“Two stars and a wish,” she told us brightly.
I was at my Monday morning creative writing class and we were to do that ‘thing’ again: turn to the person next to you, take turns to read what you’ve written from the week before, then share your feedback. The instructions were to accentuate the positive (two stars) and shine a soft light on any weakness, suggesting how they might be enhanced (a wish).
Everyone was kind to each other, not that we needed to search for stars – for the writing was good – but even if we had, I don’t think anyone would be cruel enough to present their wish like a slap with a wet dishcloth.
Some reviewers do, though. They dole out abrasive adjudications as though they’re playing a word game, no thought for the repercussions for whoever’s at the receiving end.
Take the review of a collection of short stories, ‘The Untilled Field’, published in 1902 by the Irish writer, George Moore. The content was considered daring for the time, too daring, perhaps, for one reviewer who wrote, “His stories unimpressed me as being, on the whole, like gruel spooned up off a dirty floor.”
How’s that for a harsh judgment?
You could sample pretty much anything from the late columnist and reviewer, A.A. Gill, infamous for his unsparing wit and sharp tongue and unearth an unforgiving gibe. However, so long as you weren’t on the receiving end of his barbs, he could be awfully funny. He reviewed the autobiography of a well known Mancunian singer who fronted an Eighties band (‘Girlfriend In A Coma’ anyone?), sharpening his pencil to a murderous point to write: “What is surprising is that any publisher would want to publish the book, not because it is any worse than a lot of other pop memoirs, but because X is plainly the most ornery, cantankerous, entitled, whingeing, self-martyred human being who ever drew breath. And those are just his good qualities.” Ouch. Clearly he had never been told to search for two stars.
“The biggest obstacle to happiness is self-denigration,” so says Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron. Not when reviewers like that are around! But even if you’ve had the wet dishcloth treatment from others, one can, at least, try to be less self-critical. We can and should apply measure to self-judgement, though often we don’t. As C. said to me lately – If I spoke to my friends the way I speak to myself I wouldn’t be my friend!
I don’t know if it remains the practice, but there was a day when head teachers had to write a statement of recommendation for their sixth form students when applying for University. My dad told me about a priest he knew from another school who was notorious for his snake-fanged, poisonous references. So much so they no longer carried any currency and every Admissions Department looked forward to reading them, deducing that those students who bore the bulk of his ire were generally the very ones worth considering. It was a case of Dorothy Parker’s words in action: “I don’t care what is written about me so long as it isn’t true.”
The very opposite of acerbic disparagement was displayed in the much loved British Telecom TV advertisement from the 1980’s. Anthony had taken a call from his gran (Maureen Lipman’s ‘Beattie’) about his exam results. He’s sitting disconsolately at the bottom of the stairs, the phone chord stretching to the plug by the front door, where all telephones were back then – the coldest place in the house, so you didn’t linger too long. She’s in her kitchen, putting the finishing touches to a celebration cake. Her face drops when she hears he has failed. She lifts the little marzipan certificate scroll from the smooth sheet of white royal icing in dismay as he lists his considerable failures: Maths, English, Physics, Geography, German, Woodwork, Art. But her face lights up and she devotedly replaces the scroll onto the cake when she hears that passed two: Pottery (“Anthony, people will always need plates!”) and, the cherry on the cake (had there been one), Sociology. Beattie gives us a master class in buoyant, positive feedback: “An ology! He gets an ology and he says he’s failed… you get an ology you’re a scientist!”
So, if you’re on the receiving end of some harsh judgement, you could do worse than to phone your granny. If you don’t have one, try practice being your own best friend and give yourself two stars.