I had a memorable experience a number of years ago. I ran into an acquaintance of mine who was standing on a street corner waiting for a red light to change. I had not seen him since I had graduated college ten years before.
“Hey, Walter,” I said enthusiastically, coming up to him.
“Hi, Fred,” he said, smiling. “How are you?”
“Fine. And you? How’ve you been?”
“Well, you know, I went to medical school. I’ve been doing medicine ever since. Did research on hearing in rabbits. Cochlear implants. I won an award for it. As a matter of fact, it was a French award. I got back just a while ago. Recently, I was appointed the head of ENT at Downstate. They tell me I’m the youngest head of a department anywhere in the country. I gave a series of lectures on Meniere’s disease. Very well received. Looking forward now to a meeting in Aspen where I’m a featured speaker. Also, I’m writing a chapter for the new Harrison’s. It ought to be out soon. It’s nice seeing you.”
Then the light changed, and Walter crossed the street, leaving me standing on the street corner, my mouth hanging open a little.
A number of years later I had a conversation with another doctor, this time in the medical staff lounge at the White Plains Hospital. It was Hy Tarnauer, the author of “The Scarsdale Diet,” which had just come out in paperback and was promising to be the most successful diet book ever written.
I was an author too. My novel, “The Seclusion Room,” had just been published and had received uniformly very good reviews, although it was not selling. This turned out to be the model for all my novels. A few years later, at a particularly low point, I received my European royalties in the mail; and they were eight cents. I appreciated the check, though. My European agent must have taken a loss on the whole thing since he paid for an envelope and stamps out of his own pocket. --Anyway, all that’s beside the point. “The Seclusion Room” was written painstakingly a paragraph every day. It was the end result of trying over a period of the previous ten years to get something published. So I was interested in Tarnauer’s experience.
“It must be hard writing a diet book,” I commented, admiringly.
“No. It was just a page I copied from somewhere. I gave it to this guy who turned it into a book.”
“Oh. It’s doing very well, though, I understand,”
“I can’t keep track of the sales. The books keep rolling out the door.”
“A colorful image.”
“A few million by now, I suppose.”
“Wow. That’s a lot,” I said.
“Well, people have to eat.”
“Or not eat, in the case of dieting.”
Tarnauer offered me a feeble smile.
“I just wrote a book too,” I said. “It’s sold about five hundred copies so far. I figure maybe I can make it up to six hundred if I go on tour.”
“That’s nice,” Tarnauer said, offering me a condescending smile before exiting the room.
I knew right then that somebody was going to kill him someday.
Envy is the natural state of mind of the professional writer.
As it happened, I knew the guy who had really written the book. It was Sam Baker, although he wrote under the name Samm Sinclair Baker because it looked more impressive on a book cover, he explained to me. He was a member—really the leader—of a writers’ group I belonged to. We were all professional writers, in the sense, at least, that we got paid for writing; but he really knew about writing. He had written a number of successful diet books before doing “The Scarsdale Diet.” A friend from those days reminds me that when he sent notes, the back of the note provided his entire C.V., including “author of blockbuster best sellers.” Yet, he was not resented. He took the time to help us all with advice about agents and publishers, and publicity, and all those matters that really made the difference between success and failure. He was not bashful about his own successes, but he was interested in the rest of us. And some of us had signal successes. I remember someone who signed a contract for a $300,000 advance. Despite everyone being silently, or not so silently, envious, I think we all took pleasure in her success.
I was struck that everyone, despite being bitter, as every writer is, listened with interest to the other person’s successes, and failures too.
--And that is why boasting is unpleasant to listen to: IT IS BECAUSE THE PERSON BOASTING IS NOT INTERESTED IN YOU. When that person is interested, even if that interest is feigned, boasting is not unpleasant. It is possible for a listener to be interested in and excited by someone else’s success if that person has some interest in you.
In the fullness of time someone did shoot and kill Hy Tarnauer; and still more recently-- last week-- I, myself, published a diet book, “The Stuff Yourself Diet” book. I am waiting for copies to roll out the door, but it hasn’t happened yet.(c) Fredric Neuman 2013 Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog