‘The Prevention of Literature’ is perhaps George Orwell’s most famous essay defending freedom of expression. Published in January 1946 in Polemic, the essay sees Orwell calling upon intellectuals of all backgrounds and disciplines to stand up against literary censorship of various kinds.
You can read ‘The Prevention of Literature’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis below.
‘The Prevention of Literature’: summary
George Orwell begins ‘The Prevention of Literature’ by recounting his experience at a meeting of the PEN club (an international association of writers) on the occasion of the three-hundred-year anniversary of John Milton’s Areopagitica (1644), one of the most famous defences of freedom of the press in all of English literature. Orwell observes that none of the speakers quoted from Milton’s polemic, and none of them seemed prepared to declare that they were against literary censorship.
Orwell uses the rest of ‘The Prevention of Literature’ to discuss the current climate of the mid-1940s, arguing that there are two main threats to intellectual freedom: bureaucracy and big business on the one hand, and advocates for totalitarianism on the other. ‘Any writer or journalist who wants to retain his integrity’, he argues, ‘finds himself thwarted by the general drift of society rather than by active persecution.’ A writer can only be intellectually honest if they are free to express their own subjective opinions, but such freedom is under threat.
So even in Britain, as contrasted with somewhere like the Soviet Union (which was then a Communist dictatorship ruled by Joseph Stalin), intellectuals – especially writers and journalists – endure a more subtle kind of censorship created by the publication market and by influential intellectuals: ‘The independence of the writer and the artist is eaten away by vague economic forces, and at the same time it is undermined by those who should be its defenders.’
Orwell points out that a shift has taken place in the last fifteen years or so, since the early 1930s: whereas intellectual freedom previously had to be defended against Catholics, Conservatives, and Fascists, now the main threat is from supporters of Communism. He also observes that a totalitarian state is rather similar to a theocracy, or religious state, because its leaders have to be seen as being ‘infallible’, like the Pope.
Orwell argues that poetry is slightly different from prose, in that a poet can more readily express themselves freely without being detected, since poetry’s meaning works differently from the meaning of prose.
Orwell concludes his essay by speculating on the future of fiction, especially as film and television gain more popularity and people spend less of their money on literature. And although Britain is still a liberal rather than totalitarian society, ‘To exercise your right of free speech you have to fight against economic pressure and against strong sections of public opinion’.
‘The Prevention of Literature’: analysis
In many ways, the main thrust of Orwell’s argument in ‘The Prevention of Literature’ might be summarised in one sentence from the essay:
To keep the matter in perspective, let me repeat what I said at the beginning of this essay: that in England the immediate enemies of truthfulness, and hence of freedom of thought, are the press lords, the film magnates, and the bureaucrats, but that on a long view the weakening of the desire for liberty among the intellectuals themselves is the most serious symptom of all.
So, capitalism and red tape may prevent a writer from telling the truth, but the bigger long-term danger to freedom of expression is the perceived lack of appetite for it among intellectuals. Orwell cites the example of British scientists who shrug off the censorship of Russian writers, because they are not themselves Russian or writers. Orwell’s point, of course, is that it is dangerous to think of censorship as something that ‘only’ happens ‘over there’ or in some other discipline.
Orwell’s essay, like many of his other essays about literature written around this time (see his ‘Politics vs Literature’ for another notable example, in which even Gulliver’s Travels reveals something about totalitarian societies), is as much about totalitarianism as it is about the art of literature:
Totalitarianism, however, does not so much promise an age of faith as an age of schizophrenia. A society becomes totalitarian when its structure becomes flagrantly artificial: that is, when its ruling class has lost its function but succeeds in clinging to power by force or fraud.
This ‘force or fraud’ must further degrade the art of good literature, if writers are coerced or pressured (if not actively forced) into expressing things which they know to be false, or avoiding things which they know to be true but which are deemed unspeakable by those in charge (including fellow intellectuals).
‘The Prevention of Literature’ has attracted criticism from some writers: at the time, the noted Communist poet Randall Swingler responded to Orwell’s essay, accusing him of ‘intellectual swashbucklery’. And certainly there are parts of Orwell’s argument which are less persuasive. For instance, his suggestion that poets may be able to evade censorship in a totalitarian state because the poet can more readily express themselves freely without being detected, seems overly simplistic, as is his idea that, just because the old ballads are ‘authorless’, all modern poetry is similarly universal and free from political meaning. It is hard to imagine a poet like W. H. Auden living in Stalinist Russia being able to evade the censors for long. Even leaving Britain for the US in 1938 was enough to make many British leftists abandon their former literary hero.
‘The Prevention of Literature’ remains an important discussion of the importance of writers not just of remaining ‘free’ from official censorship but also remaining free to express ideas and beliefs which they hold dear, even if they may prove unpopular or out of step with the majority of the population. As Orwell puts it, ‘To write in plain, vigorous language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox.’ But a climate of fear is created as soon as a writer feels that they cannot speak or write freely, for fear of going against the orthodoxy of the day.