Henry James quote. Bogus or legit?
August 9, 2018 10:29 AM   Subscribe

"Tell a dream, lose a reader" is a popular quote about writing universally attributed to Henry James. Do you know the original source for it?

It doesn't appear in any pre-2000 sources on Google Books so I'm inclined to think it's apocryphal but it could be that my searches have been too narrow and James expressed a similar idea in a less pithy way somewhere. Anyone know? Thanks.
posted by otio to Writing & Language (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Here, 1991, it is attributed to Lawrence Sanders.
posted by dilaudid at 10:47 AM on August 9, 2018

Here it is paraphrased, also Lawrence Sanders, although there is no specific source.
posted by dilaudid at 10:55 AM on August 9, 2018

I can't find a source for it in James himself. One possible clue--Martin Amis mentions it in his review of Ulysses:

Tell a dream, lose a reader, said Henry James. Joyce told a dream, Finnegans Wake, and he told it in puns - cornily but rightly regarded as the lowest form of wit. This showed fantastic courage, and fantastic introversion. The truth is Joyce didn't love the reader, as you need to do. Well, he gave us Ulysses, incontestably the central modernist masterpiece; it is impossible to conceive of any future novel that might give the form such a violent evolutionary lurch. You can't help wondering, though. Joyce could have been the most popular boy in school, the funniest, the cleverest, the kindest. He ended with a more ambiguous distinction: he became the teacher's pet.

This review, entitled "The War Against Cliché" was included in his collection of essays and review, which was also titled The War Against Cliché, which is making it annoyingly hard for me to find a date for the original review, other than somewhere between 1971-2000. I wouldn't be surprised if the Amis review popularized the quotation.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 11:06 AM on August 9, 2018

> I can't find a source for it in James himself.

It doesn't sound even a tiny bit like James; either Amis was having a little joke, or he was boiling down some paragraph-long Jamesian excursus into a pithy proverb-like saying. I suspect the former.
posted by languagehat at 1:22 PM on August 9, 2018 [7 favorites]

For serious, what languagehat said. Not James's style, sounds off on substance, too.
posted by praemunire at 1:37 PM on August 9, 2018

My academic search portal returns four results for the exact quote.

Lionel Barber in "Martin Amis", FT, Nov 2, 2007 seems to be quoting Amis:
I mention that I studied German at Oxford, his alma mater. Amis is intrigued and asks me if I have read Kafka in German. When I reply in the affirmative he embarks on his own aphoristic literary tour.
The shorter Kafka works best. The dream logic in The Castle is staggering but "nothing odd works long". The other literary rule: "Tell a dream, lose a reader." Joyce's Ulysses is a noble, beautiful book. And borrowing from Nabokov, Finnegans Wake is a snore in the next room.

Martin Amis does attribute it to James, in his eulogy for his stepmother [Town & Country May 2014 p174]:
But this, alas, is not Action. In early February I dreamed I was a child again, and I and my brother and sister heard that Jane's dog Rosie was distressed. (Rosie, a "ruby" Cavalier spaniel, was put to sleep with much grief in die mid-197os) Philip asked, "What shall we do when we And her?" "Cuddle hell" said Sally. We found Rosie, who was certainly greatly distressed, and we set about giving her comfort.

A legal journal quotes the Amis review of Ulysses.

The last, and apparently totally unrelated, mention is in a dissertation by Virginia Konchan which includes the line verbatim in the poem "Romance of the Hand of Thumb" (no citation offered).
posted by ahundredjarsofsky at 8:08 PM on August 9, 2018

Thanks all!
posted by otio at 1:50 PM on August 10, 2018

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