As my students know, I loathe the word “relatable.” They know because I always tell them, usually early in the semester, and there is always a casualty (and to those unfortunates, I offer an overdue apology, along with my unstinting gratitude for supplying me with my teaching moment).
I had not even heard the word “relatable” until about 10 years ago. In his “On Language” column in the New York Times, Ben Zimmer traces the evolution of the word “relatable” from “able to be related,” as in a story that can be told, to the new usage, “something you can relate to.” He partly blames the influence of television: mass culture requires mass relatability. Since television traffics in flattery of its target demographics, “relatable” is a proxy for profitable. As long as characters on screen offer easy access to fantasies of “they’re just like me,” albeit slightly better looking and with better apartments, our eyes stay glued to the magic mirror.
The problem with “relatable” is that, like the passive voice, it dupes the reader by smudging out the subject. When I say something is relatable, I mean I can relate to it. But, instead of taking responsibility as the one that does the relating, with all the attendant limitations and qualifications that attribution implies, “relatable” pretends what I experience is actually a quality of the object. This might seem like a venal sin, but it has mortal consequences for the intellect.
Vladimir Nabokov, one of the great literary stylists of the twentieth century, calls “impersonal imagination” (Lectures on Literature, 4) the reader’s most important tool; identifying with a character is “the worst thing a reader can do” (4). We need “scientific” aloofness to balance emotional intuition if we are to recognize the specificity, the otherness, of the author’s experience. When we identify, we replace the author’s experience with our own; we find – yet again – our same old selves. I can think of no greater horror than being sentenced to bump forever against the bars of my own brain. Say goodbye to the sudden insight that might cause us to reevaluate who and what we are; say goodbye to the exhilarating leap into strangeness.
“Relatable” is the perfect word for a narcissistic age, insisting on the adequacy of the receiver’s experience, even though perhaps the most important reason for reading is to acknowledge our own incompleteness. Writing about student evaluations, Mark Edmundson tells of a professor’s solution to this form of self-satisfaction:
It’s said that some time ago a Columbia University instructor used to issue a harsh two-part question. One: What book did you most dislike in the course? Two: What intellectual or characterological flaws in you does that dislike point to? (Harper’s, September 1, 1997)
Edmundson’s cheeky professor raises a real issue. When we cannot relate, maybe we ought to look inward; the fault is not in our books, but in us.
I will admit, I have heard reasonable defenses of “relatable.” Just the other day, a student pointed out, “it doesn’t mean others have to relate, only that I do.” Maybe so, but framing it as a matter of relatability at all presumes we are central to the business at hand. Do authors write for us? Or do they write for themselves, out of a fascination with a feeling, a voice, a story, or a texture that they feel compelled to put into words? If it is the latter, then we are not the destination; we are no more than a bathroom break along the way.
Or, you might argue, “relatable” is like “edible,” just a way of describing whether or not something is ingestible by mind instead of mouth. But not exactly: “edible” describes an empirically verifiable state of being - either something can be eaten or not – the burden of which rests entirely with the object proposed as food (unless we mean it figuratively as hyperbole). Our ability to relate to a work of literature, in contrast, evolves depending on the effort we put into it. A shovel will always be inedible, no matter how good you get at chewing.
Edmundson and Nabokov point to how “relatable” makes intellectual laziness an approved category. We all have a tendency to treat the new things we encounter as confirmation of what we already know. This is how Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” became a poem about following your own path in life rather than a poem about self-deception and regret. Writers play with expectations—they trick us into thinking we are reading something familiar, only to twist it into something new. When we reflexively reduce what they have written to confirmation of our half-formed thoughts, we get it exactly wrong; in our rush to hear our common sense reflected back at us, we miss the meaning entirely.
Ultimately, calling something “relatable” undoes the real work of reading. Reading means hearing the voices of the others that inhabit the texts we read. Some effort is required. Empathy is not a thing that we all simply have in equal measure, it is to be cultivated, and reading is a tool for this end. Reading well can make all things “relatable,” but this is the outcome, not the precondition for our encounter with a work of art or literature.
A work of literature is only as large as the mind that contains it. So next time you find yourself thinking about whether a work is “relatable,” I have a suggestion: look for what is not “relatable” in the text; that is where you are most likely to find its genius. But I imagine you knew that’s what I would say.