‘something memorable on every page’, ‘of special value are the chapters dealing with, etc. etc.’ — will jump into their places like iron filings obeying the magnet, and the review will end up at exactly the right length and with just about three minutes to go. Meanwhile another wad of ill-assorted, unappetizing books will have arrived by post. So it goes on.

You can read the whole piece here:

8 thoughts on “George Orwell on book reviewers

  1. I hope Orwell got paid well for his reviews, though he probably didn’t. Even though I know the pressures reviewers can work under – I’ve been one myself – I’ve never stopped being frightened of reading reviews of my own books.

  2. I take it Gert sometimes feels like this? Even when the books are self-chosen and the review-writing is optional, there must be moments or hours when Orwell’s point of view suddenly intrudes into Gert’s consciousness and smirks there like a Cheshire cat until she realizes that she is not in its thrall, and walks away.

    1. Well. we are lucky not to be wage slaves and we don’t have to read anything we don’t want. And we usually don’t review books we really don’t like unless the author is particularly annoying and self-satisfied. But we certainly do often say to each other the equivalent of “God, what tripe”, or our father’s evocative summary, “Nah!”

  3. It is one of the numerous brilliantly written pieces by Orwell. I had read it a while ago, re-read it today after you shared the link to the full article and I must say, nobody speaks truth like him. I wonder how many writing careers would have been destroyed by such kind of reviews and how mediocre writers would have become a Brand. and reviewers as displayed by Orwell are not fully responsible for that. It is the system, that demands “content”, faster than the rest and so on.
    Thank you for sharing it 🙂

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