Satirical doublespeak? New York Times Book Review calls Nineteen Eighty-four “outdated”

Version with hyperlinks

I am very annoyed with The New York Times Book Review Podcast. They would go and make a fool of me for defending professional literary critics, wouldn’t they?

There I was in my pink rubber gloves, diligently doing the dishes while listening to podcasts from far-flung parts of the world when things started being said that made me splash soapy water, break wine glasses and prance angrily over dirty lino. It was a mess and I know precisely who is to blame.

There is no pretty way of introducing what I heard; the list of sins is long and of the most damning kind.

The topic was a newly published collection of George Orwell’s diaries called, simply, Diaries and the reviewer, Barry Gewen, was talking about Nineteen Eighty-four and Animal Farm. Hold tight, here we go:

“in addition to the pessimism …”

(NB: Gewen says pessimism, I say foresight, responsibility etc, but in the face of the crime to come that is a very small aside)

“ … what those books are most known for, is their attacks on totalitarianism, and I think for that reason they may be outdated. They may be the books that fall by the wayside because they were written at a particular period and had particular influence during the Cold War.”

Gah! Fall by the wayside? Outdated? Relevant only to a particular period?1984

I wonder what Gewen makes of the enormous surge in dystopian fiction of late, linked by threads about the size of – oh, I don’t know, a New York City bridge – to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four and the other dystopian greats.

Did he simply not notice the enormous amount of dystopian fiction that has been flying off bookshelves? Could he not have noticed the resurgence in dystopian literature, even though it is in the very pages of The New York Times Book Review – the most definitive meeting place between arithmetic and literature – that this nouveau dystopian turn has been documented?

I won’t lie, it worries me. Would it worry me if these words were a lone book blogger? Probably not, but when an established voice, an amplified voice, gets it so very wrong it’s confounding on a different level.

Gewen was presented on the podcast as an expert on Orwell, but how can he be if he doesn’t notice the real-time living legacy of Orwell’s most influential book? He couldn’t use words like “outdated” and “fall by the wayside” when discussing Nineteen Eighty-four if he wasn’t completely blind to the influence the book has today.

The fact that “Orwellian” is now a term that describes totalitarianism beyond the post-World War II period and the Cold War would, one might suspect, have provided more clues on the matter. Orwell himself was also absolutely clear regarding his own position:

“My recent novel is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism,” he said referring to Nineteen Eighty-four and added that his aim was specifically to show “that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.”

Orwell’s position is one that the book buying public has thoroughly endorsed.

My biggest fear is that Gewen dismissed the books that carry Orwell’s mantel because they are in large part books by women aimed at women and young people – demographics that are often sidelined by the established literati.

Women like Margaret Atwood, Ursula Le Guin and Lois Gowry eagerly delivered the popular dystopian legacy founded by Orwell into the twenty-first century; a mantel picked up by authors such as Suzanne Collins and Lauren Oliver. It is a connection that others at The New York Times Book Review haven’t missed. In a recent podcast about Lois Gowry’s latest novel, the last in her The Giver series, the links to and influence of Nineteen Eighty-four were endorsed by both Gowry and the interviewer.

To add to the insult the Diaries podcast include warning potential readers they may be disappointed by a lack of “gossip” and “sexual revelations” or bored by too many records “relating to daily life,” such as counting chicken eggs – warnings that were neither honourable nor insightful.

I think perhaps Gewen was trying to say that he prefers Orwell’s essays to his diaries and novels – a fair position to hold, but a case he left unmade.

Critics don’t get it right or wrong because of where they’re saying it – little book blog or enormous curator of cultural criticism; they get it right or wrong because of the quality of their insights. In this case The New York Times Book Review got it very, very wrong even though they are very, very established literati. I, on the other hand, have got it very, very right even though my voice echos from one side of the depths of obscurity to the other and back again.

Peter Stothart, Booker Prize panel judging chair, would have been just as correct in claiming that the status quo literati is ruining literary criticism as much as book bloggers.

Just because the method of doing the dishes changes it doesn’t mean the solution is to throw them into a hole in the garden, as tempting as it sometimes may seem. Dish by darstard dish, we will go on, caring more when the voice is amplified but trying to judge based on content rather than status.


Orwell quote is from Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (Eds.), 1968, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell IV, Secker & Warburg, London; p. 502.

This article first appeared in Trebuchet Magazine on 18 March 2013.

Who could call Orwell “outdated”?

The particulars of this article are fairly self explanatory. I was listening to The New York Times Book Review podcast while doing the dishes. I was amazed at what I heard. The self-proclaimed Orwell expert suggested that Nineteen Eighty-four and Animal Farm were outdated. The dishes splashed, though I’m not sure if any broke.

The irony of an esteemed outfit like The New York Times Book Review getting Orwell so very wrong just after I’d written a defence of established literary critics (inspired by Dorothy Parker) was not lost in the dirty water. The result is a defence of my beloved Orwell (in the style of Dorothy Parker) called Satirical Doublespeak? published by Trebuchet Magazine.


I love Trebuchet Magazine – only they delight in my absurdist humour; only they rejoice in following the peculiar clues and twisted turns that sometimes come forth from my guts in the form of tofu and pink rubber gloves.

Who else would fall for a pre-review analysis of Total Recall through elementary and culinary themes?

Who else would rejoice in a defence of Orwell in the style of Dorothy Parker that is informed dirty dish water and calls to task a self-proclaimed Orwell expert from The New York Times?

Trebuchet, Trebuchet, Trebuchet. Visionary folk ;)

Read the article:

Read Satirical Doublespeak? as published by Trebuchet Magazine on 18 March 2013


Read a version with all the hyperlinks and references on this site.

Changin’ Bleedin’ History

It was an epic train journey across Canada and I had some malady that made me whoozy. Just re-reading “Are you there God, it’s me Margaret” by Judy Blume – one of my teenage favourites – was a struggle.

When I realised they changed the belts to pads I almost fell off that train – one of my strongest and most enjoyable memories of the book and they went and changed it like it was a tampon instruction manuel – I got a case of the changin’ history blues.

Here’s my article about why notes are good but re-writes are bad and here’s a picture of an old sanitary belt.

menstrual belt

Changin’ Bleedin’ History as it appeared on For Books’ Sake on 7 December 2012.

What might Dorothy Parker think of book bloggers?

Parker, Dorothy. (1970) “Literary Rotarians,” In, The Constant Reader. First published in The New Yorker on 11 February 1928.

Why Dorothy Parker and book bloggers?

Earlier in the month I was reading an article on The Guardian about the value (or not) of Book Bloggers following comments – of the (or not) variety – by the chair of the Man Booker Prize judging panel.

Thanks to a random force, about half an hour later found myself reading a column by Dorothy Parker from 1928 called “Literary Rotarians” in which she complained about the same things. 

Thus struck, I wielded my pen.

If you have read Ms Parker’s columns you might notice that I tried to evoke her style in my little article; it was a dreamy business. My favourite lines are:

“life really does rotate like a circle, like a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel; and, baby, literary criticism is no different.”

“Parker describes literary Rotarians flittering from one literary throwdown to the next.”

I also put in a few of my own opinions, as any self-respecting person would – they are, by complete coincidence, pastoral in more ways than one:

“Indeed, to be human is to be a critic and the evidence suggests nothing will hold us back from our evolutionary duty.”

“Our best critics lead us to the choicest fodder – and all the better if we have to pass through the Valley of Death, so long as we know we will arrive somewhere of quality in the end.”

I would like to link to Parker’s article in its entirety, but I can’t find it on the net and I’m not sure of the legalities of scanning it and uploading it myself. If you know either where to find it online so I can link to it or whether I can put it up myself, then, pray, tell me.

Oh, and look, Margaret Atwood and Joanne Harris RT’d this article. They are two people I respect so much. They took me to the depths of my heart, even though they’d never met me. Literature is amazing. It really means a lot to me that they think it’s interesting enough to share. There is … welling.

Read the article:

Read What Might Dorothy Parker say about book bloggers? as published by For Books’ Sake on 19 October 2012.

Total Recall: An Elementary and Culinary Guide to Not Fretting about the Remake

Why an Elementary and Culinary Guide to Total Recall?

The genesis of the piece was as simple as the first paragraph suggests:

“Like many, when the pre-trailer trailer of the new Total Recall was released I was incensed.”

I loved the original for reasons that only someone who has ever been deeply in love with a B-grade movie can understand. I wanted to properly know that feeling though, so I went about trying to work it out in the best way I know how – writing things down.

Arnie in Total Recall: “an enormous body builder with muscles that look like they belong on the cover of an Italiano staliano romance, not a construction site, acting (it hurts me to say this) pretty appallingly, and mucking about with a jackhammer – probably on a piece of painted foam.”

I had NO IDEA it would take the culinary and elementary bend. I remember thinking it was coming out weird, but I was enjoying writing it so much I couldn’t stop.

Finding someone who would be willing to publish something this absurd was hard, but the good people of Trebuchet Magazine loved it and came to the rescue. Unfortunately lots of the comments were lost when they changed their commenting system: the best was a suggestion for it to be called TOFU RECALL – right on pjgrvstck!

Read the article:

Read Total Recall: An Elementary and Culinary Guide to Not Fretting about the Remake as published by Trebuchet Magazine on 26 June 2012.


Read the Original Version on this site with the culinary and elementary parts bolded, as I originally intended.