Orwell’s Four Reasons for Writing

In his essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell spells out the four reasons any writer has for writing. According to him, a writer’s motivation can be,

  1. Sheer egoism.
  2. Aesthetic enthusiasm.
  3. Historical impulse.
  4. Political purpose.

Knowing Orwell’s writings, as most of the Western world does, this list is not surprising, nor is it surprising that he devotes the most discussion to his fourth reason. He was a thoughtful and reflective person, one who had seen more than his share of the bad things of the world (made even more so by his ability to recognize them as bad), and I’m willing to concede his assertion that these four reasons really do apply to all writers. (The fact that he made them so generic helps with this though.) Furthermore, he says that all four are present in all writers to varying degrees.

By “sheer egoism” he means the “desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc. etc.” Orwell claims that writers share this trait with the whole “top crust” of humanity, including scientists, authors, politicians, and soldiers.

He interprets “asethetic enthusiams” as a “desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.” He sees it as a perception of beauty in the real world combined with a desire to put the right words in the right order. And though he concedes that some writing — technical writing, journalism — can be feeble in this regard, it is not wholly absent in any human writing.

“Historical impulse” is the desire to see things as they are, to find out the true facts and to store them up for the use of posterity. I suspect that no one and no society can truly “see things as they are” and with the passage of time even getting close to this becomes less likely, but I think it is fair to say that Orwell would credit good writers with seeing things better than the obfuscations offered by governments and entrenched interests.

Finally comes “political purpose.” He says that he means “political purpose” in the widest sense possible. He defines it as the “desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society they should strive after.” All writing he insists, has political purpose, and to say that art should not be political is a political statement in itself.

I’m not sure where I fall on this continuum. I suppose with different types of writing the mix is different. Non-fiction feature articles would obviously have a different genesis than a work of fiction. Nonetheless, I am reluctant to analyze my own motivations too closely lest such a sterile review might kill them.

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One Comment on “Orwell’s Four Reasons for Writing”

  1. BrianK Says:

    Orwell was fond of making rules for writers. Have you seen this rather scathing critique of his article Politics And The English Language?

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=992

    (Sorry. I don’t know how to make it into a hyperlink)


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