Not Everything Is Orwellian — A Case For Better Literary References

It’s time to retire the over-used references to Orwell and Rowling in our political discourse.

In these ‘unprecedented times’ (sick of hearing that phrase, yet?), people cling to popular culture to establish some sense of perspective. What better way is there to understand the world than through the lens of fiction — after all — the truth is often stranger than fiction.

But I must confess to having a bit of a bed-bug about this way of thinking, as I personally feel it’s given rise to lazy ways of thinking. So which books are often cited to draw comparisons between real-world events and works of fiction?

The Harry Potter Series

This has mercifully fallen from the graces of the ‘This event is just like [Fictional book]’ crowd, due to JK Rowling’s controversial comments in recent years.

But for years, you couldn’t swing a stick on Twitter without hitting a heavy-handed reference to the Boy Wizard and his world of Muggles and Wizards. Everybody who saw themselves on the ‘right side of the history’ likened themselves to Dumbledore’s Army, whereas all their adversaries were Death-Eaters.

Even Rowling couldn’t help herself, as she likened Scottish Nationalists to the villainous band of wizards in 2014.

George Orwell’s 1984

“Orwellian” may well be a contender for 2020’s word of the year, given how much it was used to describe every aspect of the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Government lockdowns were frequently likened to something straight out of 1984, and Orwell himself is most likely the most often cited writer in times of political unrest — and his views lend nicely to those on the Left and Right, making him doubly overused.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The usage of The Handmaid’s Tale in popular discourse is especially bothersome for me, as it appears the most faddish.

I read the book back in 2015, as part of my English Literature degree, and I remember thinking the book seemed rather obscure in the grand scheme of things. But along comes the Hulu series, and Gilead is now the dystopian world of choice.

Pro-choice protesters are dressing up as handmaidensgender-critical feminists are calling their opponents ‘handmaidens’ and Extinction Rebellion has even donned the red dresses to take a stand. It’s enough to make me long for the days of 1984 was not supposed to be an instruction manual signs!

Why Are Certain Literary References Overused?

These are only the most obvious examples, I could also cite The Hunger Games, and The Lord Of The Rings as being overused in day-to-day discourse. That’s without even considering media such as Star Wars and Black Mirror.

Why is this case?

I’d imagine the main reason is purely based on brand recognition. The general public would be receptive to a reference to a popular book series/movie franchise than they would be to a citing of Edmund Burke. Ultimately, if you want to make a point, it’s better to go for something with a bit of pop culture cred.

But it’s for precisely this reason that I dislike this trend.

Presenting a Case for More Nuanced Literary References

I would much rather people carry placards with quotes from philosophers and political theorists to make their points. Not only would it be more credible, but it would also open up the public awareness of political ideologies and theories.

‘But the books are so relevant to our current times!’

Why do you think that is? These writers didn’t exist in a bubble when they were crafting their stories. Orwell was thinking of the Soviet Union when he wrote such works as Animal Farm and 1984, and Margaret Atwood — the author of The Handmaid’s Tale– took inspiration from America’s Religious Right, who were gaining traction in the early 1980s.

Reality influences fiction far more frequently than the other way around. It’s time we acknowledge that.

Even if you do feel like citing works of fiction, why not go a little bit more out of the box. Poor Aldous Huxley has been left on the scrap-heap of pop culture, despite Brave New World being just as significant a piece of dystopian fiction as 1984.

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is also massively under-represented in the public discourse, although its focus on book-burning is perfect for an age in which we’re constantly arguing about ‘cancel culture’ and limits to freedom of speech.

Dystopian books by J.G. Ballard, such as High Rise and Cocaine Nights, also go criminally under-cited. The books are heavy in their portrayal of consumerist societies, with Theodore Dalrymple writing, “He [Ballard] is suggesting that, absent a transcendent purpose, material affluence is not sufficient — and may lead to boredom, perversity, and self-destruction.”

My point is, expand your horizons beyond the usual tropes and experiment a little.

Because after the millionth time you call something ‘Orwellian’, it ceases to mean anything particularly significant.

Please note, this was first published on January 15, 2021 at

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