What I Hate About Writing Is the Paperwork

Peter De Vries? Apocryphal?

paperwork07Dear Quote Investigator: There is an amusing quip that is perfect for National Novel Writing Month. Here are two versions:

1) I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork.
2) Writing: I like everything about it but the paperwork.

This comment has been attributed to the novelist, poet, and playwright Peter De Vries whose satiric tales were regularly featured in “The New Yorker”. I wanted to share this joke now because the literary world is unstable. People are using word processors and publishing e-books. A future generation may find the remark anachronistic. Would you please tell me where this quotation appeared?

Quote Investigator: Peter De Vries did present an instance of this joke in his 1964 novel “Reuben, Reuben”, but the phrasing differed from the two versions specified by the questioner. A character named Mopworth dreamed of auctorial success. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Standing at the window with his hands in his pockets, Mopworth had a vision of the day when he would be interviewed by the press on the publication of his book. He had some mots all ready. “What I hate about writing is the paperwork.” And: “A writer is like the pencil he uses. He must be worn down to be kept sharp.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In February 1964 the jest caught the eye of a book reviewer in a Pasadena, California newspaper who was evaluating “Reuben, Reuben”. The statement was reprinted in the paper: 2

Next, Mopworth, an admirer of McGland, undertakes to write a life of the late poet. Mostly he interviews McGland’s ex-mistresses, a far-flung job in itself. He doesn’t really mind such scavenging — “what I hate about writing is the paperwork.”

In March 1964 the joke attracted the attention of another book reviewer who reprinted it in his column in a Kansas City, Missouri newspaper: 3

To be sure, and we can give thanks, De Vries is still capable of having a character tell us: “What I hate about writing is the paperwork.”

In 1977 the influential compilation “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter was published. An instance of the remark attributed to Peter De Vries was included in a section titled “Writing / Writers”. But the phrasing given by Peter differed from that in the 1964 novel. QI does not know where Peter found this version: 4

I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork.
–Peter De Vries

Several quotation references included entries that matched the expression and ascription listed in Peter’s 1977 work, e.g., “The Book of Quotes” (1979) compiled by Barbara Rowes. 5

In 1982 the comic strip “Andy Capp” by Reg Smythe depicted Andy dictating an article to be published in his local parish magazine. His wife was recording the dictation, and in the final panel she said: 6

‘E LOVES BEING A WRITER, BUT ‘E CAN’T STAND THE PAPERWORK

As noted above, the version attributed to De Vries in the 1977 book has been widely disseminated over the years. It appeared in: “The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations” (1986), 7 “The Dictionary of Outrageous Quotations” (1988), 8 and “Cassell’s Humorous Quotations” (2001). 9

The original version of the jest has not been forgotten. In 2004 an essay about Peter De Vries at “The New Yorker” magazine website included this passage: 10

Then, there are the epigrams, such as “How do you expect mankind to be happy in pairs when it is miserable separately?” or “What I hate about writing is the paperwork.”

In conclusion, Peter De Vries can be credited with the remark he made in the 1964 citation. The version of the joke in the 1977 compilation has become the most popular; however, QI has, to date, been unable to find substantive evidence that De Vries employed the 1977 version.

(Great thanks to Don Allred whose tweet on this topic led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Many thanks to Thomas Fuller for locating and verifying the key “Reuben, Reuben” citation, and thanks to the Fenwick Library of George Mason University which provided access to the novel.)

Notes:

  1. 1964, Reuben, Reuben by Peter De Vries, Chapter 27, Quote Page 314, Published by Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans; thanks to Thomas Fuller)
  2. 1964 February 9, Independent Star-News, Section: Scene, Sharp Look at the New Suburbia by George W. Feinstein, (Book Review of “Reuben, Reuben” by Peter De Vries), Quote Page 18, Column 4, Pasadena, California. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1964 March 1, The Kansas City Star, But Isn’t It Better to Laugh? by Theodore M. O’Leary, (Book Review of “Reuben, Reuben” by Peter De Vries), Quote Page 5G, Column 3, Kansas City, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1977, “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter, Section: Writing / Writers, Quote Page 510, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1979, The Book of Quotes, Compiled by Barbara Rowes, Quote Page 302, A Sunrise Book: E. P. Dutton, New York. (Verified on paper)
  6. 1982 July 7, The Chilliwack Progress, Comic strip: Andy Capp by Reg Smythe, Quote Page 5A, Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1986, The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations, Compiled by Fred Metcalf, Section: Writing, Page 273, Column 2, Viking Penguin, New York. (Verified on paper)
  8. 1988, The Dictionary of Outrageous Quotations, Compiled by C.R.S. Marsden, Section: Writer and Writing, Quote Page 116, Salem House, Topsfield, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper)
  9. 2001, Cassell’s Humorous Quotations, Compiled by Nigel Rees, Section: Writers and writing, Quote Page 468, (Cassell, London), Sterling Pub. Co., New York. (Verified on paper)
  10. 2004 May 24, The New Yorker, A Critic at Large: Riches of Embarassment : The comic novelist Peter De Vries was an American original by Jeffrey Frank. (The website used the spelling “Embarassment”) (Website of The New Yorker at newyorker.com; accessed November 12, 2014) link