Sinclair Lewis? Max Herzberg? Bennett Cerf? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The American writer, social activist, and noble laureate Sinclair Lewis wondered why big audiences came to hear lectures given by authors. He humorously suggested that attendees might be hoping to see funny looking authors. Is Lewis’s self-deprecating observation genuine?
Quote Investigator: In 1938 Sinclair Lewis wrote an essay in “Newsweek” magazine titled “That Was a Good Lecture” which discussed speeches delivered by book authors. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI 1
I can understand why lecture addicts go to look at British explorers, Russian princesses, and Balinese dancers, because they have pretty lantern slides or tiaras or legs. But it is incomprehensible why in fairly large numbers they flock out to view a novelist or a poet. Is it because they hope he will be even funnier to look at than to read?
The joke was not presented in an easily quotable form. Lewis employed a prefatory comment followed by a rhetorical question.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1941 a shorter self-contained version of the quip appeared in the book “Insults: A Practical Anthology of Scathing Remarks and Acid Portraits” edited by Max Herzberg. It is possible that Lewis used the quip more than once: 2
Sinclair Lewis has averred that “when audiences come to see us authors lecture, it is largely in the hope that we’ll be funnier to look at than to read.”
In 1950 the influential publisher and quotation collector Bennett Cerf printed a slightly different instance ascribed to Lewis: 3
Sinclair Lewis now adamantly refuses to lecture or appear at literary luncheons. “I tried it in my youth,” he recalls, “and soon learned that most audiences come to see us authors talk in the hope (too often realized) that we’ll be funnier to look at than to read.”
In 1960 the jest continued to circulate when it appeared in an Allentown, Pennsylvania newspaper: 4
When audiences come to see us authors lecture, it is in hope we’ll be funnier to look at than to read.
Sinclair Lewis, 1885-1951,
The 2007 book “The Impossible Takes Longer: The 1000 Wisest Things Ever Said by Nobel Prize Laureates” included the following instance: 5
When audiences come to see us authors lecture, it is largely in the hope that we’ll be funnier to look at than to read.
Sinclair Lewis LITERATURE, 1930
In conclusion, Sinclair Lewis did craft a version of this joke for an essay published in 1938. QI believes he probably restated the quip in a form similar to that given in the 1941 and 1950 citations although this evidence is indirect.
(Great thanks to an anonymous comely writer whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake who helped QI to access the 1941 citation.)
- 1938 March 28, Newsweek, Book Week: That Was a Good Lecture by Sinclair Lewis, Start Page 30, Quote Page 30, Published by Weekly Publications Inc., New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1941 Copyright, Insults: A Practical Anthology of Scathing Remarks and Acid Portraits, Edited by Max Herzberg, Chapter 9: Follies of American Authors, Quote Page 139, The Greystone Press, Inc., New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1950 April 22, The Saturday Review, Trade Winds by Bennett Cerf, Start Page 4, Quote Page 4, Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1960 January 30, The Morning Call, Quotation located in top right slot of banner, Quote Page 1, Allentown, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 2007, The Impossible Takes Longer: The 1000 Wisest Things Ever Said by Nobel Prize Laureates, Compiled by David Pratt, Quote Page 101, (Advance Reading Copy) Walker Publishing Company, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩