Orwellian

This George Orwell thing just won’t die and it’s kinda pissing me off. It’s getting to be like Benghazi for the anti-Amazon crowd. We’ll have hearings any day now on what Bezos knew about this quote and when. Yesterday, I read this piece by Alex Shepherd from Melville House once again rehashing the critique that Amazon manipulated an Orwell quote by manipulating the same quote in a different manner himself.

Before I get too far into this, though, let’s look at that quote, not one or two cherry picked sentences or sentence fragments, but the entire damn thing. It was taken from a review Orwell wrote about a series of 10 inexpensive paperbacks released by Penguin in 1936 for the New English Weekly. The essay is clearly a review. He lists the titles, authors and publisher at the beginning, made the much-requoted opening gambit, then proceeded to gush about each book in turn before concluding by doubling down on his earlier point. Oddly, part of his conclusion makes his feelings about paperbacks quite clear yet it’s not been referenced to speak of. If I had to guess, this was a paying gig for Orwell, it’s written like one, so the gushing PR-type tone in the parts specifically referring to the books he’s reviewing makes perfect sense. The source material for this is a toss-off “book review” column, and not a particularly good one, at that. “Keep getting ‘dem checks,” as NBA commentator Jalen Rose would say. See for yourself. Here’s a link to the full review.

So, for the sake of clarity, here’s the opening quote in its entirety:

“The Penguin Books are splendid value for sixpence, so splendid that if the other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them. It is, of course, a great mistake to imagine that cheap books are good for the book trade. Actually it is just the other way around. If you have, for instance, five shillings to spend and the normal price of a book is half-a-crown, you are quite likely to spend your whole five shillings on two books. But if books are sixpence each you are not going to buy ten of them, because you don’t want as many as ten; your saturation-point will have been reached long before that. Probably you will buy three sixpenny books and spend the rest of your five shillings on seats at the ‘movies’. Hence the cheaper the books become, the less money is spent on books. This is an advantage from the reader’s point of view and doesn’t hurt trade as a whole, but for the publisher, the compositor, the author and the bookseller it is a disaster.”

And here’s the conclusion paragraph, also complete:

“In my capacity as reader I applaud the Penguin Books; in my capacity as writer I pronounce them anathema. Hutchinson are now bringing out a very similar edition, though only of their own books, and if the other publishers follow suit, the result may be a flood of cheap reprints which will cripple the lending libraries (the novelist’s foster-mother) and check the output of new novels. This would be a fine thing for literature, but it would be a very bad thing for trade, and when you have to choose between art and money well, finish it for yourself.”

The main bone of contention in this Orwellian battle over Orwell’s words is two references Amazon made to a portion of this review in its Readers United statement responding to criticisms of its stated position on the price of ebooks:

“The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if “publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.” Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion.”

“Perhaps channeling Orwell’s decades old suggestion, Hachette has already been caught illegally colluding with its competitors to raise e-book prices.”

The popular party line among Amazon’s detractors is that they are misrepresenting Orwell by claiming his reference to “combine against them and suppress them” was serious and not tongue in cheek, or part of a “celebration” of the cheap paperback. I admit, if you read the complete sentence that Amazon excerpted, it does appear that way. Let’s look at just that quote again:

“The Penguin Books are splendid value for sixpence, so splendid that if the other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them.”

But the detractors don’t stop there. They move on to claim Orwell is actually contradicting Amazon’s point about cheap books and their benefits. Again, I admit, if you start immediately after the first sentence, it certainly appears that way. Let’s look at the rest of that paragraph again:

“It is, of course, a great mistake to imagine that cheap books are good for the book trade. Actually it is just the other way around. If you have, for instance, five shillings to spend and the normal price of a book is half-a-crown, you are quite likely to spend your whole five shillings on two books. But if books are sixpence each you are not going to buy ten of them, because you don’t want as many as ten; your saturation-point will have been reached long before that. Probably you will buy three sixpenny books and spend the rest of your five shillings on seats at the ‘movies’. Hence the cheaper the books become, the less money is spent on books. This is an advantage from the reader’s point of view and doesn’t hurt trade as a whole, but for the publisher, the compositor, the author and the bookseller it is a disaster.”

Independently, both points seem valid. The glaring contradiction, though, is that for both of these points to be true, Orwell has to be celebrating cheap paperbacks and decrying them as the downfall of the industry in the very next sentence. Orwell does differentiate somewhat between the perspective of readers and writers/publishers and can, from a certain point of view, be seen as both celebrating paperbacks (as a reader) and bemoaning what he saw as their their certain destructiveness (as an industry professional). Now let’s look at the specific complaints about Amazon’s usage. Here’s Shepherd:

“Orwell and the publishers were certainly wrong about the paperback. But Amazon was dead wrong about Orwell, whom it had badly misquoted.”

“In context, Orwell not only contradicts Amazon’s argument about paperbacks, he contradicts their entire business model, arguing that cheap books do not mean that people will buy more books or spend more money on them.”

And perhaps the most famous example, from David Streitfeld of the New York Times:

“When Orwell wrote that line, he was celebrating paperbacks published by Penguin, not urging suppression or collusion.”

“Orwell then went on to undermine Amazon’s argument for cheap ebooks.”

So which is it? Is Orwell celebrating cheap paperbacks or weeping for the damage he believes they’re sure to cause? Can it be both? Possibly, but that still doesn’t make the detractors right in their assessment of Amazon’s intentions in using that excerpt. Let’s look at what Amazon actually said in the same statement where they referenced Orwell:

“With it being so inexpensive and with so many more people able to afford to buy and read books, you would think the literary establishment of the day would have celebrated the invention of the paperback, yes? Nope. Instead, they dug in and circled the wagons. They believed low cost paperbacks would destroy literary culture and harm the industry (not to mention their own bank accounts).”

“The fact is many established incumbents in the industry have taken the position that lower e-book prices will “devalue books” and hurt “Arts and Letters.” They’re wrong. Just as paperbacks did not destroy book culture despite being ten times cheaper, neither will e-books. On the contrary, paperbacks ended up rejuvenating the book industry and making it stronger. The same will happen with e-books.”

So Amazon cited Orwell as part of a literary establishment they claim believed cheap paperbacks would harm the industry and their own bank accounts. Here’s Orwell again:

“In my capacity as reader I applaud the Penguin Books; in my capacity as writer I pronounce them anathema. Hutchinson are now bringing out a very similar edition, though only of their own books, and if the other publishers follow suit, the result may be a flood of cheap reprints which will cripple the lending libraries (the novelist’s foster-mother) and check the output of new novels. This would be a fine thing for literature, but it would be a very bad thing for trade, and when you have to choose between art and money well, finish it for yourself.”

If that’s not concern that they would harm the industry and their bottom lines, I don’t know what is. Did Amazon play fast and loose with the collusion line? It’s possible, maybe even likely, but taken in the full context of the piece, Orwell the writer is certainly no fan of cheap paperbacks and to claim he was celebrating them is simply not supported by the fullness of his words. Other than a few short half sentences about their benefit to readers (a point, I feel it necessary to point out, is in a largely promotional book review column whose audience is readers, after all) every line in Orwell’s piece outside of the stock book review portions is a direct attack on cheap paperbacks, overflowing with worry about the havoc they’ll wreak over the industry. As such, is it possible to be completely certain his opening reference to collusion was not, at least partially, a serious one? After all, he does go to great lengths to explain the conditions for why they might want to engage in such things. But here’s the kicker to Orwell’s true feelings toward cheap paperbacks, from his conclusion paragraph. There’s nothing confusing or ambiguous in this sentence:

“In my capacity as writer I pronounce them anathema.”

For a little vocabulary lesson, Miriam-Webster defines “anathema” as “a thing devoted to evil, something that is intensely disliked or loathed, the denunciation of something as accursed.” If that’s how Orwell celebrated something, I bet he threw some kick ass parties!

As for the second complaint, that Orwell undermined or contradicted Amazon’s business model, did he really? Amazon’s point was that the literary establishment hated and feared cheap paperbacks. Orwell, as a member of that establishment, certainly exhibited those characteristics in this essay. Moreso, Amazon’s point is that they were wrong. Historically speaking, they, including Orwell, were wrong. Even Chapman said so:

“Orwell and the publishers were certainly wrong about the paperback.”

Later, however, he says:

“Orwell not only contradicts Amazon’s argument about paperbacks, he contradicts their entire business model.”

But he just said Orwell was wrong about paperbacks. Streitfeld said Orwell “went on to undermine Amazon’s argument for cheap ebooks.” Can you contradict or undermine anything with statements we know to be historically and factually wrong? If Orwell was truly celebrating cheap paperbacks, then he’d be in fundamental agreement with Amazon. But if he were in agreement with Amazon, then he can’t truly be contradicting their point. But if he is contradicting their point then he can’t genuinely be celebrating cheap paperbacks. It’s an incomprehensible feedback loop created by people condemning the use of a partial quote they claim is out of context by using two different sets of partial quotes from the same source material to ascribe fundamentally opposing views to Orwell, sometimes from the very same sentence, each, apparently, requiring its own independent context. Amazon may have missed some sarcasm when they quoted Orwell on collusion, but they didn’t miss the point.

If you make the claim that Orwell’s views contradict Amazon’s views and we know that Orwell’s views were incorrect, doesn’t it follow that citing them does, in fact, support Amazon’s position? Amazon says the literary establishment hated cheap paperbacks and they were wrong to do so. Orwell’s own words from within that establishment showed little in the way of love for cheap paperbacks and he was shown to be wrong. Where’s the contradiction? Where’s the misrepresentation? It appears to me that any misrepresentation here isn’t Amazon choosing the most inflammatory excerpt to emphasize Orwell’s position on cheap paperbacks even if that one reference is taken more seriously than Orwell may have meant it, but in trying to argue that Orwell himself was celebrating those paperbacks in the midst of a piece where he does little but demonize them from an industry point of view.

Here’s one last quote from Streitfeld’s piece that sums things up nicely, I think. Although, I expect, not in the way Streitfeld thought it did:

“Only a fool or a businessman would twist that quote so completely,” wrote John Biggs in TechCrunch.

I’ll leave it up to you to devine who the fools are in this scenario.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

Advertisements

The URI to TrackBack this entry is: https://watershedchronicle.wordpress.com/2014/10/09/orwellian/trackback/

RSS feed for comments on this post.

2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. What I found delicious about that Orwell post you link to is that it went up on the day that the Adobe spying scandal exploded.
    The contrast between a faux Orwell controversy and the actual Orwellian actions of Adobe was funny as all get out.

  2. […] He failed to research the context behind a comment he used in the piece, among other glaring errors that have been pointed out clearly by other writers. […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: