Why Can’t We all be Friends?

I’ve just been reading an interview with an actor whose work I loved when I was younger, and who – as part of a funny six-piece ensemble cast – was one of the most famous and highly paid TV stars in the world at the height of his fame. Since the late 1990s, he’s fallen in and out of ‘favour’ with the press due to his publicised struggles with substance abuse and the consequences this had for his personal appearance (as if it was anyone else’s business, but I digress.) In recent years he’s kept a lower profile, but he’s still extremely well-known.

He is Matthew Perry, who played Chandler Bing (‘Bing! It’s Gaelic for ‘thy turkey’s done!”) on Friends.

Image: nadcp.org

Image: nadcp.org

It was an interesting interview, not least because Perry spoke about the terrible effects that negative reviews of his work had on his mental health. I’m paraphrasing, but essentially he says he doesn’t read reviews now because the good ones are never – to his mind – good enough, and they never last long enough in the psyche to outdo the damage caused by the bad ones.

I was a huge fan of Friends, and Chandler Bing was always my favourite character. He – or, rather, Matthew Perry – was witty, self-deprecating and intelligent, with an instinctive talent for physical comedy that I think has to be in-built; it can’t be taught. He had all the best lines. Even now, if I catch a re-run of the show, it’s Chandler I love to watch (well, and Phoebe. I loved her, too.) So, it’s weird to read about a person you consider extraordinarily talented struggling with bad reviews, and expressing how deep an impression they can make on a person’s peace of mind and self-esteem. I once read Oprah Winfrey’s recollection of an anecdote about Beyoncé, who is – as I’m sure you’re all well aware, a global multi-millionaire megastar – but who still comes off stage after a performance and asks people ‘Was that okay? Was I okay?’ Apparently, she does this even while her audience is still screaming her name.

We have to feel like we’re doing things right, even though we have nothing to prove to anyone. Matthew Perry has nothing to prove; neither, assuredly, does Beyoncé. Despite this, they still need to feel like they’re okay, that they’re enough, that they’re good at what they do; it’s a touchingly vulnerable aspect of the life of a superstar. But none of us are any different.

I’ve often read interviews with writers where they say the same thing – ‘don’t read the reviews.’ Newbie authors often can’t help themselves from reading reviews, steeling themselves against the bad ones, telling themselves they can cope with the excoriation of a person hating their work and spilling that hatred all over the web – but often they can’t. How could anyone?

Image: thezerosbeforetheone.com

Image: thezerosbeforetheone.com

I know I’m writing this post as a person who also writes book reviews, but I try – insofar as that’s possible – always to keep my book reviews positive. Even if I don’t like a book, I always find something to praise about it, and I never – ever – stoop to the point where I attack the author him/herself. I can’t even understand the mentality of a reviewer who would do something like this, but apparently it happens every day. It’s an abhorrent aspect of the print media which bases itself on destroying people – Matthew Perry, in his interview, recalls an incident where he was criticised for dating a particular woman, and then attacked for apparently being gay, on adjacent pages in the same magazine – and which surrounds us at all times. Reviewers, and Facebook commenters, and in fact those who comment on anything, anywhere on the web, are used to this sort of vitriol. It’s already spilling out into their personal interactions with others, to the point where sitting behind a keyboard and writing vile things about another human being is seen as hilarious fun. ‘Don’t read the comments’ is an oft-heard saying for a very good reason.

I abhor this.

I was taught as a child that if I had nothing nice to say, I was to say nothing at all. This doesn’t mean that I can’t respectfully criticise, or say that something’s wrong, or express anger if I need to, but I really don’t see the point of saying hurtful things just because you want to. In recent weeks, a mother posted an absolutely beautiful photograph of her young son, who has Down syndrome, to Instagram with the hashtag #downsyndrome. A commenter – who apparently searches for images of people with Down syndrome – wrote the word ‘ugly’ under this picture. The young boy’s mother replied to this internet troll in the most gracious way, at once spearing the troll’s own viciousness while also extending compassion to them, assuring them that all people – even trolls – deserve respect.

I’m so glad this woman’s post went viral, and that people all over the world have seen it. Such touches of humanity will never outweigh the vileness, but each tiny example counts. Wouldn’t it be great if, one day, we could learn that there are ways to express our dissatisfaction with something – whether it’s actions, or art, or politics, or whatever – without making personal attacks, and that we could start using our intelligence to find ways to build one another up rather than tear one another down? Maybe then nobody would be afraid to read their reviews, not because all reviews would be fawning and false and full of fake praise, but because they’d be respectful and constructive and useful and thoughtful.

Ah, me. It’s good to dream.

 

10 thoughts on “Why Can’t We all be Friends?

  1. Kate Wally

    What a lovely post. It’s so true. A calm and reasoned discussion is *always* in order for reviews (and even in politics and *anywhere*, if I may say). I’d missed the ‘viral’ letter to the internet troll, so thank you for the re-direction. Perfect.

    When it comes to feedback, I’d prefer reasoned and constructive criticism over positive and flattering lies any day. 🙂

    Reply
    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Reasoned and constructive are the keywords, indeed. A shame so many people seem to gravitate towards abusive language so easily.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post! Have a great evening. x

      Reply
  2. Mabel Grimes

    People often underestimate the impact the negative emotions something like harsh criticism can inspire, and, being very often guilty of this myself, I appreciate you writing this post. Well said.

    Reply
  3. susanlanigan

    Great post, Sinead. And it’s something I’m going to have to think about a bit more now later in the year when the thing “goes live”.I have to admit the thought of Amazon reviews etc makes me very nervous! A WIP you commit to over years becomes part of your soul and then it’s out there and someone can make like Ezra Pound with W.B. Yeats and write “Putrid” (I hope they don’t, but you never know!!). My instinct is to stand back and allow readers to come to the text and take out of it what is relevant to them. Everything I’ve seen tells me that responding or inappropriately engaging in this arena is a bad idea. The book really is not yours any more, it’s theirs. Of course I’ve read some authors saying in great detail how they Never Respond to Reviews and then you see them on the usual sites, explaining the plots and butting in! Not so good at practising what they preach then. If the book ain’t doing the talking for ya…

    Reply
    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Exactly! I think the whole ‘don’t respond to bad reviews’ thing is good advice, though I have to say I love it when authors let me know that they enjoyed my review of their work. It happens occasionally, and it’s always nice to know you’ve brought some brightness into another person’s day. 🙂 Certainly, though, I think you’re right re. taking a step back when the book comes out and *definitely* don’t engage with those who don’t ‘get’ it. There’ll probably be plenty of those. Then, however, you’ll have plenty of readers like me who’ll love it and who’ll be waiting impatiently for the follow-up… 😉

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Susan.

      Reply
  4. Harliqueen

    What a lovely post, and very good points. It’s a scary thing to put your work out into the world, where you just know people are waiting to tear it down. But you got to strive past that, and always try to see the positive 🙂

    Reply
    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Yes, indeed! Almost everything about writing is scary, isn’t it? Well, except the actual ‘writing’ bit. 😀 The outside world is a frightening place, but there are a lot of good people out there, too. 🙂 Hope your work is going well.

      Reply
  5. Salubri

    Wow, thought provoking! Lots to say here (surprise!) but I think I should start with Friends… Friends rocks and 10 years after the first10 years it’s still brilliant TV. Just watched series 1-9 and am watching 10 with my lady wife (as neither of us saw it first time round).

    On trolls: it’s not a coincidence that people who post comments like that “ugly” are called trolls… The real ugly lurks beneath that bridge where common human decency, a moral or civic compass and respect are alien concepts. Henry Rollins hopes “young people” can change that (http://salubri.me/blog/?p=4102) and I hope we’re all on the bus with him! A gentle, reasoned response to nastiness is a great start (but then ungortunately I’d suggest turning off replies).

    Regarding reviews and responding to bad ones: my thought would be that it depends on the kind of bad review; a genuinely constructive review that offers negative opinions could warrant a thanks for feedback and might offer a chance to engage in a valuable way. On the other hand – a tirade or diatribe with a wholly negative bias is probably worth as little attention as possible 🙂

    Common sense and common decency (as uncommon as they may be) are my watchwords today 🙂

    Reply
    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thanks for that, my dear Salubri… Firstly, how on earth did you and Mrs Salubri miss Friends first time ’round? My goodness. 🙂 I’m glad you’re catching up now. About time. You guys are always behind when it comes to decent TV. *eyeroll* 😀

      I’m definitely on the Henry Rollins bus. Decency, courtesy, gentleness and reason? Not to mention ‘youth’? Ahem. Yes. Sign me up.

      Definitely, I’m with you on the constructive-ness of reviews. Anything that helps a writer to improve without sinking to insulting either their work or them, personally, is a ‘good’ bad review, if you know what I mean. I know that a lot of authors – particularly women – have to put up with sexist, upsetting and insulting screeds on the internet spat out by trolls with nothing better to do than issue threats and try to ‘shut them up’ because they’re women who write. What a sad situation. Common sense and common decency need to be made ‘common’ again, if that makes sense, and I’m going to do my bit by keeping them as my watchwords, not only today but always.

      Hugs to you, Mrs S and teeny-tiny S! And the dog. 🙂 xxxx

      Reply

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