That’s Not Writing; That’s Just Typing

Truman Capote? Apocryphal?

capote08Dear Quote Investigator: The authors of The Beat Generation were an influential disaffected group whose works jolted the culture of 1950s America. The spontaneous prose technique employed by the central figure Jack Kerouac in the composition of his 1957 novel “On the Road” was acclaimed and disparaged. The most trenchant criticism reportedly was delivered by author Truman Capote:

That’s not writing, that’s typing

Did Capote really say this? What were the circumstances?

Quote Investigator: The phrasing of this censorious expression was variable. Truman Capote used distinct versions in 1957 and 1959. In 1957 he criticized the author Colin Wilson together with other writers whose literary style he deemed deficient. In 1959 he attacked Jack Kerouac and other Beat-Generation authors.

The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in an interview with Capote published in the Spring-Summer 1957 issue of “The Paris Review”. 1 The topic was writing style, and Capote responded by passing judgment on several of his fellow authors; he placed them into disjoint idiosyncratic categories: the stylist, the styleless stylist, and the nonstylist. The last category was censured. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

But yes, there is such an animal as a nonstylist. Only they’re not writers. They’re typists. Sweaty typists blacking up pounds of Bond with formless, eyeless, earless messages.

The instance above differed from the popular modern instances by employing the forms “writers” and “typists” instead of “writing” and “typing’. Capote was criticizing a group of authors, but only one was named during the interview:

Colin Wilson? Another typist.

Great thanks to Terry Teachout who located the above citation and shared it with QI on Twitter.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The next evidence located by QI appeared in January 1959 in the widely-distributed gossip column of Leonard Lyons who discussed a television show hosted by David Susskind. The cutting remark by Capote was spoken during this broadcast: 3

Truman Capote agreed to appear on David Susskind’s “Open End” show, with Norman Mailer — who kept praising the Beat-Generation writers. Capote thought their product worthless. “It’s nothing,” he said. “That’s not writing; that’s just typewriting.”

The exact phrasing employed by Capote during the broadcast has remained uncertain because several different versions of his statement entered circulation during the following days and months. If future researchers unearth a recording or transcript of the television program then the ambiguities will be resolved.

In February 1959 an article by Janet Winn in “The New Republic” noted that Susskind’s talk show panel consisted of Dorothy Parker, Norman Mailer, and Truman Capote. The criticism from Capote was directed at all the Beats, but he did single out Kerouac. Winn presented an alternative phrasing: 4

He commented on the difficulty he had reading the Beat novels. He had tried but he had been unable to finish any one of them. None of these people have anything interesting to say,” he observed, “and none of them can write, not even Mr. Kerouac.” What they do, he added, “isn’t writing at all—it’s typing.”

In 1959 a journal called “The Provincetown Annual” (which was later renamed the “Provincetown Review”) printed an article by Iain Stuart that discussed Kerouac’s 1958 work “The Subterraneans”. The publication month was unclear; hence, the chronological positioning of this citation was not certain. Stuart referred to the remark by Capote, and presented yet another possible phrasing: 5

This novel bears out a recent remark by Truman Capote on the Beat Generation writers, “It is not writing. It simply is not writing. It is, it is only typing.” What more can one say?

In May 1959 “The New York Times” published a review of Kerouac’s book “Dr. Sax: Faust Part Three”, and the reviewer suggested yet another version of the remark: 6

But as Truman Capote once remarked, this isn’t writing, it’s just typing.

In 1962 Avram Davidson who was the executive editor of “The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction” wrote an introduction to a short story by Capote. Davidson presented an instance that was similar to the earliest version from columnist Lyons: 7

. . . his memorable riposte to Norman Mailer—who, in a TV round-table discussion, was vigorously espousing the Don’t-get-it-right-get-it-written-theory—”But, my good man,” protested Mr. T., in a deadly drawl, “that’s not writing—that’s type-writing!”

A volume about feuds between authors titled “The Fine Art of Literary Mayhem” by Myrick Land was released in 1963, and an instance of the remark was included: 8

. . . Truman Capote once commented, when asked his opinion of the work of Jack Kerouac—who never looks back after committing words to paper: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”

When Land’s book was reviewed in “The Washington Post” in 1963 the caustic comment was repeated with the same phrasing: 9

Informed that Beat leader Jack Kerouac never rewrote after putting words to paper, Truman Capote commented, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”

When Jack Kerouac died in 1969 “The New York Times” obituary listed the comment together with a rebuttal remark: 10

Truman Capote called Mr. Kerouac’s method of composition typing, not writing. But Allen Ginsberg, who regarded his friend as the greatest American poet of his time, declared that Mr. Kerouac had created “a spontaneous bop prosody.”

In 2015 the popular and prolific horror writer Stephen King tackled the question “Can a Novelist Be Too Productive?” in the pages of “The New York Times”. While describing the remarkably copious output of some authors he invoked Capote’s words: 11

Certainly no one is going to induct the mystery novelist John Creasey, author of 564 novels under 21 different pseudonyms, into the Literary Hall of Heroes; both he and his creations (the Toff, Inspector Roger West, Sexton Blake, etc.) have largely been forgotten.

The same is true of the British novelist Ursula Bloom (over 500 published works, under many pseudonyms), Barbara Cartland (over 700) and a host of others. One is reminded of Truman Capote’s famous bon mot about Jack Kerouac: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”

In conclusion, in 1957 Truman Capote used the harsh phrase “they’re not writers; they’re typists” while criticizing writers he described as nonstylists. In particular, Capote labeled the author Colin Wilson a typist. In 1959 Capote criticized the Beat Generation writers particularly Jack Kerouac. During a television broadcast he said something similar to “That’s not writing; that’s just typewriting.” However, the variations in early citations left the phrasing indeterminate.

Image Notes: Naval Reserve Enlistment photograph of Jack Kerouac circa 1943 from U.S. National Archives. Typewriter keys from blickpixel at Pixabay. Portrait of Truman Capote; source: Nationaal Archief; author: Eric Koch / Anefo; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Images have been cropped and resized; accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

(Many thanks to Terry Teachout who identified the important 1957 citation. Thanks to George Mannes who pointed to a pertinent correction notice in “The New York Times”. Thanks to Chris Meadows, editor at the TeleRead website, who wrote about and pointed to the interesting article by Stephen King. The presence of the Capote quotation in King’s essay gave impetus to QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Great thanks to the helpful librarian at the duPont-Ball Library of Stetson University for verifying “The Provincetown Annual” citation. Special thanks to Dennis Lien for verifying the 1962 citation. Also, thanks to Todd Mason and the other Wombats discussants.)

Update History: On March 27, 2016 the 1957 citation was added, and the conclusion was updated. On April 21, 2016 an additional citation to the 1957 Paris Review as added. The issue was examined on microfilm, and it was determined that the text on microfilm differed slightly from online text at theparisreview.org. “Bond” appeared on microfilm instead of “bond paper”. “not writers. They’re typists” appeared instead of “not writers; they’re typists”. The microfilm version was used.

Notes:

  1. Spring-Summer 1957, The Paris Review, Number 16, Truman Capote, The Art of Fiction No. 17, Interviewed by Pati Hill, Paris Review, Inc., Flushing, New York. (Online archive of The Paris Review at theparisreview.org; accessed March 27, 2016) link
  2. Spring-Summer 1957, The Paris Review, Number 16, Truman Capote, The Art of Fiction No. 17, Interviewed by Pati Hill, Start Page 35, Quote Page 47, Paris Review, Inc., Flushing, New York. (The online text at theparisreview.org differs slightly from the microfilm text: The word “bond” is capitalized in the microfilm text)(Verified on microfilm)
  3. 1959 January 27, Daily Defender, Lyons Den by Leonard Lyons (The Hall Syndicate), Quote Page 5, Column 1, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  4. 1959 February 9, The New Republic, Capote, Mailer and Miss Parker by Janet Winn, Start Page 27, Quote Page 27, Column 1 and 2, Published by The New Republic, Washington D.C. (Verified on microfilm)
  5. 1959, The Provincetown Annual (later renamed Provincetown Review), Volume 1, Number 2, The Malcontent and the Novel by Iain Stuart, Start Page 5, Quote Page 22, Published originally in Provincetown, Massachusetts, Reprinted by AMS Press, New York. (Text verified visually in reprint; great thanks to Stetson University, duPont-Ball Library)
  6. 1959 May 3, New York Times, Beatnik Bogeyman on the Prowl by David Dempsey, (Book Review of Dr. Sax: Faust Part Three by Jack Kerouac), Quote Page BR28, Column 5, New York. (ProQuest)
  7. 1962 July, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Executive Editor: Avram Davidson, (Introduction written by Avram Davidson to the short story “Master Misery” by Truman Capote), Quote Page 24, Published by Mercury Press, New York. (Verified with a scan; great thanks to Dennis Lien)
  8. 1963, The Fine Art of Literary Mayhem by Myrick Land, Quote Page 6, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York. (Verified with scans)
  9. 1963 January 27, The Washington Post No Holds Barred In Literary Feuds Reviewed by Pat Frank, Quote Page G9, Column 2, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  10. 1969 October 22, New York Times, Jack Kerouac, Novelist, Dead; Father of the Beat Generation by Joseph Lelyveld, Quote Page 47, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest)
  11. 2015 August 27, New York Times, Section: SundayReview, Opinion: Stephen King: Can a Novelist Be Too Productive? by Stephen King, (A version appears in print on August 30, 2015, on page SR1 of the New York edition with the headline: Can a Novelist Be Too Prolific?)(Online Archive of The New York Times at nytimes.com; accessed September 18, 2015) link