Art in Paradise: Relating

There’s a word that’s been sticking in my craw lately. Or more accurately, in my ear, somewhere between the stirrup and anvil. I first heard it when I taught freshman English some years ago and listened to the literary opinions of the college rookie set. Lately, in perusing book reviews at Amazon and elsewhere, I’ve come across this gem again.

It has become important for the in-vogue to invoke a measure of a book’s worth they find extremely telling: is said volume “relatable”?

If you look it up, that awkward configuration of syllables means something along the lines of “able to be told.” You might say that the very existence of a book is prima facie evidence that its tale not only can be told, it has been told. But the sense in which the word is now used is quite different. “Relatability” is the measure of the characters in a work of art against oneself.

Emily Brewster, an associate editor at Springfield’s Merriam-Webster (an outfit which records usage while remaining agnostic on its merits), kindly provided some recent examples of “relatable” outside the freshman English classroom. From a 2008 Entertainment Weekly: “[Mike Myers’] unique brand of humor—driven by outsize, absurdist characters, sight gags, and elaborately constructed and at times esoteric wordplay—may be falling out of fashion as audiences drift toward more grounded, relatable comedies like Knocked Up.”

Another such example from a 2007 Time hints at the word’s emerging connotation of everyman, non-elitist familiarity: “For audiences who like their history juicy, relatable and full of comforting moral certainties—which is to say pretty much everybody without a Ph.D.—there may be no better subject than young Henry.”

So take a hypothetical tale of a newspaper arts editor who writes a weekly column—that’s relatable as all heck. I can definitely relate to that guy. The story of a coal miner who grew up in poverty in Bolivia? Can’t relate. Not relatable.

It’s a terrifying thing to witness a reader young or old dismissing a work of art that way. It’s the the retreating of a mind, the clanging-to of a portcullis. And its usage seems to be going mainstream.

“Relatability” is a dangerous way in which to measure the worth of anything. Follow that line of criticism, and the world gets smaller. Writers are only lauded when they tell tales we already know or tales we could imagine ourselves in. Writers, of course, aren’t going to cooperate en masse with this notion. But it’s frightening to imagine a readership focused on relatability nudging publishers toward bringing to light such tales more often than tales of the dreaded “unrelatable.”

The unrelatable is what makes literature such a worthy thing. We can’t live other lives, have other backgrounds, but we can read about them and come to sympathize with others and understand what drives those most different from us. We can expand our ways of thinking. Certainly, in an age of knee-jerk anti-Muslim sentiment, learning how to relate to the unrelatable through literature offers one of the few bridges between cultures.

That kind of measure also ignores all that is not basically realistic in literature. In reading works from Valley authors and presses, I’ve lately noticed a distinct trend, at least in some quarters, away from the literature of the here and now. I’m currently up to my eyeballs in the second volume in Northampton author Robert Redick’s Chathrand Voyage series, and found myself in need of a stout imagination in order to relate to Lilliputian humans, sentient rats and a mage in the guise of a mink. The many works published by Easthampton’s Small Beer Press regularly boggle with imagined worlds and impossible premises (a village in a handbag, a voyage to deliver a restless couch). For my money, such stuff is the best that literature can do: demand, challenge and stimulate imagination.

That’s why I’m banking (with a healthy dose of desperation) on another, near-miss usage of relatable that seems to pop up on occasion as if an accidental Jedi mind trick has occurred. It’s almost the opposite of its main misuse—in the other usage, a book’s relatability means its power to help readers relate to characters despite lack of similarity to said readers.

It is that trick that moves those Valley volumes—Redick’s Chathrand series, Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners, Benjamin Parzybok’s Couch—beyond interesting premise to the realm of real connection. That’s the literature that I want to read: literature of possibility, not literature about people like me, doing things I would do. Here’s hoping that’s relatable.

Author: James Heflin

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