A friend, a nonwriter, retired after a distinguished career, asked me to read his screenplay because I am a published author. It was terrible: poorly written with no plot. Worse, it was clearly autobiographical, abounding in self-aggrandizement and intimate sexual details. To be kind, I told him merely that it was too personal. Recently he met a literary agent. I fear he will share this document with the agent and be humiliated. Must I now tell him my full opinion? -- Name Withheld, Arizona
If we rejected every work of fiction marred by vanity or cringe-worthy self-exposure, miles of shelf space would be left vacant at Barnes & Noble. And as a commercial matter, it is curious to discourage your friend from writing about himself in an era when memoirs proliferate like kudzu, which had sex with some other kudzu, to which it was not married. But it is in neither your literary judgment nor your commercial savvy that you most failed your friend -- and fail him you did -- but in your lack of candor. If he requested your honest opinion (and not just praise, another possibility), you should have provided it, as gently as possible. To be misleading is not to be kind.
It's no picnic telling a friend that you don't think much of his work, but you agreed to give him your professional assessment, and that's what you should have done. With tact and insight, you can strive to make your critique impersonal -- comment on the writing, not the writer -- and useful, so he can return to his desk with a sense of how to begin revising.
It is not too late to offer your friend a more thorough appraisal, although you need not do so for the reason you put forth. Agents are used to reading drivel and responding without sadism. (If only to minimize the weeping and the punching.) Your friend may be disappointed by the encounter, but if the agent is a skilled practitioner, your friend will not be humiliated.
I was on a university search committee when a former student of mine applied for a job. She got a quite negative reference letter from a professor known in his country (but not here) for churlish behavior. I told the student not to use him as a reference again. She told him that she knew his letter was negative. He then complained to my university about a breach of confidentiality. But I did not divulge the content of the letter, only cautioned my student. Isn't that OK? -- Name Withheld, Berkeley, Calif.
You deftly met your clashing ethical obligations to your student and the Grouchy Professor (my least favorite Disney movie, by the way). By speaking to the former, you protected her from avoidable professional harm. By keeping mum about the letter's contents, you respected the latter's confidentiality.
Your student simply assumed the letter to be derogatory. Even a well-meant reference letter can be ineffectual, a good reason to eschew it in the future. It could be too brief to be helpful or lacking in specifics or clumsily written or covered with soup stains. The Grouchy Professor's own reputation could make his endorsement counterproductive. Having made that assumption, the student imprudently confronted the professor, stirring up this hornet's nest and placing you in jeopardy. She should have known better.
UPDATE: The student's approaching her reference provider induced other people to make more substantive complaints about the professor. He subsequently decided to retire.