“What have you been reading lately?”
“Have you watched this new show on Netflix?”
“Are you serious? You haven’t seen it?”
These were all a series of questions I faced daily while studying at university. At first glance, they only seem like friendly small talk to a bunch of students minoring in Cinema Studies. However, over time these questions carried far greater implications, becoming a test of my expertise and taste for films. How committed was I to my craft as a film student? Had I watched the classic films and genres? More importantly: did I really “understand” these films?
As a university student, I found the value people around me placed on the creative classics was not just exclusive to film studies. In my literature classes, I was confronted with a long list of works and names of authors that had been recommended by my peers and tutors. Some of which I’d never heard of, and most, I had yet to read. This left me feeling daunted with thoughts of inadequacy and whether I was worthy of studying film and literature.
I felt that I needed to find a way to fit in consuming all this new creative content that I was being exposed to. I found myself frantically considering how I could reshape my watching and reading habits so that I could familiarise myself with these classic films and novels. Watching and reading all this new content would in turn help me with my studies and degree.
Having perfectionist tendencies made me terrified of missing out or falling behind in the competition of creativity. It felt like my choice to minor in film and more broadly being creative – had attached a mounting pressure to develop an omnipotent understanding of my creative medium.
I asked myself: How can a writer balance the need to read and be influenced by the greats while keeping afloat in the constantly shifting landscape of ever-readily available content fed to us every day? And how do we decide what is worthy of our creative consumption?
How to Pick What to Read and Watch?
Staying up to date with the latest developments in any given field can be overwhelming, especially when it comes to consuming media in a professional setting. From reading the latest New York Times bestseller to watching every Oscar Nominated Film. Keeping up with the trends in your creative industry and understanding them can be stressful. I know at times I’ve felt that the consumption of my creative mediums has felt more like a chore rather than fun.
Your own desire to stay ahead of the competition is constantly battling with the need to enjoy what you’re consuming. I’ve always enjoyed high-concept sci-fi films like Star Wars and Dune as well as the novels by Iain M Banks. But I often felt guilty watching or reading these films and books while completing my degree. The books and films I enjoy consuming wouldn’t have been on any critic’s list of essential media. Constantly, I fretted that if I were reading or watching something, shouldn’t it be what those in my field consider to be the peaks of the medium?
I started prioritising the importance of consuming prestigious films and books. However, what suffered was my consumption of entertainment. Rather than enjoying a novel or film for the sake of it, I was learning and trying to understand why these films and novels were considered a niche within their field.
I realised one day that keeping up with all the essential consumption of media within my chosen field as a creative was exhausting. It ultimately put a huge strain on my creative drive and I wondered whether it was necessary to sacrifice what I enjoy reading, watching, or playing for professional advantage.
Would my work within the film industry or as a writer be impacted by watching too much anime, or reading a cheap spy thriller? Will others who don’t consume less “intellectual” entertainment outclass my own work with their sophisticated taste? Would my creative tastes in film and novels leave me at a disadvantage?
Working as a creative, there is always a balance of refining and using your own voice, while learning from and respecting the voices of others. It’s a slippery ideal that I’ve learnt we as creatives must regularly contend with.
I see it like this: There is no ‘right’ answer in the arts, just different perspectives.
So, instead of placing so much importance on the ‘esteem’ surrounding entertainment you’re consuming, remember to freely choose what you want to watch. If you avoid being honest with yourself about what you really enjoy, you’ll grow to disdain it.
What if I Don’t Enjoy What is Considered “Essential?”
When it comes to influential works within a creative field, there are certain perspectives considered to be ‘essential’ to the craft. In my literature classes, I’ve always been encouraged to explore the classic works of Dickens, Twain and the Brontë’s. In film, it’s almost a necessity to have watched and enjoyed some Coppola’s and Kubrick’s films.
At university, in my classes, I would notice a little bit of tension in sharing one’s taste and choice of movies. Any talk about what you’d seen lately could be rife with judgement if it didn’t include a critically heralded “good” movie.
Personally, I’ve never cared much for James Dean as an actor. He is considered someone whose evolution of cinematic acting is a must-see and riveting by most critics in the industry. After being constantly recommended his films, I sat down to watch Giant and Rebel Without a Cause and after consuming both films, I decided I had had my fill. Instead, I chose to continue watching shows I enjoyed like Seinfeld and Sherlock.
I learnt after watching the two James Dean films that I should always give things a chance and keep an open mind. But I should never be ashamed of what entertainment I was enjoying and refuse to give in to fraudulent artistic credibility.
Truthfully, both in personal and professional life, the concept of being totally ‘caught up’ and a complete expert on one’s own medium is a virtual impossibility. The never-ending 24-hour cycle of public opinion and the infinite backlog of work to catch up on means that you’re better off focusing on what you’re passionate about.
There’s no shame in loving what might be considered ‘lowbrow’ or being bored by the popular niche works within your creative industry. Re-reading your favourite book from your childhood instead of reading a classic like The Iliad doesn’t make you any less of a writer.
Plenty of actors haven’t seen Gone with the Wind, and yet they still produce meaningful work and remain gainfully employed. Those in your creative field will appreciate someone who shows genuine passion for something that they really understand, rather than someone spread thin with a desperate grasp on many different works.
So don’t be afraid to embrace your own creative niche. And while it might feel overwhelming to consider the things you’re missing out on, you can take comfort in the fact that you can deeply appreciate and understand the things you’re passionate about.