I hate thinkexist and goodreads quote lists and all those dumb quotation-compilation sites. THEY LIE LIKE RUGS. If you can’t track down a book, paper or speech in which the person said the thing, ASSUME THE PERSON DID NOT SAY THE THING. And do not pass it along!

I was once quoted in a NYT story about my discovery that neither Plato nor Philo ever said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Somehow someone on some web site decided that *I* had said it, and for a few months, all over the Internet, the line was attributed to ME.


While writing this book that I am currently so behind on (shh) I tried to track down a quotation used in a story in Stanford Alumni Magazine (a university where apparently SMART PEOPLE GO) that turned out to be utterly spurious: “Our earth is degenerate. . . . Children no longer obey their parents. . . . the end of the world is evidently approaching.” The Stanford writer attributed these words to a writer named John Sommerville, who attributed them to a writer in ancient Mesopotamia. The problem is that there is zero evidence that this quote is real. Versions of it are all over the web, attached to all sorts of malarkey. Sometimes the quote is said to be Egyptian, sometimes Abyssinian; sometimes it’s on a stone tablet, sometimes papyrus; sometimes it was said by Aristotle, sometimes Cicero; sometimes the modern-day propagator of the anecdote is Isaac Asimov rather than John Sommerville. The Quote Investigator does a lovely job tracking down a lot of the spurious sources. Basically: SOMEBODY SOMEWHERE MADE IT UP. And it’s been floating around, misattributed hither and yon, for over 100 years.

Another one, this attributed to Henry Jenkins, Director of Media Studies at MIT, is constantly reposted on fan sites:

“Fan fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of by the folk.”

Such a great line! No wonder all of us who want to believe in the power of reclaiming, reordering and rejiggering narratives immediately assume this is for realz. But it isn’t.

Here is what he actually wrote, in a 2000 piece for MIT Technology Review:

“Contemporary Web culture is the traditional folk process working at lightning speed on a global scale. The difference is that our core myths now belong to corporations, rather than the folk.”

Close! But not exactly and not specifically about fanfic. It’s important to note the addition of “repairing the damage” — Jenkins’s original point was that people rewriting stories and legends to meet their own needs is a normal part of the narrative process. But the web allows the shifting and reworking of narrative to happen more quickly and for stories to spread more widely. I suspect Jenkins is pro-fanfiction, but this quotation is actually making a much wider point about the transmission of storytelling. I also don’t agree that our core myths belong to corporations (though it’s jazzy to say so) — I think that the fundamental elements of fairytales and folktales, Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale, the notion of the Hero’s Journey and Jungian symbolism, all that stuff — point to the fact that corporations don’t own the core myths. They own their own versions of them. They own Dean Winchester, but they don’t own the wounded hero on a quest who encounters magical objects and has allies and doubts his own abilities before proving himself worthy and becoming a man. And smart authors and production companies understand that fans playing with specific pre-created characters is good for everyone. It’s fun, and it deepens fans’ commitment to the source text, which they may love or hate, but they keep the attachment. And of course we can work with the same raw material as any other storyteller and create our own stories. That’s the beauty of fanfic — that one writer can tell a story as well or better than a hugely funded mega-company.


UPDATE! 4/16/16! Hello! I apologize for being a moron. The Henry Jenkins quote is CORRECT. As two readers informed me, it is from a New York Times piece in 1997. Jenkins semi-rephrased himself in the 2000 piece. I’m leaving up my mistake in the interest of full disclosure and to help anyone like the two readers who were also searching for the original citation. Live long and prosper.


One Comment

  1. Bad Horse March 17, 2017 at 9:52 am

    Well, that’s big of you to leave it up. You could have just emailed Jenkins to ask. See http://annenberg.usc.edu/faculty/communication-journalism/henry-jenkins .

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