Have you ever told a white lie? Of course you have. We all have.
But have you ever been caught in that lie? That simple premise is explored in surprising depths in Nicole Holofcener’s new, intimate comedy You Hurt My Feelings, featuring an all-time great performance by Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
Beth, a writer, is living with the anxiety of finalizing her second book (and first novel), reading into the lack of response from her agent and what it all might mean. Her supportive husband, Don, reassures her not to stress: The book is great, just like the first one was.
Then on a random day out, Beth and her sister find their husbands in the midst of a conversation that they were never supposed to hear; Don expresses his true feelings about the book, and he’s frank—he doesn’t like it. He laments that it’s too late now, because she gave him so many chances to read it and he always gave her supportive comments. It’s good; keep going.
After Beth hears this, her world is shaken. She doesn’t hide her hurt, but for a while, she refuses to acknowledge what is bothering her. She frets to her sister about how she can’t get beyond the fact that he lied to her.
The relationship being tested is a deep one, that of a husband and wife. But layered on top of that is the writer’s relationship with her First Reader.
Stephen King, in On Writing, called this person the “Ideal Reader.” For him, like Beth, it was his spouse.
“Someone—I can’t remember who, for the life of me—once wrote that all novels are really letters aimed at one person. As it happens, I believe this. I think that every novelist has a single ideal reader; that at various points during the composition of a story, the writer is thinking, “I wonder what he/she will think when he/she reads this part?” For me that first reader is my wife, Tabitha.”
The film doesn’t go into that much detail about the specifics of Don’s role as Beth’s first reader. But her problem is twofold: 1) he wasn’t honest with her about his opinion on the books, and 2) when caught in his lie, he was honest about his opinion and that opinion wasn’t favorable.
It was hard to figure out which hurt her more: that he would lie just to spare her feelings, or that he didn’t respond to her work the way she wanted. It was clearly both, but I’m not even surely Louis-Dreyfus could pinpoint which bothered Beth the most.
King could probably relate. In On Writing, he goes on to say:
"Do all opinions weigh the same? Not for me. In the end I listen most closely to Tabby, because she’s the one I write for, the one I want to wow. If you’re writing primarily for one person besides yourself, I’d advise you to pay very close attention to that person’s opinion (I know one fellow who says he writes mostly for someone who’s been dead fifteen years, but the majority of us aren’t in that position). And if what you hear makes sense, then make the changes. You can’t let the whole world into your story, but you can let in the ones that matter the most. And you should."
Beth’s pain was magnified by the fact that both she and Don made numerous references to the many drafts she’d let him read over the course of two years. She’d invited him in, and rather than helping, he passed on the opportunity to spare her feelings.
King writes of a car ride in which Tabby was first reading one of his stories, and how he couldn’t stop watching her expectantly:
“There are some funny parts in it—at least I thought so—and I kept peeking over at her to see if she was chuckling (or at least smiling). I didn’t think she’d notice, but of course she did. On my eighth or ninth (I guess it could have been my fifteenth), she looked up and snapped: 'Pay attention to your driving before you crack us up, will you? Stop being so goddam needy!'
I paid attention to my driving and stopped sneaking peeks (well…almost). About five minutes later, I heard a snort of laughter from my right. Just a little one, but it was enough for me. The truth is that most writers are needy. Especially between the first draft and the second, when the study door swings open and the light of the world shines in.”
The beauty of You Hurt My Feelings is that it extends that truth more broadly: Humans are needy people. It shows the ways that four closely connected people can feel dissatisfaction, ruts of all kinds, in their working lives, especially when those pursuits have come to make up such a large portion of how they define themselves, both outwardly and inwardly.
One criticism of the film might be that it’s too niche, with a storyline that only a creative could truly understand. And perhaps it’s true that the film will resonate deeper to those with a creative streak, I don’t think any feeling human will watch and not recognize something of herself on screen.