In 1939, a man planted roses: Rebecca Solnit’s ‘Orwell’s Roses’

I retreated for Memorial Day, packing enough food, clothing, and books to last an extended six-day weekend – just me and my thoughts surrounded by lots of allergy-triggering nature. At least that’s how my retreats used to be, until the 21st Century reached my little bit of Nirvana. The three hermitages have all the mod cons, like kitchens and bathrooms, it’s just they had no wifi until this last visit, when the siren call of my notifications going off DING! DING! sucked me in like the techno-whore I am.

I suck at retreats. My attention span is shorter than a sugared-up toddler’s. No, I didn’t turn off ALL my notifications, just some of them. And, yes, I may have doom scrolled Twitter a couple dozen times, but I also posted pics of the books I brought with me. So that’s kind of legit?

Along with pepperoni bagel bites and a couple dozen oatmeal-raisin cookies, of course I brought books, how dare you suggest otherwise. I also brought my journal, and while during all past retreats I droned on about romantic disappointments until my hand cramped and my tears made the ink run (FALSE! I’m not a crier, fuck those guys), I wasn’t mourning either the misery or end of a relationship this time.

Christ, that’s progress!

I’ve been mostly off writing for a couple years. I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I decided to formally give myself permission to stop writing. Isn’t that revolutionary and clever? I had never suffered writer’s block before, not ever, and how I loved to gloat about it. Somehow, the effects of the pandemic, coupled with a few hundred pages of scribbled bitching to and about myself, culminated in a complete inability to write a damn thing.

Before you say “hey, scribbled bitching is writing!” I’ll cut you off with “no, it doesn’t qualify.” I’ve told many a struggling writer if they’re stuck they should just write about that experience, because at least it’s something. I was lying; that stuff is absolute shit and you should burn it. Read something! Take a walk!

Nobody likes a complainer.

I never follow through with anything I resolve to do, as a result of examining my shortcomings. Do you know how hot I’d be if I did, and how admired as an intellectual gift to mankind? Those journals could have been cathartic, were I not lazy as hell. I am a squanderer of god-given gifts. It’s what I do. It’s what most people do. So why keep harping on myself about it? I gave myself permission to toss expectations aside – and over the weekend I wrote 115 pages of not-whining.

Why? Because I didn’t have to!

A lot of those words resembled the heavy lifting of book reviewing for publication. It’s a stupid amount of work, and when I’m doing it for a byline I bitch about it. Strangely, when it’s not something I have to do, it’s pure pleasure. You’re right, that doesn’t make sense. But talk to anyone who’s reviewed professionally, who’s written anything professionally, and they’ll say the same. I know because we talk on Twitter, we publicly complain about how people send us free books and then – brace yourselves – they publish what comes out of us because they respect our opinions!

I know! It’s insane we deal with that shit.

Orwell’s Roses wasn’t a review copy, but a Christmas present I gave myself – which is why I spent so much thoughtful time with it. Not quite a bio or work of literary criticism, it’s a little bit of lots of things. George Orwell does loom large, as do roses (go figure) – not just his roses, but roses in general: their symbolism, rose metaphors that have become part of our culture, and the big, brutal business of growing them. I’ll never look at these flowers again without thinking of workers driven slavishly to get them harvested, trimmed, boxed, and flown in dedicated jets with the capacity to refrigerate tons of cargo. Most roses come from Colombia. What you know about Colombia’s track record with expensive crops extends to roses – a bit less murder-y, but roses are a commodity valued over the quality of replaceable human lives.

What ties roses to Orwell? For decades, Rebecca Solnit carried around one dormant seed of knowledge: in 1939, George Orwell planted roses at the cottage he lived in for much of his life, in the village of Wallington in England. Along with a drive to right the wrongs of social injustice, from the Spanish Civil War’s battle against facism to the nighmarish lives of coal miners in England, Orwell loved horticulture. Growing mostly vegetables to sell in the little shop attached to the cottage, in his garden were also flowers and fruit trees. The trees are rotting stumps now, and the roses growing abundantly probably aren’t the ones he planted, but knowing how he prized what he grew stuck in Solnit’s head. Wading through the hundreds of pages of his daily journals, she was intrigued enough to travel halfway around the world to research and write a tremendously informative and fascinating book.

I have to tell you about a word she used that I think is pretty cool: saeculum. She used it to describe the feeling of looking at the roses in Orwell’s garden, and it means time from the moment something happened until the point all the people who’d lived in that moment have died. If you’re into the whole research thing, saeculum evokes a giddy feeling of connectivity with the past. While most people alive when Orwell planted his roses are probably gone, the direct links from herself to the iconic writer felt not so long ago when she was standing in his garden.

Maybe it’s not common, but I’d like to think this level of appreciation for history runs through others. I’ve felt it so many times, both in conjunction with being in the spaces writers used to inhabit and also staring up at the giant sequoias, imagining all the historical events that happened during their existence.

One of the most memorable times I’ve felt this pleasant sensation of discombobulation was in Virginia Woolf’s “Monk’s House,” the last place she lived before walking into the River Ouse (pronounced “Ooze,” which is glorious), committing suicide. I’d made a gift of a note from Virginia’s husband, Leonard Woolf, to a used-to-be friend years ago. Though a Woolf-lover myself, I gave it away as some sort of love token, much as it now annoys me to say. Tucked in a volume of her essays, it was written on stationery printed with the Monk’s House address. The content wasn’t exceptional. It was a response to a reader inquiring as to where she could find a specific piece of his late-wife’s writing. What was incredibly exciting was the purple ink he used – Virginia Woolf’s trademark color.

But it goes further: visiting Monk’s House together, we stopped dead in front of Leonard Woolf’s writing desk – an original piece of furniture in the house. On the desktop was the same stationery as the note, alongside his pens and ink. Leonard Woolf had composed that note at this desk. While you’d think this would have been a perfect moment of romantic connection, five minutes later the man was telling me to get the hell out of his way, because he was taking video of the tour after being expressly told this was forbidden. The bastard literally poked me in the back to make me move.

Like the relationship, the good feeling was short-lived.

Orwell’s Roses alternates between the story of the man’s love of his garden, his short but impressive career, and the interconnectivity between his work and the research it required. And speaking of research, a hell of a lot went into the writing of Solnit’s book. Whenever I wish I’d have become a journalist, it occurs to me the work involved would be utterly exhausting. Younger me wouldn’t have been so daunted. Middle-aged me thinks dear lord, I would never go to Colombia for any amount of money. Wallington, England, sure! Rose farms surrounded by men carrying automatic weapons, not so much. Not that there aren’t automatic weapons a-plenty here, as well, but we try to keep those confined to places I never go – like churches and schools and shopping malls.

Rebecca Solnit wondered at the content of the daily journals Orwell kept, diaries obviously not meant to leave a literary mark. Unlike HD Thoreau, who, Solnit noted, never wrote about just beans without a larger purpose, Orwell did exactly that. Good to know, so I can avoid them. If there’s anything more dull than reading journals about my imperfections, it’s reading about George Orwell’s disappointing turnip harvest.

I’d heartily recommend Orwell’s Roses for an impressive depth of scholarship that’s anything but dry, one skilled journalist’s take on an array of topics she managed to bring together so smoothly I hate her guts for it. I am sick with envy; I may never recover. That’s how I know a book’s pretty damn great.

Thank the gods this is over. Now I can go back to not writing another hundred pages of thoughts on books I’ve read and all the writers I hate. And I’m not proofing this, because I’m a lazy ne’er-do-well. Maybe I’ll look at it tomorrow, so I can agonize over the mistakes.

Whatever.

Le fin.

How I single-handedly destroyed book reviewing. Or not.


Bluestalking has served as a portfolio of sorts, initially the humble offering stretched out to publicists when begging review copies, before I had actual publishing credentials. I needed proof I had a platform, and readers who dropped by to listen to me yammer about books, so other publishers would give me more books.

Circle of life.

That’s how early bloggers leveraged their experience to branch out and write for other venues. There weren’t that many of us back in 2006, not like today, when countless cool kids are vlogging and podcasting and going all Facebook live. We reviewed the old fashioned way, in actual typewritten prose. And we liked it.

Instagram? YouTube? Try Blogspot and Blogger — Typepad if you could afford the subscription, then WordPress, once you figured out how to migrate your posts and navigate their platform.


At present, the only book-review videocast that’s widely available is the Washington Post’s The Totally Hip Video Book Review featuring Ron Charles. Charles, the regular fiction critic of Post, writes sincere, uninspiring reviews. The success of the videocast is Charles’s ability to laugh at himself. The episodes are, of course, totally unhip but charming nonetheless.

– Sarah Fay, “Could the Internet Save Book Reviews?”, The Atlantic, May 7, 2012


Get off my damn lawn, lousy millennials. You and your fancily composed tableaux of books, coffee with pretty designs carved in the foam – how do you even have the time? We downloaded cover photos from Amazon.

Guess what? We liked that, too

There used to be websites tracking book blogger rankings. If you dropped your guard your nemesis would sideswipe you, sending you skidding into the tires like an even nerdier version of Mario Kart. Amazon was brand new and already becoming a review site superpower, bloggers an extension of their reach. We became the first top Amazon reviewers just by showing up. Try accomplishing that now.

Try it, punk.


the prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job. It not only involves praising trash–though it does involve that, as I will show in a moment–but constantly INVENTING reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever. The reviewer, jaded though he may be, is professionally interested in books, and out of the thousands that appear annually, there 
are probably fifty or a hundred that he would enjoy writing about. If he is a top-notcher in his profession he may get hold of ten or twenty of them: more probably he gets hold of two or three. The rest of his work, however conscientious he may be in praising or damning, is in essence humbug. He is pouring his immortal spirit down the drain, half a pint at a time.

– George Orwell, Confessions of a Book Reviewer”



Upstarts like me were yelled at by literary critics of stature, academics bloviating about the ways we were ruining everything, taking their jobs by undercutting them. We weren’t specialized, had no idea what we were talking about. We were not professionals.

It’s funny to me now just how much that pissed me off at the time. Sitting in my living room in 2019, I’m frankly flattered they even noticed. It’s like getting a no thanks note from The New York Times. Usually they just ignore you; embrace the rejection.


– Dorothy Parker, book critic, The New Yorker

John Sutherland lead the crusade, positively apoplectic the great unwashed civilian book reviewers put ourselves out there — worse, that readers were responding. After one particularly insulting article I sniped back at him, though I wasn’t his primary target. On behalf of those without specific educational credentials, I felt personally affronted by his elitism. The purpose of reviews is to sell books, I told him. If you don’t sell the books, no one reads them. If no one reads them, his job was rendered moot.

As for reviewers on Amazon, why did you need a doctorate to have an opinion? He engaged me briefly, then crawled back inside his ivory tower.

It was awesome.


Nothing stands still on the web. There is emerging, on Amazon, a corps of regular ‘reviewers’, so called, trusted to kick up dust and move books. Dinahbitching is becoming institutionalised.

Why do the web-reviewers allow themselves to be recruited as unpaid hacks? Partly for freebies. But more because they enjoy shooting off their mouths. And they enjoy the power.

– the Guardian, 19 November 2006, “John Sutherland is SHOCKED by the state of book reviewing on the web”


“THE POWER!” We were mad with it: a vast conspiracy, one small step below the moon landing.

Knowing how it panned out, I can look back with a lot more empathy. His huffing and puffing appeared reactionary, half annoying and half amusing, but turns out the dude wasn’t wearing an aluminum foil hat. His fears were not misplaced.

Overall, the market for writing about books and literature has atrophied almost to distinction, comparatively speaking. Most national papers have cut books sections, those that remain no longer plump and healthy. A large percentage of literary journals have either gone belly up or migrated exclusively online, printing costs skyrocketing past the point of affordability.

It pains me to admit John Sutherland had a point.

Writing in the literary field is not a viable career path; it’s been decimated. If you’re still undeterred, you better be prepared to violently elbow other writers in the ribs and push some prams in front of speeding busses. Respect to the strugglers, but this is why I’m not quitting my day job.

Fair warning: I’d still keep an eye on that pram, not gonna lie.

The internet opened up writing and reviewing to the masses, and when publishing professionals saw that they swooped in. Given a choice between paying an exorbitant wage to an established writer or giving away a few books to popular blogger/reviewers, which do you suppose a financially-strapped publisher would choose?



Word of mouth isn’t so easily separable from book reviews. What is a good review from Michiko Kakutani but a recommendation directly from a reader to hundreds of thousands of her closest non-friends? As with word of mouth, it’s tough to measure the impact of a glowing review on sales numbers. Still, one study showed that reviews do influence libraries’ purchasing choices. Another suggested that New York Times reviews swayed sales. In 2010, GoodReads pulled charts showing massive spikes in certain books’ activity after the books were reviewed or recommended on major platforms.

-Claire Fallon, Book Critics Don’t Exist to Flatter Your Taste” HuffPo, Nov. 25, 2015

Once through the door, a lot of talented people took advantage of the opportunity and carried it further. That’s called opportunity, and it’s no bad thing.

Are book bloggers responsible for the partial collapse of formal criticism? I still say no: the two markets are very distinct. Everything we’re seeing was inevitable following the explosion of the internet. It would have happened without us.



New York Times chief book critic Michiko Kakutani steps down to write a book about Donald Trump


The arts aren’t immune to rules of supply and demand. When the walls came down, canny writers with drive were able to break into the old boys’ club, throwing their legs over a few wingbacks and grabbing handfuls of Cubans. But maybe this lot of mostly old, white men had grown too complacent. Maybe writing about literature needed an injection of fresh blood.

Shaking things up every few hundred years is no bad thing. A little scary, granted, but necessary for growth.

Blogging opened a lot of doors I’d never have found on my own. I’m still not published in Harper’s, but it’s paid off far beyond the time I’ve invested. There’s more I could be doing, but work-life-avocation balance is a consideration. And I’m not quite dead yet. I nominate myself as one of the top thousand-ish writers to watch under 60.

DON’T BLINK.

I appreciate the opportunity afforded to writers by the grace of the internet. It’s not all good or fair, but was it before? It’s a damn sight more accessible, this I know. It’s also dynamic, still in transition. When I revisit this in another 15 years, who knows?

The exciting part is it’s completely unpredictable; it will never, ever grow stale. As long as there are markets I can barge into, and ribs to elbow, I’m happy taking the good right along with the bad.