“I like praising things, when there is anything to praise, and I would like here to write a few lines — they have to be retrospective, unfortunately — in praise of the Woolworth’s Rose.
“In the good days when nothing in Woolworth’s cost over sixpence, one of their best lines was their rose bushes. They were always very young plants, but they came into bloom in their second year, and I don’t think I ever had one die on me. Their chief interest was that they were never, or very seldom, what they claimed to be on their labels. One that I bought for a Dorothy Perkins turned out to be a beautiful little white rose with a yellow heart, one of the finest ramblers I have ever seen. A polyantha rose labelled yellow turned out to be deep red. Another, bought for an Albertine, was like an Albertine, but more double, and gave astonishing masses of blossom. These roses had all the interest of a surprise packet, and there was always the chance that you might happen upon a new variety which you would have the right to name John Smithii or something of that kind.”
George Orwell wrote those words early in 1944, in the eighth of his “As I Please” Tribune columns. I thought of the passage this weekend. Becky had suggested I not get underfoot at her all-women tea party, and so I left and wandered around Sonoma County for an afternoon, stopping in a big-box hardware store garden center for a few moments. The piles of badly-labeled hybrid tea roses brought Orwell’s words to mind. An example of the bad labeling: one rose bore a wrapper boldly marked “rhubarb.”
There is a particular joy to be found in the large, anonymous garden centers that sell hundreds of thousands of sick plants at uninspiring prices. Those stores offer inadvertent treasures, the rank Vietnamese coriander left in the pot still for sale after the help clumsily “weeded” out the marigold, the rare Mexican agave blithely tossed into a display of succulents, $2.99 for all four-inch pots. The Calibanus hookeri on the back porch? Home Despot sold them in display pots for approximately the price of the same pot elsewhere on the shelves. A little knowledge and an occasional stroll through a big-box store and you can find a gem now and then among the useless things.
Which is, oddly, how I first came across the Orwell quote: I read it four years ago embedded in a Salon essay by Eric Weinberger, who from what I can gather teaches an expository writing course on Orwell at Harvard. Weinberger uses the passage early on in the essay, prefacing it only with this:
At the George Orwell centenary conference at Wellesley College in May, I began a short talk by quoting perhaps the most boring piece of writing by Orwell that I know:
He goes on, in a discussion of trivial blog entries for which Orwell’s roses serve as a symbol, to stress that this is not just a personally held opinion, but something approaching objective fact:
The blogger assumes his every spittle is of the greatest import, for why else share the daily meanderings of his mind? In fairness it is a question we should ask Orwell. Does the blogger’s rose-buying adventure, even if it is George Orwell doing the buying and beforehand the sniffing, merit our attention? The excerpt above ends with an anecdote about two roses Orwell planted in 1936 that cost him sixpence; now it is “a huge vigorous,” and beautiful, bush: all for the price of ten cigarettes, or a pint and a half at the pub, or a week’s subscription to the Daily Mail: one of Orwell’s little lists. Are we so desperate for Orwell trivia and “sweepings,” as E.M. Forster put it, in the same way we are for Shakespeare’s or — the other iconic mid-century writer — Hemingway’s?
Weinberger is entitled to his opinion, of course. I will not generalize from this one example of Weinberger’s universalizing his uninterest to make my own generalizations about Eastern Academics. I count among my friends at least one Eastern Academic who wouldn’t know a silver maple if it came crashing down in his backyard. Despite this glaring flaw, he is otherwise an exemplary person.
Trying to determine whether something is — as Weinberger claims of Orwell’s roses — objectively boring is like trying to determine whether it’s objectively offensive. The quest is a fool’s errand, indulged in by the jejune, the naïve. Offense is by its very definition a subjective experience, as is boredom.
Both offense and boredom are informed by knowledge. An offensive thing may become less so with more knowledge on the part of the offended — the word “niggardly” comes to mind — or more so, as in the case of the “Digger pine.” It may well be that the things I know allow me to enjoy Orwell’s roses anecdote more than Weinberger did. There are the commonalities between WWII-era Woolworths in the UK and 21st Century drugstore roses in the US. There’s the astonishing subtext concerning the prevalence of amateur horticulture in Britain during the war. 1944 in London and people were still planting roses! Each rose meant several square feet of prime Victory Garden space not producing food, as if ther planters were Mohammed’s advice: “bread feeds the body, but flowers feed the soul.” There is recognizing 1944’s place in the history of rose growing, late enough that four generations of gardeners had planted out hybrid teas, (with their current insipid scentlessness not yet bred for) but before the postwar development of the staggeringly popular Peace rose. Before the Peace rose, rose-growing was a horticultural hobby indulged in by fanciers, not unlike today’s cactus and succulent people. After the Peace rose, a garden without roses was a bit of an anomaly.
And at the heart of my reading of that most boring of all Orwell’s writing there is the bond of shared experience, the commonality with Orwell, the knowledge that one morning Orwell’s real-world counterpart Eric Blair walked into his garden and saw white flowers opening where he had expected vivid magenta. That shock of unexpected beauty is the root of all my interest in the garden.
I will admit that I am a fanatic, and my interest in quite a number of things verges on the eccentric. But in this field I have company. A recent market research survey by the National Gardening Association found that a third of American households actively maintain flower gardens. Were this passage by Orwell put to a popular vote along with, say, his descriptions of political infighting in Spain, or his poverty-stricken hangover dishwashing in Paris, I suspect few people would find Orwell’s roses to be intrinsically the least interesting topic on which he’d written.
A short and unforgiving summation of the above argument: Weinberger’s ennui is born of ignorance. And it is Weinberger’s ennui, not Orwell’s.
But ennui is also born of excessive familiarity.
Another paragraph in Weinberger’s essay:
Judged as literature — and why shouldn’t it be? — or at the very least belles-lettres, the blog on its own is insufficient unless a prelude to greater things, and in Orwell’s case the better stuff to come, first worked out in some aspect beforehand in “As I Please,” includes the landmark essays “You and the Atom Bomb,” “The Prevention of Literature” and “Politics and the English Language.” (“Looking Back on the Spanish War” is the reverse: the great essay preceding its shallower echoes in “As I Please.”)
When I was playing at respectable journalism back in the heady days of the dotcom boom, there were two basic types of editors I worked with. The first was what you would expect in an editor, or at least I did: widely read, interested in a variety of topics, willing to entertain other people’s points of view, and — most importantly — always looking for stories, or ideas for stories, that would be unique.
The other kind did what we called “chasing the fax machine.” The point of their existence was not to develop the stories no one else had, but to get the stories everyone else was going to have, ideally five minutes ahead of the competition.
You get one guess which kind of editor I am. Working at Earth Island Journal after the dotcom crash, I studiously avoided going for the same stories as the competition, on more than one occasion spiking a story because someone else had run something substantially similar within the last several months. Admittedly, this practice is more common among magazine editors than among radio, TV and daily newspaper editors. Diversity as an editorial strategy is better suited to the sporadic, limited real estate, theoretically more thoughtful medium of the magazine. But EIJ was even more conducive to that strategy than most magazines, because we didn’t have a budget for writers. If you have a budget you can assign stories. If you can assign stories you can chase the fax machine. If your writing is provided to you pro bono, you rely on the passions and interests of the writers for your material. These rarely have anything to do with the flavor of the week.
We did okay at EIJ using this strategy while I was there: we broke half a dozen important stories, some of which went on to later front-page status in the New York Times. And some of them, like the extinction in progress of the entire Sonoran Desert, remain unnoticed by the major media.
Both editorial orientations have their role in journalism. If you’re looking for news on the earthquake that just leveled Japan because your spouse is in Osaka on business, you’re not going to want to read 3,500 words on the history of seismology. But the wide-view editors provide something the fax-chasing editors cannot: context. if all you take in is that fax machine reporting, you wind up possessing a thousand different pieces of information and little sense of the connections between them. Taking a step back, taking the time to think about how an event fits into the world, is crucial to being a truly informed person.
And that’s why I find it ironic that Weinberger holds up that deeply human context, the recounting of the small pleasures in a life of a person widely remembered for abstract political metaphors, as the kind of topic bloggers would do well to avoid. Because the vast majority of political blogs, at least — the category of blogs that Weinberger, like so many others, takes for all blogs everywhere — the vast majority of political blogs are run on the “chasing the fax machine” model, often doing no more than linking to the linker to the linker to the person who linked to the fifteenth iteration of the story, each adding half a sentence of commentary. The total creativity in the whole chain usually consists merely of attempts at snark.
The political blog world is a glorified phone tree, a game of operator, a device unparalleled in history for rapid propagation of facts or untruths, but as a source of good writing? I have my favorite political blogs, and it’s no secret who some of them are. And yet I have to say that of the political blogs I have seen, I find the vast majority relentlessly dull. This is probably a feature, not a bug: it ensures that the Important Issue Du Jour gets put in front of the biggest number of eyeballs. But once one learns of that issue, that new knowledge breeds ennui. The next forty mentions of the issue are about as interesting was… well, you know when you have a four-hour layover and the airport courtesy televisions are all playing the same headline news channel with a four-minute rotation?
The only thing that rescues the blog world from being a bunch of Headline News TV screens is the perspective of the individual blogger. And while there are a few big important phenomena that influence a writer’s perspective — class and race and gender and so forth — the vast majority of the differences in perspective between two people are made up, in the main, of trivia. Ephemera. Bloggers are condemned for writing about what they had for breakfast, but what specific differences of perspective might arise among bloggers whose respective breakfasts consist of Frosted Flakes, mealie meal, congee and menudo?
As for me, I find few things more likely to make me turn off the machine and go outside than the thought of reading one more goddamn person telling me I have to watch the latest Keith Olbermann video clip. I’d rather have the everyday details, thanks, as boring as they may be to Weinberger. And I’m not alone. I can’t be, or Mark Kurlansky wouldn’t be able to make a living writing massive tomes on world history as seen from the perspective of dryer lint. Give me a story about something you actually did, a person you really knew, a place you went to once for half an hour. It is trivia, but so is who got indicted this week.
And when this year’s batch of angry political bloggers is lulled insensate and drowsy by a Democratic victory or the war’s end, and the evil of the world yet rages for the most part unabated, it will be the people who want something more than fax-chased sheep bleats who carry on the fight without them. It helps, you see, to have a world view with more than three things in it. And it helps to plant a rose or two as the bombs fall around you.
[This essay was edited after publication.]