I got together with two friends for a visit last weekend. We hadn’t seen each other in quite a while; we have a wide range of interests and busy lives, so we had lots to catch up on. Eventually, the conversation turned to books and movies . . . what we were reading, what we were watching. And since the Academy Award nominations had been announced earlier that week, we began discussing which of the movies we planned to see, if any.
This year, there’s one movie I’m not sure I’ll watch: The Banshees of Inisherin. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh and starring Colin Firth and Brendan Gleeson, the movie is set on a remote Irish island and tells the story of two lifelong friends who drifted apart after the end of the 1923 Irish Civil War. It is not, by all accounts, a feel-good film. It is described, at best, as bleak. It’s also a movie that seems to evoke particularly strong emotions. Those who love it rave about it. Those who hate it do so with a passion.
“I wonder how the screenwriter feels?” I wondered aloud to my friends. “To have produced something so many people dislike?”
“There’s no guarantee something you create will be well-received,” one friend responded.
“And it’s been nominated for an Academy Award,” my second friend added. “So not everyone disliked it.”
They were both right. However, too many negative reviews of a movie, a book, an art installation or any other creative venture can mean the difference between success and failure. And by success, I don’t mean public accolades and praise, but the kind of success that allows an artist to make a living, even a modest one, and carry on with their craft. For a writer, a book that draws significant negative reviews won’t sell well, which could mean no contract on their next book. These two women aren’t writers, but they’ve been my friends long enough to understand some of how publishing works. They were sympathetic.
After a minute, one of them said, “Maybe society needs to reframe the idea that disliking something is bad.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You know what they say – if everyone likes you, you’re not living an authentic life.” She paused just long enough for us to reflect on that. And then she said, “Maybe it’s the same for art. If everybody likes what you produce, how authentic can it be?”
I know, intellectually, that tastes vary. Not everyone will love the same book or movie or song. The same food, the same colour, the same breed of dog. And yet, as a creator, I want people to love what I produce. So, if I’m truly honest with myself, anything less than that feels like a failure.
But my friend helped me see a simple yet profound truth: Something that is truly authentic is never a failure. It may not appeal to the masses; it may not be a critical or commercial success. But it can still be meaningful, it can still touch people, it can still convey feelings and reveal big truths. In the same way that authenticity in relationships is where we find our true joy, authenticity in creativity is where we find our true success.
I still don’t know whether I’ll watch The Banshees of Inisherin. Apparently, people leave the theatre crying, and I don’t need sadness in my life right now. But I do need authenticity. So maybe I’ll pack up my Kleenex and go.