Two writers enter, one writer leaves! Well, not literally – especially in this case, given our aversion to exhumation and necromancy. We’re less interested in post-mortem fisticuffs and more concerned with some high falutin’ comparing and contrasting. So, stick around while we pit two of the twentieth century’s most renowned dystopian novelists, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, against one another by checking out their books’ popularity, the cultural and social consequences of their works at the time, and how their books have since gone on to change the world… Brace yourself!
Who were they?
Orwell – born Eric Arthur Blair – is often most immediately remembered for his novels Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Animal Farm (1945), one a dystopian vision of a panoptic militarized totalitarian future Britain, and one a satirical retelling of the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalinism. He was also a prolific and impassioned nonfiction writer, too, though, and books like The Road To Wigan Pier (1937), detailing the economic depression in the North of England, working conditions in the region’s coal mines, and his own arguments in favour of socialism, and Homage To Catalonia (1938), about his own experiences in the Spanish Civil War, are pretty significant, too.
Huxley, in turn, is best known for his own vision of dystopian London, Brave New World (1932), depicting a future dominated by eugenics and a brutal and immutable social hierarchy, and The Doors of Perception (1954), an account of his experiences on mescaline, a hallucinogenic drug derived from the peyote cactus. Both writers produced more books, than these, of course, and both were industrious, though Huxley left Orwell in his wake – while George published six novels, three book-length works of non-fiction, and hundreds of essays as well as some poetry, Huxley published eleven novels, seven books of short stories, eight poetry collections, twenty three essay collections, seven screenplays, as well as travel books, children’s books, numerous essays and more. It’s not necessarily about quality, though….
Just how popular were they?
While Animal Farm was a roaring popular success, the critics at the time weren’t universally convinced, saying that it was ‘creaky’ and ‘clumsy’, and implying, in one case, that it was outdated. The Sunday Times called Nineteen Eighty-Four gloomy, but the rest of the critics were bowled over, and the public liked it too. Orwell’s non-fiction likewise received a mix of vitriol and praise from the press: VS Pritchett said of Homage To Catalonia that ‘no one excels him in bringing to the eyes, ears and nostrils the nasty ingredients of fevered situations’, while Walter Greenwood said of The Road to Wigan Pier, ‘I cannot remember having been so infuriated for a long time than by some of the things he says here’. Meanwhile Animal Farm flew off the bookshelves during the politically suspicious McCarthy-era in the USA.
As for Huxley, his vast output makes for a more complex picture, but the response was generally very positive, and in the USA, where he lived later in life, he was considered one of the foremost public intellectuals of his time. Brave New World was a big hit, and also gets kudos for being frequently banned for offenses as diverse as bad language, secularism and pornography. In 1959 the book earned him the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award of Merit.
Time will tell?
Huxley’s definitely still got a rep in the twenty-first century, though he’s remembered more for two or three of his books for adults and his reputation as an experimenter with psychedelic drugs rather than for the rest of his enormous output, while Orwell’s smaller back-catalogue makes for a more familiar list. ‘Brave New World’ has become a recognizable phrase, if not always associated with the specifics of the society Huxley imagined, but pretty much every trope of Nineteen Eighty-Four has becomes iconic: the thought police, doublethink, Room 101. Big Brother… Animal Farm has become a secondary-school staple, meaning that you’d be hard pressed in the UK to find somebody who hasn’t read him, while Huxley’s more popular with counter-cultural undergrads. Both writers are to be seen on most lists of influential books – the Modern Library rank Huxley’s Point Counterpoint (1928) and Brave New World as well as Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the BBC’s more populist Big Read includes works by both writers, too.
What do we think?
Our conclusion? Huxley’s more well-known works are fascinating for their experiential honesty and their political thought-experiments, but taken out of the early twentieth-century context, his interest in pharmaceuticals does seem a little dated. Orwell’s super-political texts are very rooted in their own times, but the socio-political detail makes them just as gritty and (importantly) depressing as they were then, but, aside from Animal Farm (which is very short), they can seem rather didactic. Despite Huxley’s larger bibliography, we think Orwell’s overall cultural impact has been greater, and so we’re going to award him today’s trophy – but what about you? Who do you think wins the clash of these literary titans?