People Ask You for Criticism, But They Only Want Praise

W. Somerset Maugham? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Often a request for criticism is really an appeal for approval or accolades. English playwright and novelist W. Somerset Maugham made a similar observation. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: In 1915 W. Somerset Maugham published the popular novel “Of Human Bondage”. The main character Philip Carey wished to be a successful painter, and he asked another artist, Mr. Clutton, to evaluate his work, but Clutton declined with the following explanation. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

“People ask you for criticism, but they only want praise. Besides, what’s the good of criticism? What does it matter if your picture is good or bad?”

“It matters to me.”

Clutton elaborated on his reasoning for not examining Carey’s painting:

“No. The only reason that one paints is that one can’t help it. It’s a function like any of the other functions of the body, only comparatively few people have got it. One paints for oneself: otherwise one would commit suicide.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1956 English playwright Noel Coward delivered a thematically similar remark: 2

“I always say I love criticism as long as it is unqualified praise.”

QI has created a separate article about Coward’s remark available here.

In 1963 witty journalist Mignon McLaughlin published a pertinent comment: 3

Nobody wants constructive criticism. It’s all we can do to put up with constructive praise.
Mignon McLaughlin

QI has created a separate article about McLaughlin’s remark available here.

The statement in Maugham’s novel has circulated for decades. In 1977 it was included in the influential collection “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter: 4

People ask you for criticism but they only want praise.
—Somerset Maugham

In 1989 Maugham’s quotation appeared in “The Macmillan Dictionary of Quotations”. 5

In conclusion, W. Somerset Maugham deserves credit for this quotation; however, it was spoken by a character in his novel “Of Human Bondage”; therefore, it may not reflect Maugham’s personal viewpoint.

(Great thanks to Jesse Sheidlower who helpfully told QI about this quotation after QI posted the Mignon McLaughlin quip. This led QI to also discovering the Noel Coward remark. Now, the website has articles for all three quotations.)

Notes:

  1. 1915, Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham, Chapter 50, Quote Page 267, The Sun Dial Press, Garden City, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1956 January 8, The Des Moines Register, Section: Iowa TV Magazine, Noel Coward a ‘Blithe Spirit’–in Sunny Jamaica (Continuation title: ‘I Love Criticism, Just So It’s Unqualified Praise’) by Margaret McManus (Exclusive Dispatch to The Iowa TV Magazine), Start Page 1, Quote Page 5, Column 3 and 4, Des Moines, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1963, The Neurotic’s Notebook by Mignon McLaughlin, Chapter 4: Health, Happiness, Self-Esteem, Quote Page 41, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1977, “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter, Topic: Criticism, Quote Page 145, William Morrow and Company, New York.(Verified on paper)
  5. 1989, The Macmillan Dictionary of Quotations, Topic: Criticism, Quote Page 135, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York. (Verified on paper)