Toni Morrison? Benjamin Disraeli? Mickey Spillane? C. S. Lewis? J. R. R. Tolkien? Janet Fitch? Ann Patchett? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The prominent American editor, writer, and educator Toni Morrison who authored the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Beloved” has been credited with an exhilarating remark about the creative process:
If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.
I have not been able to find a citation. Would you please help?
Quote Investigator: In 1981 Toni Morrison spoke at the annual meeting of the Ohio Arts Council, and “The Cincinnati Enquirer” reported some of her comments. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
“Writing to me is an advanced and slow form of reading. If you find a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.
“It took me a long time to do a short book; a long time to leave the world of language and the building up and shaping of the book, but once it began to float I knew I could not not do it . . .
Morrison’s original phrasing differed slightly from the popular modern version of the quotation.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
A thematically related sentiment appeared in a letter written in 1833 by future British statesmen Benjamin Disraeli who was describing one of his conversations: 2
“Mr Disraeli, have you read Lady Stepneys book?” “I never read.” “Thats what Dr Johnson used always to say. Madam when I want to read a book, I write one.”
In 1951 the popular crime novelist Mickey Spillane explained his motivation for writing material that some found distasteful: 3
Mickey’s wife dislikes his stories, and his former-bartender father calls them “Crude.” But Mickey thinks they’re good.
He says, “I write the kind of stuff I’d like to read but can’t find. If I didn’t like it I wouldn’t write it.”
In 1955 prominent fantasy author J. R. R. Tolkien composed a letter in which he credited another well-known fantasy writer C. S. Lewis with a statement about motivation: 4
As C. S. Lewis said to me long ago, more or less – (I do not suppose my memory of his dicta is any more precisely accurate than his of mine: I often find strange things attributed to me in his works) – ‘if they won’t write the kind of books we want to read, we shall have to write them ourselves; but it is very laborious’.
Toni Morrison’s advice was published in 1981 as noted previously. The article about her speech was distributed via the Gannett News Service and was reprinted in newspapers such as “Honolulu Star-Bulletin” of Hawaii. 5
A slightly altered version of Morrison’s remark appeared in 1994 within a miscellaneous set of quotations printed in the “Chicago Tribune Magazine”: 6
“You may be disappointed if you fail, but you are doomed if you don’t try.” – Beverly Sills
“Do the hardest thing on Earth.” – Katherine Mansfield
“If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it” – Toni Morrison
In 1999 Janet Fitch published the novel “White Oleander”, and it became a bestseller after it was selected for Oprah’s Book Club. During an interview that year Fitch said the following: 7
As a writer, I’m always trying to create the book I want to read, but can’t find anywhere. Mine happens to be for anyone with a strong stomach.
In 2002 the award-winning novelist Ann Patchett wrote an article in the long-running “Writers On Writing” series published in “The New York Times”. Patchett ended her piece with the following: 8
Sometimes if there’s a book you really want to read, you have to write it yourself.
In conclusion, Toni Morrison should receive credit for the remark she made in 1981. Other notable writers such as Benjamin Disraeli, Mickey Spillane, C. S. Lewis, Janet Fitch, and Ann Patchett have all made distinct but thematically related remarks.
(Great thanks to Amber, Duchess Goldblatt, and Colin Dickey whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks also to James G. Cina who pointed to the 1955 letter from J. R. R. Tolkien about C. S. Lewis’s remark.)
Update History: On October 2, 2018 the citation for the 1955 letter from J. R. R. Tolkien was added.
- 1981 September 27, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Writing Is Third Career For Morrison by Ellen Brown (Entertainment Reporter), Quote Page F11, Column 1, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1982, Benjamin Disraeli Letters: 1815-1834, Volume 1, Edited by John A. W. Gunn, John P. Matthews et al., Letter Number: 269, From: Benjamin Disraeli, To: Sarah Disraeli, Date: April 30, 1833, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Canada. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- 1951 December 16, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Mike Hammer’s A Sucker For Blondes! by Phyllis Battelle (INS), Quote Page 70, Column 6, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 2000, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien, Letter Number: 159, Description: From a letter to Dora Marshall (A reply to a letter from a reader of The Lord of the Rings), Date: March 3, 1955, Quote Page 209, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- 1981 December 1, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Toni Morrison’s Way With Words by Ellen Brown (Gannett News Service), Quote Page C2, Column 3, Honolulu, Hawaii. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1994 November 13, Chicago Tribune, Section: Chicago Tribune Magazine, Replays, Quote Page 14, Column 2, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1999 June 27, Star Tribune, Section: Books, Bookmarks: Fleurs du mal (Interview with Janet Fitch), Quote Page F16, Column 1, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 2002 August 26, New York Times, Series: Writers On Writing, Why Not Put Off Till Tomorrow the Novel You Could Begin Today? by Ann Patchett, Start Page E1, Quote Page E2, Column 4, New York. (ProQuest) ↩