Dispatches | April 22, 2008
When Literary Bromance Goes Bad
In 1920 Sherwood Anderson and Ben Hecht were friends in Chicago struggling to make a buck as fledgling writers. Hecht, who fancied himself a wit and a conservator of literary taste, said that he didn’t think Anderson’s book The Triumph of the Egg was a work of art and surely Anderson had reservations about his just published Erik Dorn. He proposed that they should attack each other in print, starting a fake feud for the sake of getting their names out there.
Thinking him arrogant and too casual with his criticism, Anderson wrote Hecht a letter telling him that his behavior was unbecoming for such a talented man:
Consider just for a moment that you aren’t as specialized a thing as you think. You and I for example are friends. Try the experiment of saying to yourself that there aren’t any smart thoughts I may have that Anderson may not have them too.
Anderson went on to say that friendship for him wasn’t based on looking either up or down at someone, but eye to eye. He advised that Hecht give up the bluff of being “so energetic, smart and fast” and try to be himself for a change.
I recently came across the quote, “It’s none of your business what others think of you,” which is true. Yet, there are rare times when one needs a friend to tell him what he least wants to hear.
Unfortunately, Hecht didn’t appreciate Anderson’s candor and accused him of a Pollyanna complex. They did not talk or see each other again for twenty years. Their literary “Bromance” took a final tumble.
There have been times in my own life when fellow writers have given me advice that I didn’t fully appreciate until years later.
One friend warned that I tried too hard to be cute and clever in my fiction. “Just tell a good story,” he counseled.
Some of the moments I enjoy most in fiction are when a friend sees in another flaws that they share. In Christopher Isherwood’s “Sally Bowles” from The Berlin Stories, Chris accuses Sally of always trying to shock people with her flamboyant style of dress and sexual escapades.
“You’re naturally shy with strangers, I think: so you’ve got into this trick of trying to bounce them into approving or disapproving of you, violently,” he tells her, as she stretches out languidly on the sofa powdering her nose, obviously not enjoying his analysis.
Sometimes friends can go too far, mistaking cruelty for candor. In the movie Margo at the Wedding, Margo-played skillfully by a dressed-down, almost mousy-looking Nicole Kidman-ambushes her sister and her own son with endless debilitating insights and observations in the name of “being honest.” Her unchecked behavior points out that we don’t have to drag our friends to the alter of truth on every count.
Yet the fact is that most of life’s meaningful lessons don’t come from parents, teachers or preachers but from peers delivered not as a sermon or lecture but as a whisper for our ears only.
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