Literature Is of No Practical Value Whatsoever

Vladimir Nabokov? Apocryphal?

bovary08Dear Quote Investigator: The Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov was a consummate prose stylist. When he was a professor teaching his students about literature he apparently shared the following candid opinion:

Literature is of no practical value whatsoever.

Is this quotation accurate?

Quote Investigator: In 1980 the posthumous book “Lectures on Literature” by Vladimir Nabokov was released; the volume contained a collection of college lectures assembled from the pages of Nabokov’s handwritten and typed notes. The discourse on Gustave Flaubert’s novel “Madame Bovary” included the following commentary about fiction. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

A child to whom you read a story may ask you, is the story true? And if not, the child demands a true one. Let us not persevere in this juvenile attitude towards the books we read. Of course, if somebody tells you that Mr. Smith has seen a blue saucer with a green operator whiz by, you do ask, is it true? because in one way or another the fact of its being true would affect your whole life, would be of infinite practical consequence to you. But do not ask whether a poem or a novel is true. Let us not kid ourselves; let us remember that literature is of no practical value whatsoever, except in the very special case of somebody’s wishing to become, of all things, a professor of literature.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1981 “Lectures on Literature” was reviewed in the pages of “The Christian Science Monitor”. The assessment began with two vivid quotations from Nabokov that had impressed the reviewer: 2

Style and structure are the essence of a book. Great ideas are hogwash.

Let us not kid ourselves; let us remember that literature is of no practical value whatsoever, except in the very special case of somebody’s wishing to become, of all things, a professor of literature.

Also in 1981 a successor volume titled “Lectures on Russian Literature” was reviewed in ‘The Chicago Tribune”. The reviewer found the quotation under examination compelling, and he reprinted it in his analysis. 3

In 2013 the cartoonist and essayist Tim Kreider wrote an op-ed for “The New Times” titled “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!” Kreider was unhappy that he was repeatedly being asked to give prepared speeches and write original articles without compensation. Nabokov’s remark was included in his essay: 4

“Let us not kid ourselves,” Professor Vladimir Nabokov reminds us. “Let us remember that literature is of no practical value whatsoever. … “ But practical value isn’t the only kind of value. Ours is a mixed economy, with the gift economy of the arts existing (if not exactly flourishing) within the inhospitable conditions of a market economy, like the fragile black market in human decency that keeps civilization going despite the pitiless dictates of self-interest.

In conclusion, Vladimir Nabokov wrote the quotation in his lecture notes. Hence, he probably delivered a version of the statement to his students. Later, it was published in the collection titled “Lectures on Literature”.

Image Notes: Picture of glasses together with a book from DariuszSankowski at Pixabay. Illustration by Charles Léandre for the book Madame Bovary by Flaubert; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped, resized, and retouched.

(Great thanks to the anonymous person who read the opinion piece by Tim Kreider and asked QI to examine the quotation attributed to Nabokov. This led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1980, Vladimir Nabokov: Lectures on Literature by Vladimir Nabokov, Edited by Fredson Bowers, Lecture: Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary, Start Page 125, Quote Page 125, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Bruccoli Clark, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1981 January 12, The Christian Science Monitor, Nabokov as professor: an enviable experience by Michele Souda, (Book Review of “Lectures on Literature” by Vladimir Nabokov), Start Page B1, Quote Page B1, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
  3. 1981 November 8, Chicago Tribune, LECTURES: Nabokov opinions provoke a Russian literary revolution by Cyrus Colter, (Book Review of “Lectures on Russian Literature” by Vladimir Nabokov), Start Page F3, Quote Page F3, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  4. 2013 October 27, The New York Times, Slaves of the Internet, Unite! by Tim Kreider, Quote Page SR1, New York. (Posted on the web October 26, 2013)(ProQuest)