Not long ago I was idly flicking through The Sunday Times when this snide little piece in the media gossip column, Atticus, caught my eye:
Amusing, yes, especially for Sir David Hare. It’s not his fault that the public don’t know Woolf’s work well enough to distinguish which words she genuinely wrote and which are the ones that he, adapting a novel about Woolf for the screen, makes her say. How hilarious that Hare’s clever line is now attributed to the author herself! And how naïve of the academic, bless them, to confuse a fictional film with a biopic! I mean, who does that?
No one, obvs.
Except the countless people on the internet who now attribute Hare’s line to Woolf. QED.
Does anyone else hear a great clunk of irony in Atticus’s stonkingly patronising attitude to the academic? She or he is the only person in this sordid little anecdote to care about what a writer did or did not write. That Hare line will now be attributed to Woolf by innumerable people (students, readers… good heavens, writers, even) because it feels right. Just as we have fake news stories that are believed because they feel true to some people, not because they are (Brexit will give us £350 million per week for the NHS, Obama is a Secret Muslim, Trump will Make America Great Again), the internet is awash with fake quotations from famous literary figures because people who don’t bother to read the actual works feel these are the kinds of things their authors would write. When the truth (ha, the truth) is that the literary figures in question would stab themselves with their own quills rather than write the kind of tosh often attributed to them.
The most abused author in this respect is A A Milne, who in his Winnie-the-Pooh books created some of the most delightful, subtle, understated, poignant, funny, moving dialogue that has ever or will ever be written; yet I estimate around 90% of so-called ‘A A Milne’ quotes spread gloopily over the internet like Pooh Bear’s own beloved hunny are meaningless platitudes made up by idiots who think it’s the kind of sweet, cutesy thing Pooh would say.
Of course, this travesty only works if people don’t know the original books well enough, and the sad truth is that the Disneyfication of Winnie-the-Pooh has swamped a classic that many of my and my parents’ generation knew by heart. The same trick would never work with Shakespeare, for instance. If I tried to attribute a line to the great bard like, ooh, I don’t know, how about,
Never was bear more wickedly traduc’d,
I’d have all the scholars down on me like a shot.
The works of Virginia Woolf and A A Milne, on the other hand, are clearly barely known by hordes of people who use the internet, and I’m willing to bet there are a great many more literary figures whose coinage is being debased in this way. I’d love (but also hate) to know who they are.
So just think, Grant Tucker of Atticus and Sir David Hare: one day in the future there may be all sorts of fake Tucker and Hare quotations littering people’s brains, things you never wrote and would never dream of writing. Not so funny then, eh?
(From an article first published on Authors Electric)