Literary Quotation Ethics

I am gradually catching up on “Criminal Minds,” the CBS crimes drama that operates in an America where there are serial killers under every rock. On an episode from 2008, the show used a quotation (famous quotations generally begin and close each episode) attributed to Ayn Rand, the author/philosopher who championed “objectivism” and her own peculiar brand of non-compassionate individualism.  The quote: “We are all brothers under the skin—and I, for one, would be willing to skin humanity to prove it.”

This seemed a little harsh even for Ayn Rand; I figured she must have been having a bad day. “Nice lady,” I commented to my wife, who rolled her eyes, for she is not a Rand admirer. Later, I mentioned the quote to a quotation-obsessed friend, who informed me that the words were really uttered by an Ayn Rand villain, Ellsworth Toohey, the unprincipled newspaper columnist who makes life miserable for the hero of The Fountainhead, Howard Roark.

Was “Criminal Minds” fair to Ayn Rand?

I don’t think so. Presenting the quote in this way was wrong in several respects: misleading to the audience, unfair to Rand, and disrespectful to the novel. It is true that a novelist writes everything that his or her characters say, but that is not the same as the author actually saying or writing a personal comment or opinion. Referencing a character’s quote as the words of the character’s creator without explaining the context can cause a reader, especially one who isn’t familiar with the writer quoted or the fictional character involved, to arrive at erroneous conclusions. This is particularly likely when the writer did more than just write novels, as in the case of Ayn Rand.

Imagine attributing this quotation to Sen. James Webb of Virginia:  “If she’d been born with anything between her legs except an asshole, I’d be happy to bring some class to your low-rent name by knocking the bitch up.” Would that be fair? This isn’t Webb talking, but a character in his novel, A Sense of Honor. When former Sen. George Allen was running for re-election against Webb in 2006, he tried to make the case that it was fair. Virginia voters disagreed, and quite correctly.  Or imaging attributing this quote to novelist Charles Dickens, one of the most ardent fans of the Christmas holiday who ever lived: “If I could work my will,every idiot who goes about with Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.” The quote is, of course, from Dickens’ creation, the Christmas-hating Ebenezer Scrooge. Someone reading the quote who was not familiar with  A Christmas Carol, however, would conclude that Dickens himself was a misanthropic Christmas-hater.

The writer who is always credited directly for everything he wrote is William Shakespeare, and in his case, it makes sense. For one thing, there are no quotes attributed to Shakespeare that are not from his plays or poems. But did Tennessee Williams say that he always depended on “the kindness of strangers,” or was it Blanche DuBois, the iconic character in his play, “A Streetcar Named Desire”? Did Arthur Miller realize that his life had been a “ridiculous lie,” or was it his creation, Willy Loman’s son Biff, in “Death of a Salesman”?

Don’t the characters deserve to be attached to their most defining words? I think so. To do otherwise diminishes their identity and cultural relevance.

Confusing the sentiments of an author’s character with the author is indefensibly sloppy, and worse the device can be used to intentionally make a writer seem unsavory, radical or crude, as I believe some Rand hating scriptwriter was doing on “Criminal Minds.” The fair, honest and ethical way to quote a fictional character is to note the speaker first, then the book, play or movie, and finally the author, like this:

“We are all brothers under the skin—and I, for one, would be willing to skin humanity to prove it.”—“Ellsworth Toohey” in the novel The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand.

Anything less is misleading, careless, or mean.

7 thoughts on “Literary Quotation Ethics

  1. I confess to having done this, but I simply truncated the quote so it would fit in the confines of a comic panel. And since it was Shakespeare, whom I don’t know if there’s any quotes of his NOT from his plays, I think I might be in the clear.

    Asimov is often quoted as saying “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent,” when that was said by one of the characters in Foundation. I think he later said he agreed with it, so that attribution might not be so uncalled for.

  2. At 105, it is not that Ayn Rand is bigger, but what she gave us that justifies what our founders described that is bigger, which is far more compassionate than socialism in any form. It is because we have all left things to chance and are now paying the price that makes what she said bigger. The Changing Face of Democrats on Amazon and claysamerica.com describes the 19th century Democrats who followed Jefferson and Madison, contrasted with modern Democrats who follow Rousseau and Marx, that being what Rand found of no worth as was the Old World.

  3. As a student of literature from college onward, I have to make this point: one must ALWAYS quote the character making the statement, AND the book and author from which it is taken. This is Literature 101. Anything else is lazy, lazy, lazy. Every author writes about heroes, villains, slobs, idiots, and naifs. This is called FICTION. It is ART. To ascribe every quote from every character to the author is idiocy. I have read about 30 books over and over again because of their beautiful use of the English language, but would never ascribe dialogue as the true beliefs of the author. The author is telling a STORY, for God’s sake.

    Doesn’t anyone know the difference between fiction and essay? Between poetry and diatribe? If a political writer makes a statement in the first person, then by all means use that statement as you will and attribute it to that writer. But in fiction, that kind of attribution is nonsense. If you do, then all authors are schizophrenic, since their characters — all different, to make a story work — express different points of view.

    Even Ayn Rand, Upton Sinclair, and others who had particular points of view, wrote fiction with multiple characters with multiple voices. It is manifestly unfair to pick the voice that proves your point and attribute it to the author. The writers of “Criminal Minds” should stick to Socrates, Euripides, and other such writers for their pretentious codas… for the rest of us, learn how to quote from fiction, please.

  4. Agreed. In fact, having just watched the Criminal Minds episode where they used the quote motivated me to search for it. I appreciate your thoughts and I am glad you clarified it was a character of Rand’s who “said” it.

  5. I’ve also just seen this from season 4, episode 10 (“Brothers in Arms”) from Criminal Minds, as shown on Netflix. I was aghast, and verified its origin, then found this article. But I think you’re wrong to call it “careless.” Instead it’s just one more example of the current flood of Marxist propaganda being instilled into our media. Why do I say so? Search google for the quote and you will find MANY quotation sites which present the quote as Criminal Minds did — as personally attributed to Ayn Rand. Disgusting.

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