A few days ago I was plowing disheartened through the NYTimes 100 Notable Books of 2014 when I felt compelled to tweet my opinion that the two words now guaranteeing a review is bullshit are “luminous” and “fierce.” I was joking around, sort of. Many comments were exchanged. And then today — several days late, yes — I open the FT weekend arts email that I get every Friday night, and I find this: George Orwell’s luminous truths — The English writer is revealed in all his fierce integrity in a new collection of journalism.
It is particularly sad to see this coming from a British publication. The British should understand Orwell’s adamant lack of luminosity; you can’t read him without feeling the English cold and damp, and really sitting with him, like ploughing with pleasure through the four volumes of his essays, reviews, and letters, as I once did, could actually give you a nasty head cold — the phrase “snot rag” is never far from one’s mind. To call him “luminous” is to sound, among other suspect conditions in an Orwell review, quite American. The Brits are not supposed to be so dimwitted: what have we done to them?
And of course fierce is not at all correct either. Neither for his mind nor his “integrity”. His integrity was the result of an intellect and a sensibility pulled together by deep and reliable sensitivities to literature and to politics. Integrity — oneness — is never really fierce. It is unassailable, impenetrable, unbreakable, unyielding. But really they’re not talking about his integrity when they throw “fierce” out there like dead fish parts in the chum. What they mean is the quality of his mind: which is coherent and incisive, keen; perhaps at times lethally sharp. His prose relied for its power not merely on its accuracy and intensity but its elegance, which was sturdy and unerring. Orwell moves on the page in the manner of a man whom you’d not expect to be a good dancer but who is.
Put another way, and the right way for Orwell: if you neither see nor feel the knife going in, your murder has not been fierce; it has been deft.