Dorothy Parker? Susan Sontag? Alix Nelson? Ross Macdonald? Kenneth Millar? Tom Samet? Edmund Wilson? Anne Ruggles Gere? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Yesterday, while reading an acerbic episode within a stylish memoir I recalled the following adage:
Writing well is the best revenge.
These words are often credited to the famous wit Dorothy Parker, but I am skeptical because I have never seen a good citation. Would you please examine this topic?
Quote Investigator: Dorothy Parker died in 1967, and QI has not yet found any substantive evidence that she employed this saying. QI has found instances in 1976, but that is a surprisingly late date. Perhaps future researchers will build on this research and locate earlier occurrences.
In August 1976 Alix Nelson, a New York-based journalist and copywriter, published a book review in “The New York Times”. One of the book’s primary characters was portrayed very harshly, and Nelson likened that figure to Alexander Portnoy who was the lead in an influential work published seven years prior titled “Portnoy’s Complaint” by Philip Roth. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:
Never has an ordinary man been rendered with such glee. For those of us who’ve been waiting around for Alexander Portnoy to get his, author Rhoda Lerman here “hulls him from the belly button like an overripe strawberry” to prove that writing well is the best revenge.
The other early instance was from the pen of the famous mystery writer Ross Macdonald (pseudonym of Kenneth Millar) who in 1976 wrote the expression in a book dedication for fellow mystery writer William Campbell Gault. The inscription was mentioned in a profile article about Gault published in the “Los Angeles Times” in 1984:
In 1976, Ross MacDonald dedicated his last book, “The Blue Hammer,” to him, writing in his copy: “To Bill Gault, who knows that writing well is the best revenge.”
The article by David Wilson containing the words above also included many quotations from Gault and a description of the interior of his home; hence, QI believes Wilson visited Gault’s home and directly inspected the book’s dedication.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
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