Why are we ob­sessed with turn­ing dead writ­ers into self-help gu­rus?

Quot­ing lit­er­ary lions is enough in it­self

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CULTURE - By JAKE KER­RIDGE

As Abra­ham Lin­coln once said, 85 per cent of quotes on the In­ter­net are made up. I thought of that sage ob­ser­va­tion the other day when I saw that an eminent pub­lisher had tweeted some wise words of Charles Dick­ens: “the most im­por­tant thing in life is to stop say­ing ‘I wish’ and start say­ing ‘I will.’ Con­sider noth­ing im­pos­si­ble, then treat pos­si­bil­i­ties as prob­a­bil­i­ties.”

If asked to guess the ori­gin of that quo­ta­tion, I would have said that it came from one of the “Fi­nal Thoughts” with which Jerry Springer used to give a spurious moral di­men­sion to his tele­vi­sion pro­gramme. But many peo­ple seem to think Dick­ens wrote it, and it often ap­pears as a meme against a stir­ring back­drop of moun­tains or lakes. One magazine included those words in a round-up of Dick­en­sian wis­dom last week, stat­ing that they ap­pear in David Cop­per­field.

One can’t really say that the quo­ta­tion is too in­sipid for Dick­ens, who was never one to shy away from soppy-bossy hom­i­lies of that sort. But the vo­cab­u­lary and struc­ture of these sen­tences, more redo­lent of some­body born in Cal­i­for­nia circa 1950, are all wrong for a Vic­to­rian writer.

The funny thing is that, al­though we can huff and puff that this is ev­i­dence that we live in a post-lit­er­ary world, peo­ple do seem to think that these “in­spi­ra­tional” quotes do carry more weight if they are as­cribed to an eminent au­thor. Of the dozens of memes float­ing around the In­ter­net that sport this quo­ta­tion, I have spot­ted only one that at­tributes the words, more plau­si­bly, to David Cop­per­field the ma­gi­cian; most peo­ple plump for Dick­ens.

I am broadly in favour of mis­quo­ta­tion. I quote a lot in con­ver­sa­tion (as PG Wode­house may have said, “if it were not for quo­ta­tions, con­ver­sa­tion be­tween gen­tle­men would con­sist of an end­less suc­ces­sion of ‘what-ho’s”) be­cause long ago I re­alised that I am very un­likely ever to come up with an orig­i­nal thought, and not much less likely to ex­press my un­o­rig­i­nal thoughts as pithily as some­body else has done. And to quote a lot is in­evitably to mis­quote and mis­at­tribute: I’m not go­ing to in­ter­rupt my con­ver­sa­tional flow to google whether it was Sa­muel or Stan­ley John­son who came up with the wit­ti­cism I’ve just half-re­mem­bered.

But mis­at­tri­bu­tion mat­ters be­cause to know who said some­thing can af­fect one’s view of it. When Prince Charles made his maiden speech in the House of Lords, he kicked off with the self-dep­re­cat­ing quip, “As Os­car Wilde said, if a thing is worth do­ing, it is worth do­ing badly.”

The writer Frank Muir rang The Times di­ary col­umn to point out that this was ac­tu­ally said by GK Ch­ester­ton, and was mor­ti­fied to find that his cor­rec­tion was promi­nently dis­played on the next day’s front page. (Years later Muir met the Duke of Ed­in­burgh and, re­call­ing the in­ci­dent, ob­served: “I would have thought the blither­ing id­iot who gave Prince Charles the quo­ta­tion would have had the nous to check it first.” Muir al­ways told this story when any­body asked him why he had never been knighted.)

But Muir was not just be­ing pedan­tic. As he wrote in his autobiography, “Ascrib­ing it to Wilde sug­gested it was noth­ing more than a witty bon mot … But com­ing from GK Ch­ester­ton meant it was a more thought­ful ob­ser­va­tion. In Ch­ester­ton’s work his hu­mour arose from a se­ri­ous thought, as an oys­ter was prompted into ac­tion by a gritty grain of sand. What Ch­ester­ton was say­ing (in a piece about play­ing cro­quet) was that play­ing a game be­cause you en­joyed play­ing it, per­haps hop­ing to get bet­ter at it in time, is a wor­thy enough rea­son for play­ing it how­ever badly.”

But if there is a great tra­di­tion of mis­at­tribut­ing quo­ta­tions, the In­ter­net has al­lowed it to mu­tate and be­come more vir­u­lent. The cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion of quo­ta­tions is rife. I am very fond of a re­mark by Clive James, which started life in a re­view of one of Alan Ben­nett’s tele- vi­sion plays: “com­mon sense and a sense of hu­mor are the same thing, mov­ing at dif­fer­ent speeds. A sense of hu­mor is just com­mon sense, danc­ing.” Lovely. But re­cently I have seen this shared on so­cial me­dia by lots of Amer­i­cans who, since they have never heard of Clive James, at­tribute it to one of their own sages, Wil­liam James (no re­la­tion).

A sim­i­lar sur­name mix-up oc­curred when the ac­tress Olivia Wilde told an in­ter­viewer, “I think it’s very healthy to spend time alone. You need to know how to be alone and not be de­fined by another per­son.” In the blink of an eye this be­came a pop­u­lar meme, but with the words lu­di­crously at­trib­uted to Os­car Wilde.

It is hardly news that not ev­ery­thing you read on the In­ter­net can be trusted, but these mis­at­tributed quo­ta­tions are find­ing their way into pub­lished books. Flick­ing through a best-sell­ing beauty man­ual be­long­ing to a fe­male mem­ber of my house­hold, I no­ticed that the cel­e­brated titi­va­tor had cho­sen as her epi­graph a quo­ta­tion sup­pos­edly by Ralph Waldo Emer­son: “Pretty is some­thing you’re born with. But beau­ti­ful, that’s an equal-op­por­tu­nity ad­jec­tive.” It’s nicely ex­pressed, but how tone-deaf do you have to be to think that some­body who died in 1882 wrote that?

This habit of trans­form­ing eminent writ­ers into self-help gu­rus is en­cour­ag­ing in a way. The In­ter­net gen­er­a­tion still val­ues the wis­dom of Dick­ens, Emer­son and Wilde, even though they are dead white males — and even when the wis­dom isn’t ac­tu­ally theirs at all.

But it all seems rather op­posed to the sup­pos­edly demo­cratic spirit of the In­ter­net. If the pretty-beau­ti­ful line had not been as­cribed to a ran­dom au­thor but sim­ply at­trib­uted to “Anon,” we could have re­flected that it might have been said by any­body, per­haps some­one who had suf­fered dis­crim­i­na­tion be­cause of their looks, pos­si­bly even a woman. To en­hance a quo­ta­tion by at­tach­ing the name of a lit­er­ary lion is to im­ply that words are not enough by them­selves. In fact, if some­thing is really worth quot­ing, then it’s just worth quot­ing, whether it was said by Zola or Zoella.


When Prince Charles (left) made his maiden speech in the House of Lords he be­gan with a quip: “As Os­car Wilde said, if a thing is worth do­ing, it is worth do­ing badly.” Un­for­tu­nately Wilde (above) didn’t ac­tu­ally say that. It was GK Ch­ester­ton, which was duly noted on the front page of The Times.

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