Quote Unquote

When I included a quotation from the Bible at the start of A Time For Silence, I wrote it without attributing it. I was told I really needed to, so “Ecclesiastes” was added. I suppose I could have attributed it to Pete Seeger instead, but the Bible seemed more appropriate. I was really thinking of an radio interview with an Anglican clergyman who suggested that mention of chapters and verses should not be added to Biblical passages on gravestones, because it should be assumed that the reader who know the passage. It is advice that is universally ignored, of course, but I prefer that way of looking at quotations.

What do you do with them, if you mention them in the text? I suppose, if you make a meal of quoting an entire verse or passage, you might be expected to attribute it to the original writer. Perhaps like Edith D’Ascoyne in Kind Hearts and Coronets: “Was Lord Tennyson far from the mark when he wrote…?” You would, of course, finish up sounding as pompous as Edith. Or you could have a footnote? Or a mention in the credits? They all seem ham-fisted.

What about very brief quotations or allusions? If one character asks, “What will you do when you’re old,’ and another answers ‘I shall probably wear purple,’ perhaps the first one could then say ‘Ah, you are referencing Jenny Joseph.’ Or maybe the second character should have said ‘To quote Jenny Joseph, I shall wear purple.’ Yuck.

I suppose it’s fine if you want to impress the reader with your extensive knowledge of literature. Personally, I am with the forlorn Anglican vicar. I am not talking about actual plagiarism, but my reasoning with brief quotes or allusions is that different readers will approach them in different ways. Some will recognise the quote and move on (or pat themselves on the back). Some will suspect it might be a quote but won’t care, and move on. And others will be intrigued, try to place it and maybe look it up. For such was Google invented. I am all in favour of life-long learning.

There is always the possibility that some time in the future, when your book is recognised as a classic of literature, it will be forced down the throats of unwilling schoolkids, in which case the teacher will be required to spoil the mystery and spell it out for them. Do you really need to know that “Pride and Prejudice” was derived from Cecilia by Fanny Burney? Jane Austen didn’t feel the need to mention it.

In my latest book, The Covenant, there are quotations in plenty, but I hardly need to spell out that they would be from the Bible. It’s a book I know quite well, but occasionally I did have to go searching for something appropriate. That is the beauty of the Bible – not matter what you’re looking for, you’ll find it there, whether it’s a justification of pacifism or of World War III and Armageddon; love or hate. Fortunately for me, there is a limitless supply of Biblical quotations revolving around anger, condemnation and damnation, although some of them shocked even me. I don’t cite book, chapter and verse. You can look them up.

6 thoughts on “Quote Unquote

  1. Nice attributions!
    There are some passages of the Bible that are quite beautifully lyrical and I suspect that future generations will never have access to them. School assemblies always involved a Bible reading and at least one old hymn that included words such as thou and thy; maketh and pleaseth; wilt and shalt; ye and yea. These archaic terms were absorbed by us and understood from their context. These hymns also taught you to know your place, be fearful and obedient, and sacrifice today for the glorious everafter. As you say, the contents of the Bible can be used as justification for pretty much anything, no matter how irrational or cruel – but I do feel a little sad that coffins will be sent off to the words of the likes of Kanye West or Nicki Minaj.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Trish. Thou art right. It’s a pity to be losing the source of so many really good quotes. I know John Lennon claimed the Beatles were greater than Jesus Christ, but I’m not sure about Kanye West.

      Liked by 1 person

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