Robert Butler in More Intelligent Life:
It is now 65 years since George Orwell died, and he has never been bigger. His phrases are on our lips, his ideas are in our heads, his warnings have come true. How did this happen?
One answer to “why Orwell?” is because of his posthumous career. Five years before his death in 1950, he was, in the words of one of his biographers, D.J. Taylor, “still a faintly marginal figure”. He had published seven books, four of them novels, none of which put him in the front rank of novelists, two of which he had refused to have reprinted. He was acknowledged as a superb political essayist and bold literary critic, but his contemporary and friend Malcolm Muggeridge, first choice as his biographer, frankly considered him “no good as a novelist”. It was only with his last two books, “Animal Farm” and “1984” (published in 1945 and 1949), that Orwell transformed his reputation as a writer. These two books would change the way we think about our lives.
…Type “#Orwellian” into the search box on Twitter and a piece in the South China Morning Post says the Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, has attacked the pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong on the Orwellian grounds that they are “anti-democratic”. An article in Forbes magazine warns of an Orwellian future in which driverless cars catch on and computer hackers track “rich people in traffic and sell this information to fleets of criminal motorcyclists”. A story in the Wall Street Journal reports the Supreme Court judge Sonia Sotomayor warning that unmanned drones will create an Orwellian future. In a piece in Politico, Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale, advises, “To understand Putin, read Orwell.” By Orwell, he means “1984”: “The structure and the wisdom of the book are guides, often frighteningly precise ones, to current events.” This is just the top end of the range. Barely a minute goes by when Orwell isn’t namechecked on Twitter. Only two other novelists have inspired adjectives so closely associated in the public mind with the circumstances they set out to attack: Dickens and Kafka. And they haven’t set the terms of reference in the way Orwell has. One cartoon depicts a couple, with halos over their heads, standing on a heavenly cloud as they watch a man with a halo walk towards them. “Here comes Orwell again. Get ready for more of his ‘I told you so’.” A satirical website, the Daily Mash, has the headline “Everything ‘Orwellian’, say idiots”, below which an office worker defines the word as “people monitoring everything you do, like when my girlfriend called me six times while I was in the pub with my mates. That was totally Orwellian.”