Thursday, February 04, 2021

The Value of Friendship

Here's a guest post in LOCUS by Mike Chen, discussing the undervaluation of friendship in contemporary culture, particularly in fiction:

Like a Friend

He praises friendship as "one of the cornerstones of our lives," especially in the past year of unprecedented isolation, and mourns the frequent neglect of its importance. As he puts it, in stories friendship is "often presented as a lower-tier relationship, something given to a secondary character to help the main character achieve their goal of family connections or romance." He deplores this attitude and offers examples of a few strong friendships in popular media, expressing the wish that such fictional relationships were more common. He also celebrates friendship as a relationship of choice, different in that way from familial bonds and the swept-away emotions of erotic love. The concept of friendship and its portrayal in storytelling "should show the power of choice over the given defaults of blood family, the power of steadiness over the intensity of romance, the power of consistency over flings that come and go."

This essay reminds me of the friendship chapter in C. S. Lewis's THE FOUR LOVES. Lewis would agree with that remark about choice. He begins by stating that any discussion of friendship in modern times must start with a "rehabilitation," because nowadays most people don't think of it as a love equal to affection or eros (romantic attraction), or even a love at all. For Lewis, friendship (as opposed to affection, such as parent-child or other family ties or any attachment that simply grows out of long, comfortable association) arises from mutual interests and deeply shared values. Sometimes it's situational, as between classmates who grow close by bonding over schoolwork, sports, or hobbies, and sometimes it lasts a lifetime regardless of outward circumstances. Lewis had a lifelong friend of that type in a boyhood neighbor with whom he maintained ties until death severed them.

Chen's article discusses whether men and women can be true friends without romance. Lewis takes the rather traditional view that, unless one or both of the friends is/are otherwise committed, male-female friendship is likely to develop into eros. His own life took that direction after he united with one of his best friends, Joy Davidman Gresham, in a civil marriage-in-name-only to allow her and her sons to remain in England legally. He later fell deeply and passionately in love with her. "Friends to lovers" is a favorite trope in contemporary romance novels, understandably, since a solid friendship makes a firm foundation for a lasting union.

In my life, friendship has tended to be situational. I've had church friends, writing friends, convention-attending friends, and, when I worked at a day job, office friends, and during my husband's military career, Navy friends. For the most part, I didn't keep up with the latter two types (aside from occasional Christmas cards) after the respective situations changed. If challenged by Mike Chen, I would have to admit that in my own fiction—mostly paranormal romance in recent years—friends usually play the role of secondary characters there to act as confidants for the protagonists (as Chen mentions in his essay). As for books and other media, on THE X-FILES Mulder and Scully remained loyal friends for many years, but eventually they became lovers; how much that shift was driven by pressure from fans, I don't know. One of the most memorable friendships in popular culture, of course, is the trio of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Similar non-romantic friendships developed on STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION. Currently, we can find friendship separate from romance in ensemble-cast TV shows such as NCIS, where the core investigative team displays strong bonds among its members. As for novels, in the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, Jamie and Claire have a devoted friend in Lord John Grey, who was originally hopelessly in love with Jamie but now accepts the platonic friendship with no indication that he regards it as second-best.

So celebrations of friendship are not quite so rare in modern storytelling as Chen pessimistically suggests.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

1 comment:

  1. Also, of course, several of Stephen King's novels, notably IT, whose thematic core is the friendship among the members of the Losers' Club.