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Or Orwell

Or Orwell

Writing and Democratic Socialism

Alex Woloch

ISBN 9780674282483

Publication date: 01/04/2016

There have been many studies of George Orwell’s life and work, but nothing quite like this book by Alex Woloch—an exuberant, revisionary account of Orwell’s writing.

“Good prose is like a window-pane,” Orwell famously avers. But what kind of literary criticism is possible, face-to-face with Orwell’s plain-style prose? Too often this style has been either dismissed by a seemingly more savvy critical theory, or held up as a reprimand against the enterprise of theory. In a series of unusually close and intensive readings—focused on the unstable event of writing itself—Woloch recovers the radical and experimental energies of Orwell’s prose. Against accounts that would quickly naturalize Orwell’s truthfulness or reduce his window-pane prose to bad faith, Woloch’s study bears down on a propulsive irony and formal restlessness that have always been intertwined with Orwell’s plain-style. Such restlessness, far from diluting Orwell’s democratic and socialist politics, is at its aesthetic and conceptual core.

The first half of Or Orwell ranges across his nonfiction prose, including new readings of “A Hanging,” The Road to Wigan Pier, and Inside the Whale. The second half develops an extended analysis of a single writing project: Orwell’s eighty “As I Please” newspaper columns, written for the Socialist weekly Tribune. Moving through multiple forms and genres, testing the limits of each, Orwell emerges in Woloch’s fine-grained account as a boldly unconventional writer and a central figure in twentieth-century literature and political thought.


  • At the core of Woloch’s study is the claim that both admirers and detractors have fundamentally misunderstood Orwell’s plain style…In a virtuoso series of readings that complicate Orwell’s famous dictum ‘good prose is like a window pane,’ Woloch offers a thoroughgoing critique of the view that Orwell’s style is naïvely empiricist or plainly representational…Woloch argues that the processes of Orwell’s thought and writing are fundamentally dialectical, which allows him to reinscribe Orwell’s (in)famously dogged intentionality into a more complex scene of writing…This study will be valued as a highly original interpretation of Orwell (as a study of Orwell’s style it is doubtful to be superseded any time soon), and as an extremely brilliant example of theoretically sophisticated close reading.

    —Glyn Salton-Cox, Los Angeles Review of Books


  • Alex Woloch is Professor of English at Stanford University and author of The One vs. the Many.

Book Details

  • 432 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press