What Are You Doing Here? Why the Devil Aren’t You Home Writing?

Sinclair Lewis? Bennett Cerf? Storm Jameson? Leon Uris? Abraham Cady? Truman Capote? James Michener? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Classes which attempt to teach writing have proliferated in recent decades. Yet, an undercurrent of skepticism regarding the value of this pedagogical endeavor persists.

According to a sardonic anecdote a successful author was once badgered into conducting a guest lecture at a prestigious university. The classroom was packed, and the author was given a lengthy and glowing introduction by the beaming professor who coordinated the class.

The author began by asking the audience members whether they genuinely wanted to become writers. Every student in the room raised a hand signaling enthusiastic commitment. The intensity of emotion caused the writer to step back, pause, and lay down a set of notes. “In that case,” the exasperated speaker said, “why are you wasting your time here? Go home and write!” The author then walked away from the podium.

Would you please explore the provenance of this tale? Who was the author, and what was the name of the university?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in “The Daily Oklahoman” of Oklahoma City in July 1945. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Shortly before Sinclair Lewis went home to his native Minnesota where he believes he can do his best work, he addressed a class of would-be novelists at the Columbia School of Journalism. He began with “I understand you all want to be writers. Well, what are you doing here? Why the devil aren’t you home writing?”

U.S. novelist and playwright Sinclair Lewis received the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1930. He is the leading candidate for deliverer of this truncated lecture although QI has not yet found any evidence that Lewis told the anecdote himself.

This tale appeared in a variety of newspapers during the ensuing months and years. In August 1945 “The Evening Republican” of Columbus, Indiana pointed to publisher Bennett Cerf as a crucial popularizer of the story: 2

Shortly before Sinclair Lewis left for his native Minnesota, he addressed a class of would-be novelists at the Columbia School of Journalism, reports Bennett Cerf of Random House___Lewis glanced over the eager assemblage with an appraising eye____and began his address, “I understand you all want to be writers___Well, what are you doing here?___Why the devil aren’t you home writing?”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading What Are You Doing Here? Why the Devil Aren’t You Home Writing?

Notes:

  1. 1945 July 1, The Daily Oklahoman, If You Want to Try And Write, Go Ahead, Quote Page 11C, Column 8, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1945 August 1, The Evening Republican, No News Is Good News, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Columbus, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)

That’s Not Writing; That’s Just Typing

Truman Capote? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The authors of The Beat Generation were an influential disaffected group whose works jolted the culture of 1950s America. The spontaneous prose technique employed by the central figure Jack Kerouac in the composition of his 1957 novel “On the Road” was acclaimed and disparaged. The most trenchant criticism reportedly was delivered by author Truman Capote:

That’s not writing, that’s typing

Did Capote really say this? What were the circumstances?

Quote Investigator: The phrasing of this censorious expression was variable. Truman Capote used distinct versions in 1957 and 1959. In 1957 he criticized the author Colin Wilson together with other writers whose literary style he deemed deficient. In 1959 he attacked Jack Kerouac and other Beat-Generation authors.

The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in an interview with Capote published in the Spring-Summer 1957 issue of “The Paris Review”. 1 The topic was writing style, and Capote responded by passing judgment on several of his fellow authors; he placed them into disjoint idiosyncratic categories: the stylist, the styleless stylist, and the nonstylist. The last category was censured. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

But yes, there is such an animal as a nonstylist. Only they’re not writers. They’re typists. Sweaty typists blacking up pounds of Bond with formless, eyeless, earless messages.

The instance above differed from the popular modern instances by employing the forms “writers” and “typists” instead of “writing” and “typing’. Capote was criticizing a group of authors, but only one was named during the interview:

Colin Wilson? Another typist.

Great thanks to Terry Teachout who located the above citation and shared it with QI on Twitter.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading That’s Not Writing; That’s Just Typing

Notes:

  1. Spring-Summer 1957, The Paris Review, Number 16, Truman Capote, The Art of Fiction No. 17, Interviewed by Pati Hill, Paris Review, Inc., Flushing, New York. (Online archive of The Paris Review at theparisreview.org; accessed March 27, 2016) link
  2. Spring-Summer 1957, The Paris Review, Number 16, Truman Capote, The Art of Fiction No. 17, Interviewed by Pati Hill, Start Page 35, Quote Page 47, Paris Review, Inc., Flushing, New York. (The online text at theparisreview.org differs slightly from the microfilm text: The word “bond” is capitalized in the microfilm text)(Verified on microfilm)

Death Was a Good Career Move

Speaker: Gore Vidal? Peter Bogdanovich? Sue Mengers? Jason Epstein? Anonymous?

Subject: Truman Capote? Elvis Presley? Michael Jackson? Gore Vidal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Pop star Michael Jackson died in 2009 when he was only fifty years old. One memorably caustic remark I heard at that time was:

His death was a good career move.

Apparently, the author Gore Vidal said this many years earlier about another individual. Did Vidal originate this mocking comment, and who was he talking about?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence QI has located for this type of remark was printed in Esquire magazine in 1978 in an article by the film director Peter Bogdanovich. The barb was aimed at Elvis Presley after his death in 1977, but the identity of the person using the quip was not given. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

A Hollywood cynic was heard to call Presley’s death a smart career move

The word choice in 1978 was slightly different with “smart career move” employed instead of the common modern phrase “good career move”.

In May 1981 Time magazine mentioned the remark within a thumbnail review of the movie “This Is Elvis”: 2

Today Elvis remains a thriving industry, like Disney; this film is both a comment on that industry and (through the authorization of Presley’s mentor, Colonel Tom Parker) a part of it. The remark of the Hollywood cynic, upon hearing of Elvis’ death — “Good career move” — was prophecy after all.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Death Was a Good Career Move

Notes:

  1. 1978 March 1, Esquire, Volume 89, The Murder of Sal Mineo by Peter Bogdanovich, Start Page 116, Quote Page 118, Column 3, Esquire, Inc., Chicago, Illinois. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1981 May 25, Time, “Cinema: Rushes: May 25, 1981”, This Is Elvis, Time, Inc. New York. (Online Time archive time.com)