In dismissing Amazon’s Orwell quotation, Laura Miller misinterprets Orwell herself
August 26, 2014 | 9:15 pm
There she goes again.
Salon’s Laura Miller has penned the latest in a series of tirades against Amazon, this one summing up the squabble thus far and taking issue with Amazon’s quotation of Orwell’s discussion of paperbacks in its “Readers United” letter explaining that lower prices were good for everyone.
We’ve already discussed Miller’s biases in some of the links above, but the most interesting thing has to do with her understanding (or lack thereof) of the Orwell quotation. Miller writes:
To top it all off this month, the retailer posted an open letter at the url for something called Readers United. Bitingly sarcastic, the letter indicted the “literary establishment” for resisting Amazon’s efforts to set e-book prices at $9.99, invoking George Orwell as one such defender of the establishment, noting that in a 1936 article Orwell called on publishers to “suppress paperback books.” Oh, Goofus! The Orwell quote Amazon used was promptly revealed to have been taken out of context, and on top of that reminded many observers of an earlier scandal in which Kindle owners who’d bought Orwell’s “1984″ had their copies erased from their devices. Contrary to Amazon’s assertion, Orwell was in fact endorsing paperbacks. His literary executor sent a letter to the New York Times likening Amazon’s letter to the “doublespeak” employed by the totalitarian Ministry of Truth in “1984.”
It wasn’t Orwell but Mark Twain who said “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes,” but it’s a quotation that would be remarkably appropriate in this case. There’s also an element of G.K. Chesterton, who once explained that people are more likely to believe something if it goes against conventional wisdom, even if the conventional wisdom is correct.
You see, if you read the whole quotation (which Miller apparently didn’t), you’d see that Orwell was absolutely dead-set against the new, cheap paperback books that were making as big a splash in his day as e-books are in ours. He thought that the availability of cheap books was going to destroy the publishing industry as people spent less money on books. (Does this sound at all familiar?) Oddly enough, we still do have a publishing industry all these decades later, even though publishers are now just as sure cheap e-books will destroy it as Orwell was then about paperbacks.
But all these people looking for any excuse to bash Amazon are happily grasping at the same sort of straw as those who insist Shakespeare’s “kill all the lawyers” was actually meant as an endorsement of lawyers because it was a villain who wanted to do it. (Spoiler: It wasn’t.) If someone says Orwell actually loved paperbacks, they’ll take their word for it without bothering to do the research themselves.
And it’s also worth remembering that Miller was herself published by Hachette, a fact she didn’t feel was worth mentioning until people complained about it in the comments. The fact that her further reading list only includes commentators who agree with her is just the icing on the cake.
I can’t help thinking Orwell would probably be amused at this turn of events. It shows just how easy it is to mangle someone’s words to make them say whatever you want…and that people, even powerful, well-read journalists, would rather believe what they want to believe than actually bother to do the research.