Some satirists more equal than others
WHEN George Orwell published Animal Farm in 1945, he used talking pigs to satirise communism. When schoolboy John Reed read the book, again and again, he hated it.
Reed grew up to be an author and has now wreaked revenge by writing Snowball’s Chance, a satire on modern-day capitalism using the novel he loathes.
The New York author has ignited a fierce literary debate; is it ever right to write a book modelled on a classic, that twists the original message into unrecognisable form?
To the Orwell estate, nothing less than breach of literary copyright is at stake. To Reed, whose book keeps the original characters to transmit a new message, it’s a matter of freedom of speech.
In Snowball’s Chance, the animals live on a farm run on aggressively capitalistic lines, encroaching on their neighbours’ forests, bombing beaver dams and disrupting the flow of water. Beaver extremists react by attacking the farm’s towering twin windmills. The book ends with the farm animals calling for vengeance against all beavers. For beavers read Islamic fundamentalists; for water, oil; for windmills, the Twin Towers.
Reed said the idea of rewriting Orwell came to him while he was watching the horrors of 11 September unfold.
The evil that America had to cope with, he decided, was its own corporate greed and blinkered arrogance in defending its Middle East oil interests. He said of the book: "My intention is to blast Orwell. I’m really doing my best to annihilate him."
Last night, he had mellowed somewhat, claiming: "Sure, it’s an attack on Animal Farm but it’s not an attack on George Orwell. Anyway, I believe there’s some evidence that Orwell would not like the way Animal Farm is being used today. Capitalism seems good to me but I don’t think we have got it and that’s the real point of the book. We are not living up to the American ideals and that’s where I’m reversing Animal Farm."
William Hamilton, a literary executor of the Orwell estate, is not convinced. He wrote to Reed’s publisher, James Sherry, of Roof Books, arguing that Snowball’s Chance "trivialises Orwell’s mid-20th century version of totalitarianism", and that its "clear references to 11 September in the apocalyptic ending can only bring Orwell’s name into disrepute in the US".
Mr Sherry said a 1994 US Supreme Court ruling protects parody as a form of freedom of speech. A federal court in Atlanta echoed this by favouring Alice Randall, whose The Wind Done Gone is a retelling of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind from the slaves’ view.
Reed’s turnaround of Animal Farm found some support among Scottish academics. Randall Stevenson, the deputy head of English Literature at Edinburgh University, said the reaction of the Orwell estate seemed particularly "ungenerous". He added: "Orwell was, in that fable, anti-communist, but elsewhere he was pretty anti-capitalist too. It would be hard to be sure he wouldn’t approve of what is going on."
Professor Willy Maley, a lecturer in English at Glasgow University, was similarly scathing: "The litigiousness of certain literary estates is an interesting factor. It’s control freakery.
"I take the analogy of sampling in music. The whole copyright thing has been turned upside down. I’m all for adaptations, rewritings, even disruptions. I think it’s good to satirise a satire - and I’m sure any satirist would think so too."
Reed’s reading of Animal Farm as a pro-capitalistic text might seem odd, but as a new book makes clear, some US publishers in the late 1940s were equally blind to his meaning. In Rotten Rejections we learn one publisher wrote back to him pointing out that "it is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA". Another turned it down fearing that making the ruling caste pigs would offend the Russians. A third unnamed publisher told Orwell: "Your pigs are far more intelligent than the other animals, and therefore the best qualified to run the farm ... so what was needed was not more communism but more public-spirited pigs."
Born: Eric Arthur Blair in Motihari India, 1903, to parents who worked for the Indian civil service.
Education: Eton, then university of life. Joined Indian Imperial Police in Burma, lived as a tramp before writing Down and Out in Paris and London. Fought for Loyalists in Spanish Civil War.
Best-known works: Animal Farm and 1984 regarded as masterpieces. Three autobiographical and documentary works, six novels and reams of essays.
Lit crit: One of the most influential voices of the previous century. Renowned for political shrewdness, satire and economic use of language.
Inspiration: Dislike of autocratic government. In 1984, wrote: "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - for ever."
Catchphrase: Big Brother is watching you.
Born: New York City, 1970, to bohemian artist types. Played between the Twin Towers as a child.
Education: NYC’s public education system, where he was forced to read Orwell "so many times it was ingrained in me".
Best-known works: Snowball’s Chance - written in a fortnight - is his second novel, after A Still Small Voice. Poetry and short stories.
Lit crit: Reviewers said A Still Small Voice was full of ‘interesting tidbits’ but let down by poorly-developed characters. New York press said Snowball’s Chance "reflects badly not only on Orwell, but on contemporary American culture".
Inspiration: Dislike of Orwell. After watching TV for two days after 11 September, Reed said: "I felt like blaming Orwell for the attacks."
Catchphrase: "Do I have to read Animal Farm again, sir?"
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