Discover more from The Orwell Foundation
The Orwell Prize 2023: Why I Write
Inspired by Orwell's famous essay, we asked the finalists for The Orwell Book Prizes what motivates them.
In his essay ‘Why I Write’, George Orwell famously wrote that writers - or at least prose writers - have four ‘great motivations’ (putting aside the need to earn a living): sheer egoism; aesthetic enthusiasm; historical impulse; and political purpose.
In this final Q&A we asked the finalists for The Orwell Prizes for Political Writing and Political Fiction why they write.
I write for three reasons, all of which are present in Who Cares?. First, I write to make sense of the world – I always have since I was a very small child. Second, I tend to apply that thirst for sense-making to social topics, which is Orwell’s ‘political purpose’ – I want to know why we behave the way we do, and how we might arrange things to foster better versions of that interaction. Third, and always running through everything I write, is Orwell’s aesthetic enthusiasm: writing is a sensual and sensory activity for me, one imbued with rhythm and colour. I have synaesthesia, so I mean this literally – words, phrases and their layering together have music and colourscapes with which I’m always interacting as much as the meaning of the words themselves.
Emily Kenway, author of Who Cares? (Headline)
In general, because it helps pass the time. On The Last Colony in particular, as an act of literary advocacy, to reach a broad enough audience that will cause a government to feel a sense of sufficient shame to contribute to a change of policy.
Phillipe Sands, author of The Last Colony (Orion)
There was certainly historic impulse; nearly 25 years working in and around China left me with a wealth of experience and an insatiable curiosity to dig deeper, and to use that experience. However, my principal purpose was political. I felt strongly that western political leaders, as well as businesses and academics, had got China wrong. There was for a long time a consensus that China’s rise was benign, that we would all benefit as China grew wealthier, more liberal and a responsible part of the international community. I wanted to challenge that consensus, and demonstrate the reality is of a Chinese communist party increasingly repressive at home, where it has built the world’s first surveillance state, and paranoid and aggressive internationally, but also with multiple vulnerabilities around which to construct a ‘smart’ policy of pushing back.
Ian Williams, author of The Fire of the Dragon (Birlinn)
Honestly, I write for survival and catharsis. Much of my writing feels very urgent to me. If I could not write about the subjects that were troubling me, I think I would struggle to think coherently. My writing is a restorative act and I hope it serves as a gift to others. I also write for political purpose. Audre Lorde once wrote that “your silence will not protect you” and it is a message that I hold dear. My parents’ and grandparents’ generation were taught to suppress their experiences of racism and oppression. If you did not talk about them, perhaps you could conform and assimilate more easily. Of course, this is simply not the case – particularly if you look at the events surrounding the Windrush scandal. I refuse to be silent; I am loud and vibrant. I take up space and I stand my ground.
Annabel Sowemimo, author of Divided (Wellcome Collection)
I write because I am such an inveterate reader, I think. I am always coming across things I did not know about before and falling in love with them—and then staying up all night learning about them, wanting to make something from that love. Writing is a sort of morning-after, when that first rush of fascination becomes mixed with wonder and a dawning sense of possibility—and sometimes even rage on behalf of that love. For example, I have just started learning about the murex, which is a type of sea snail, and a law called The Duty of the Shipmaster to Render Assistance at Sea. I expect to spend many late nights with this spiny sea snail and international maritime law before it is the kind of morning when I can write something new.
Selby Wynn Schwartz, author of After Sappho (Galley Beggar)
Three of these four. As a profound introvert who’d rather avoid the limelight, my ego stays out of it.
Barbara Kingsolver, author of Demon Copperhead (Faber)
I write, first of all, because I’m usually unhappy and ill at ease when I’m not writing. Orwell was certainly onto something with his ‘sheer egoism’, I think. Even the most overtly ‘political’ writing (for me, at least) has a basis in introversion and self-examination. I write in order to understand myself, to try to explain the person I have become after sixty years on this planet. So the theme of my writing is the same as everybody else’s – identity – but in the last few years (especially since 2016) this has come to involve an emphasis on national identity, with which my novels are increasingly preoccupied. I feel, and have always felt, both English and European, and have never seen any contradiction between those two things; but it feels to me that a contradiction – a false contradiction – was imposed in 2016, and to examine both the origins and the consequences of this in my fiction has begun to feel like a matter of urgency.
Jonathan Coe, author of Bournville (Viking)
My writing is underpinned by a sense of moral and public service duty. I want to provide people with thorough, balanced information to help them engage with some of the thorniest of subjects. Society can sometimes stay silent not because of a lack of care, but because of a lack of knowledge and fear of saying the wrong thing. My job is to provide the evidence, not to tell people what to think. In order to learn from the past there must be a thorough, lasting record of what has worked well, and what has gone wrong – even when this may be upsetting or difficult to read. Without open and honest conversation, we cannot move forward.
Hannah Barnes, author of Time to Think (Swift Press)
Like most writers, I write out of compulsion, because no matter how frustrating or depressing writing can be, it is always better than the frustration and depressiveness of not writing. The compulsion is private, intimate, but demands an audience. What it feels like for me is that I have something I want to show people. That something – a story, or more truly, the notion of a story – has been mysteriously confided to me, and I am going to spend some years working out exactly what it is, how to articulate it, how to give it over entire. In attempting to fulfil this task, I think I also write out of a sort of competitiveness, or perhaps only in a spirit of wishful emulation. I read great writing and strain for the same effects.
Tom Crewe, author of The New Life (Vintage)
Orwell was right: these motivations are familiar to me! And - I suspect - to the other non-fiction authors on this year's shortlist. The chief reason I write is political purpose. There is a moral clarity about the war in Ukraine, lacking from previous conflicts this century. Russia's invasion is a breathtaking attempt by one state to devour another. Vladimir Putin spuriously claims that Ukraine was never a country, a nation or a people; he says its lands belong to Russia. In areas now occupied by Russian troops Ukrainian books are burned, the Ukrainian language banned, and children are abducted for "re-education". The Kremlin seeks to "de-Ukrainise" Ukraine and to remove it from the map. This is fascism, reminiscent of the worst aspects of the 1930s and 1940s. Orwell would surely have recognised similarities between our current dark era and his own. A personality cult in Moscow, propaganda, the militarisation of society, cabbalistic Z-symbols ... Putin's invasion has a chilling back-to-the-future flavour. Orwell hated totalitarianism. It hasn't gone away.
Luke Harding, author of Invasion (Faber)
On a bad day, I ask myself the same question. In better moods, I might say that I write to increase empathy and understanding. I have a background in social anthropology. This may be more of a curse than a blessing, but I think one positive is that it sharpens you to the power and persistence of your own worldview. We humans spend so much time blinded by our own upbringings. Our beliefs calcify into a lens on the world that doesn’t easily shift – ever more so in this age of social media echo chambers. I find it healthy to rub shoulders with people from different backgrounds. It reminds me of the absurdity of ever thinking there’s one answer to a question. It trains my empathy muscles. I write in the vague hope that others might find in reading a similar benefit.
John McManus, author of Inside Qatar (Icon Books)
I first got into writing at university because of my work with the student union’s anti-racism committee. I had grown up in a suburb in southeast London where the British National Party was very active in the 1990s. I was made to feel aware of my race from a young age. I had no choice about it. Writing became a way of working through the injustices I saw, and processing questions of identity and belonging. My last three books have all attempted to understand inequality and how the ideologies of oppression are kept alive – including by scientists, academics, and intellectuals. It sounds like I'm driven purely by political purpose, but there is also ego. The first person I write for is myself. I want to make sense of the world.
Angela Saini, author of The Patriarchs (4th Estate)
All of those are accurate in some way but I would say that egoism is the very least of them. I write out of a desire to record and examine, to fill in gaps in the culture that need filling, but mainly I write out of the joy and sheer necessity of it. I simply have to do it in order to be a properly functioning human being. The world feels much more habitable when I’m deeply engaged in the act of writing – otherwise it’s alienating to me. Writing is where I live my best life, but often it requires a stripping away or even banishment of the ego.
Diana Evans, author of A House for Alice (Vintage)
I wrote this book because I was aware that many people did not know the full story of the Grenfell Tower fire, and there was nowhere else they could easily find it.
Peter Apps, author of Show Me The Bodies (Oneworld)
I don’t know why I write, probably egotism comes closest to it, the selfishness of the individual voice. I wouldn’t do well in a TV writers’ room. But it follows on from reading. Once I began on that enterprise I found books to be miraculous vessels of human life, the novel a form of magic, conjuring something from nothing. Words can become anything you like. I wanted to write a book because I read books and the art of telling a good story was highly prized in my family. We came from somewhere else, we were going into the future. Stories were what you hung your hat on. They were what you were formed from. ‘Tell the authorities what they want to hear’ was one of our mottos, and ‘There’s only one thing worse than being skint it’s looking like your skint.’
Linda Grant, author of The Story of the Forest (Virago)
The winners of The Orwell Prize 2023 will be announced at the awards ceremony in Central London on Thursday 22nd June. Read an extract from all of this year’s shortlisted books via Exact Editions.