Why are we obsessed with turning dead writers into self-help gurus?
Quoting literary lions is enough in itself
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.