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Turn the Pages to 1984
Published on Tuesday, May 2, 2006 by the Boston Globe
Turn the Pages to 1984
by H.D.S. Greenway

It is becoming increasingly depressing to reread ''1984," George Orwell's prophetic, mid-20th-century novel about what life might be like in a future where the state listens in on every conversation, in a world where prisoners had ''simply disappeared," and in which Britain and the Americas are in a state of perpetual warfare with either ''Eastasia" or ''Eurasia." Orwell didn't think of calling it ''the long war," as the Pentagon now likes to call the ''war against terror," which by definition is a war that can never end.

Orwell did, however, write of ''Newspeak," an abbreviated language that would replace ''Oldspeak," or standard English. In Orwell's world, English socialism is '' Ingsoc." Individualism becomes ''ownlife." Today one reads of ''Tirannt," the Pentagon abbreviation for ''theater Iran near term," which itself is an Orwellian term for planning a full-scale war with Iran in the near future.

Today we are warring in Eurasia, but when you hear of some of the military plans to contain China you wonder if Eastasia is to be our next enemy. That will be up to ''The Decider," of course, a title that must make Orwell turn in his grave wishing he had thought of it.

It wasn't just politics that Orwell satirized, however. It was the debasing of arts and letters that also worried Orwell. His fictional ''Ministry of Truth" dealt with all things concerning ''news, entertainment, education, and the fine arts." In our day market, forces are working hard to consolidate what Orwell's imagined state achieved.

Think of Julia, for example. Orwell's character is introduced to us as someone who ''worked in the Fiction Department." Presumably, since she had oily hands and sometimes carried a wrench, ''she had some mechanical job on one of the novel-writing machines." These fiction-writing machines are described later in the novel when Julia appears with her arm in a sling. ''Probably, she had crushed her hand while swinging round one of the big kaleidoscopes on which the plots of novels were 'roughed in,' " Orwell writes. ''It was a common accident in the Fiction Department."

One's thoughts turn to Kaavya Viswanathan, the Harvard sophomore caught in an act of plagiarism whose literary career appears to have been as artificially manufactured as anything that Orwell ever imagined. She first made news because, at age 17 with no writing experience, she was given a $500,000 advance for two novels that she would presumably write.

But then she had ''Alloy," the book packager. Alloy's president, Leslie Morgenstein, is quoted as saying that her company ''helped Kaavya conceptualize and plot the book." For this service Alloy shares the copyright with Viswanathan, and a healthy share of any profits their book might make.

I had not heard of book packagers before, but apparently these literary factories have removed the need for authors to pace the floors of their garrets trying to think up plot lines. Alloy will provide the big kaleidoscope to rough in the story line.

I read that Alloy produces some 40 titillating titles for teens a year, including the well-selling ''Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants." In Orwell's Fiction Department, Julia is picked out to work in ''Pornsec," the subsection tasked with producing books ''with titles like 'Spanking Stories,' or 'One Night in a Girls' School' " for teenagers. ''Oh, ghastly rubbish," Julia says of them. ''They're boring, really. They only have six plots, but they swap them round a bit. Of course I was only on the kaleidoscopes. I was never in the Rewrite squad."

I haven't read Viswanathan's ''How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life," so I cannot judge how it might compare with ''One Night in a Girls' School." But there appears to have been a little too much swapping around with a book with another Fiction Department-like title, ''Sloppy Firsts," and now her publisher has withdrawn tens of thousands of volumes from bookstores. Whether the rewrite squad will scrub Opal up and have another go with it has not been revealed.

Orwell foresaw the recall process, too. ''Books were recalled and rewritten again and again, and were invariably reissued without any admission that any alteration had been made."

Consider the cynicism of Viswanathan's publishers and packagers. We will take a teen, they said. Immigrants' stories are hot in publishing, and the Asian-American experience sells big-time. It is interesting that Alloy, first called 17th Street Productions, chose to change its name to a word that can mean to debase gold or silver with inferior metals.

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.

© 2006 The Boston Globe


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