Saturday, October 8, 2011


I sometimes wonder about the phrase “too good to be true.” Latterly because in a review of Bruce Jay Friedman’s memoir, “Lucky Bruce,” the reviewer cites a Long Island lunch group of writers as successful as Friedman, Mario Puzo, Joseph Heller and a few others as rejecting “James Salter from the clique because he is too good a writer.”

Is there such a thing as being too good or too true a writer, and being rejected for it by a group of published, established fellow writers? Can you imagine Proust or Kafka or Joyce being rejected by a literary coterie—or worse yet, by a publisher—for such a reason? “Sorry, Monsieur Proust, we cannot publish your book because you are too true, too good a writer”? Can someone be too good a writer for anything or anyone—a clique, a publisher, a readership?

I wouldn’t think so. I can think, however, of other reasons to be thus rejected. Take the case of James Salter. He is indeed a good—but surely not too good—writer, which could be resented and rejected by writers conspicuously less good, envious and exclusionary. Bernard Shaw wittily entitled one of his plays with the reversal of that formula, Too True to Be Good. So Salter may be too true a writer, or even too truthful a person, to be tolerated by lesser writers afraid of his calling their bluff, questioning their exaggerated self-esteem.

True enough. If I were Friedman, Puzo or Heller, I might be leery of regular lunches with the likes of Proust, Kafka and Joyce, or Thomas Mann, Faulkner and Borges. This even if they were willing to join my group, which they might decline, and which unpleasantness to forestall I would not ask them to join. Their mere presence, however collegial, might be a thorn in my ego.

So there is no such thing as too good a writer, only other writers not feeling good enough. Is there, however, too good an anything? Is there too good a medicine, a building, a soup, a companion, an automobile, a gardener, a tailor, an actor? There may well be too good a suit or dress, but not for an excess of goodness, merely too steep a price.

But let’s get back to the phrase “too good to be true.” You would think it included in Nigel Rees’s Dictionary of Cliches, or in Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Cliches or in his A Dictionary of Catch Phrases. Why is it missing from such worthy compilations, none of them too bad to be true. Is it that Rees and Partridge have never come across it? Seems highly unlikely.

Maybe, though, it is considered a maxim by the powerful writer Anonymous that has attained proverbial status and is listed in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations along with such other gems as “A fool and his money are soon parted” or “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” or “Time is of the essence,” all of which make it into that great dictionary of quotations. So why not “too good to be true,” surely as frequent and famous as the included? Yet in no such dictionary (I own quite a few) does it appear, not even as a proverb, if that’s what it is, an inclusion that would conveniently excuse a dictionarist from tracking it down its source.

If the saying were slightly different, say, “too good to be desirable, “ I might guardedly find some justification. To be told that you are too ill to be cured, too stupid to be tolerated, too unsightly to be looked at, this may be all too true, but not desirable to utter or to hear. But neither would it be as euphonious, as effective, as memorable. “Too good to be true” is catchy for several reasons.

Take first the assonance in four out of its five components, all but “be.” Then take the pleasing progression from an iamb to an anapest. They go harmoniously together, each accentuated on its final syllable. Lastly, the very fact that each of the five words is a monosyllable of the kind English abounds in, and that rolls easily off the most untutored tongue. Such things readily ensconce themselves in the memory.

So can we agree that nothing is really too good to be true, except perhaps your winning the grand prize in a lottery for which you bought only a single ticket? That might justly elicit the swift, spontaneous exclamation. It is evidently true, but hold on, is it also too good? Would not winning have been better? But perhaps too good for all those others, the envious losers? Still, why should we enshrine envy as a maxim, as something too good?

True, the gloriously surprised lottery winner might in the first overwhelming moment of triumph exclaim, “This is too good to be true!” Yet even he would, after enjoying the benefits for a time, conclude that it feels deliciously right, but hardly too good to be true.


  1. Playwright Wentworth Smith (sounds like a brokerage firm!) was co-author of TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE (1601) for the Admiral's Men Company, which staged the piece at Philip Henslowe's Rose Theater in London. How long had the phrase been among the living? Don't know but it sounds like something those business-busy, caveat-emptor, show-me-the-aureus-or-I'll-show-you-the-janua Romans came up with.

    Exit the let's-do-lunch world of Friedman, Heller, and Puzo (sounds like a law firm!) to the world where we are besieged by hucksters eager to part us from our daily bread and the phrase proves useful. When the true is false, the good is bad. Can you say Ponzi scheme? Erin Arvedlund titled her book on our pal Bernie, TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE: THE RISE AND FALL OF BERNIE MADOFF. Rumored to be an HBO movie with De Niro in the works. Not sure if true; not sure if good.

  2. The titular phrase seems simply dispatched as a bromide for the world-weary jade; for whom, in his secularized version of the medieval wisdom of the more or less dreary imperfection of this life, the best (and truest) that can be expected is "as good as it gets".

    Or, as a sober corrective to wishing-upon-a-star optimism, it needn't be quite so wearied, I suppose.

  3. What a luncheon it would be....

    PROUST: (to passing waiter) Where are those madeleines?
    JOYCE: Who's that stately, plump fellow on the end?
    KAFKA: Borges. Blind as a bat.
    JOYCE: Him too? Hey, Borges, find the pun: " 'I see,' said the blind man as...."
    BORGES: " he picked up his hammer and saw." Heard it, JJ. Doesn't work in Spanish.
    JOYCE: What does?
    MANN: Pass the rollmops.
    FAULKNER: Marcel, ever tell you about the time Howard Hawks and I made a threesome with Jean Harlow?
    PROUST: Who's Howard Hawks? Who's Gene Harlow? Who was on top and who was on bottom?
    FAULKNER: Forget it.
    PROUST: I forget NOTHING! Carry the image of you, Hawks, and Harlow to my grave!
    MANN: Pass the spargel.
    BORGES: You know, Franz, I consider you one of my precursors.
    KAFKA: In your dreams, gaucho.
    BORGES: Careful, Franz, or you and I will have to tango.
    KAFKA: Again, in your dreams.
    JOYCE: Dreams? Wait: now I know who you are: The Bug Man!
    KAFKA: The Bug Man?
    JOYCE: Beckett told me about you.
    KAFKA: Everyone calls me The Bug Man! Should have made Samsa an aardvark.
    MANN: Pass the maultaschen.
    FAULKNER: I don't hate the South! I don't hate the South! I don't hate the South!
    JOYCE: Easy, Bill.
    PROUST: What brought that on?
    FAULKNER: Just a cheap emotional and rhetorical stunt to draw attention to myself. Try it.
    PROUST: Madeleines! Madeleines! Madeleines! Time's passing, and I have a peephole reservation at the brothel!
    BORGES: More than we need to know.
    PROUST: May need more, Jorge, if you ever bother to, you know, WRITE A NOVEL!
    BORGES: Ouch!
    JOYCE: A hit!
    KAFKA: A very palpable hit!
    BORGES: Least when I start something, Franz, I finish it.
    MANN: Pass the schupfnudel.
    FAULKNER: A toast! To Marcel, whose novel all of us pretend to have finished!
    PROUST: To JJ, whose FINNEGANS WAKE none of us pretend to have started!
    BORGES: To Franz, who doesn't bother to finish novels!
    KAFKA: To Jorge, who doesn't bothered to start them!
    JOYCE: To Thomas Mann, whose stuff not even Germans bother to read anymore!
    MANN: Pass the Rote Grutze.