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Who Said, ‘Everyone has a book in them, but in most cases that’s where it should stay’?

Who first said this famous quip about everyone having a book or novel in them?

‘Everyone has a book in them, but in most cases that’s where it should stay.’ Or, as some sources have it, ‘Everyone has a novel in them.’ Still others: ‘Every journalist has a novel in him.’ Most of us have heard the line, or some variation on it, and understand what it’s saying: it’s challenging the age-old belief that everyone has a story to tell, by suggesting that a) not all stories are actually worth telling, and b) not everyone can tell their story very well. So much for the main thrust of the quotation; but its authorship is not such an easy thing to determine. Who actually came up with it?

It’s perhaps most familiar to readers as a Christopher Hitchens witticism. Hitchens (1949-2011) was a hugely influential journalist and public intellectual, known for his quick mind and sardonic put-downs. The QI Book of Advanced Banter compiled by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson quotes Hitchens: ‘Everyone has a book in them and that, in most cases, is where it should stay.’ Numerous quotes websites cite Hitchens as the author, but none of them provides a source: see, for instance, Goodreads, TwentyTwoWords.com, and the BBC news website. Whether Christopher Hitchens wrote this line down in any of his work, we have not been able to determine. The line doesn’t appear in The Quotable Hitchens, despite being one of the most popular of his quotations on internet quotes sites.

However, Hitchens certainly said this – or something very close to it – in conversation. In a C-SPAN discussion ‘About Books’ in 1997, he said: ‘Everyone has a book inside them, which is exactly where it should, I think, in most cases, remain.’ Variations on the wording exist all over the internet, but none has the wording that exactly matches that used in the C-SPAN debate. Although Hitchens certainly said it, was he the first to utter it? Well, no. So, if not Hitch, who was?

In his 1979 book Writers’ Workshop: Techniques in Creative Writing, Barry Maybury writes, ‘Probably everyone has a novel in them, and no doubt a lot of publishers wish it would stay that way.’ But six years earlier in 1973 in the Canadian Author & Bookman, (Joseph) Russell Lynes (1910-1991) was quoted as saying: ‘Every good journalist has a good Christopher Hitchensnovel in him – which is an excellent place for it.’ As the article in question is clearly quoting a pre-existing statement by Lynes, he must have said this earlier, though where he precisely said (or wrote) it, we have been unable to ascertain.

But there’s more. A Time article from May 2000 attributes a very similar line to Austrian writer and journalist Karl Kraus (1874-1936): ‘Every journalist has a novel in him, said Karl Kraus, and if he’s smart, he’ll keep it there.’ Andrew Ferguson, the author of that Time article, may well have been paraphrasing the argument Kraus put forward in an influential essay of 1910 called ‘Heine und die Folgen’ (‘Heine and the Consequences’). As George F. Peters puts it, summarising Kraus’s argument, ‘Since Heine, every journalist fancies himself an artist; by means of linguistic trickery … substance gives way to form.’ It’s easy to see how this argument may have been transformed into the statement Ferguson attributes to Kraus, that all journalists therefore aspire to be novelists.

Between Kraus’s original essay and Ferguson’s version of its argument, in 1956, Hal Borland had written, in How to Write and Sell Non-Fiction, ‘The old belief that everyone has a book in him is not quite true. Not even every writer has a book in him.’ The later lines by – well, by Lynes and Hitchens – appear to be descendants of this sentiment.

But before Borland’s line we have another ancestor, from W. Somerset Maugham. In his 1938 memoir The Summing Up, Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) wrote: ‘There is an impression abroad that everyone has it in him to write one book; but if by this is implied a good book the impression is false.’

This may have provided the germ of the later, pithier witticisms pronounced by both J. Russell Lynes and Christopher Hitchens. And few would deny that the form in which the statement usually does the rounds on internet quotes sites – ‘Everyone has a book in them, but in most cases that’s where it should stay’ (or some such variation) – is wittier and more memorable than the ‘original’, whoever was responsible for the honing and chiselling that finally moulded the sentiment into its current form.

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy our posts about the origin of the phrase ‘The pen is mightier than the sword’, the history of ‘Goody Two-Shoes’, and the surprising originator of ‘Tweedledum and Tweedledee’.

Image: ‘Christopher Hitchens reading his book Hitch 22‘, 2010; author: meesh; Wikimedia Commons.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on April 10, 2015, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Christopher Hitchens was one of my heroes. Though I disagreed with him about almost everything he said, I agreed with the way he said it.

  2. Good food for thought…I’ll leave it at that before I digest.

  3. What Almost Iowa said. I really miss Hitch.

  4. Great points. I enjoyed reading this post.

  5. Just wondering if there’s a connection between Hitchen’s 1997 formulation and Andrew Ferguson’s 2000 attribution of a similar line to Krauss? I presume Ferguson knew Hitchens – both Washington pundits after all – and might have heard him in 97. Perhaps Ferguson was really paraphrasing Hitchens but attributed it to Krauss for some reason?

  6. It does´t sit well with me that you remember him for his alleged “sardonic put-downs”. I think his discussion style unusually civilised, relevant and in-depth going.

    In all the panel interviews on I have seen on YT he is remarkable for listening and respectfully addressing his so-called opponents points.
    In fact, he is truly inspiring for raising the standard of thoughtful and serious debate.

    Quite on par with Gore Vidal (listen to him reply to Ali-G´s inanities) and Chomsky.

    It is not that I think you intend to demean Hitchens, just that put downs belong to the primitive part of the spectre of addressing another person, and I love him exactly because he doesn’t do that.

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