Why Amazon Was Right to Explain Who George Orwell Is

In Discussion by Roger Tagholm

A brief defense of that irksome phrase in Amazon’s Reader’s United letter, the part where they refer to “the famous author George Orwell.”

By Roger Tagholm

George Orwell, as if you didn't know already.

George Orwell, as if you didn’t know already.

Here goes then. Deep breath. A little defense of that phrase in Amazon’s Reader’s United letter, the part where they refer to “the famous author George Orwell.”  I know, I know – you’re wincing all over again when you read this. You’re not alone. Here’s a typical – and admittedly, funny – response in the Guardian.

“A letter from the Amazon books team to its Kindle readers quotes ‘the famous author George Orwell’, which is such a dispiriting phrase that I have since had to lie in a darkened room. I can’t decide what’s worse: the bit where a book retailer feels the need to tell readers that Orwell was an author or the part where – out of the many adjectives one could use – it lights upon ‘famous’ as the best.”

One’s first reaction is to agree with this. Surely everyone has heard of George Orwell. Good God! Fume, fume! Four legs good, two legs bad. Doublespeak. Kill the pig, cut his throat! (No, wait, that’s Lord of the Flies.)

Hmm. Let’s think about this. A lot of authors have come along since Orwell’s day. A lot of other writers are mentioned in English lessons at schools. The UK is multicultural now; there are many other issues to be discussed in addition to (instead of?) the ones in Orwell’s most famous (there it is again!) books. So never mind whether people should have heard of Orwell – that’s a different point altogether – the question is simply, have they?

And here it is very, very easy to sound elitist, to make all kinds of assumptions. If you were to ask teenagers, or even older folk, in the UK or the US, “Who wrote Animal Farm?” would all of them know? If you were to ask a teenager in the UK the book that gave the impetus to the names for the two TV series Big Brother and Room 101, would they necessarily know? And what about those living in other countries, raised in other cultures?

Amazon was simply covering itself, even if in doing so it made so many book commentators despair. One assumes it had a wide, global audience in mind. In short, whether you like it or not, it is conceivable that there are some readers who have not heard of George Orwell, even if they are familiar with some of the ideas – Big Brother, the overbearing state – which he popularized. One could go on, but the clocks are striking thirteen and it’s time for lunch…

Agree? Disagree? Let us know what you think in the comments.

About the Author

Roger Tagholm


Roger Tagholm is based in London and has been writing about the book industry for more than 20 years. He is the former Deputy Editor of Publishing News and the author of Walking Literary London (New Holland) and Poems NOT on the Underground (Windrush Press).