Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Relatable Reading

I hate it. I do.

And yet, there it is in the OED. And there it is in usage all the time. And still I hate it.

1. Able to be told or narrated; suitable for relating.
2. Able to be brought into relation with something else; capable of being related or connected (to something).
3. That can be related to (RELATE v. 9); with which one can identify or empathize.

The first usage for the 3rd meaning listed is from 1965, and yes, it seems to be reporting student usage

(OED. "Relatable.")

I was reading a piece of student work today, and there it was. The student was talking about the need for what students read to be "relatable" and at the same time arguing that a group that's underrepresented in the canon should be read more in classes.

So, by "relatable," the writer means something that students can identify with, because, apparently, that's how students are taught they should read. They're supposed to look for a character they can identify with, identify, and then take some sort of moral lesson or something. (Or in the case of Twilight, get all turned on by the abusive patriarchal BS.)

People who are underrepresented in the high school canon learn to read a lot of stuff about white men because most of the canon is by and about white men. And you know, those students learn to read and think and stuff. These same folks see a lot of TV representing white people at home, at work, in relationships.

White men (or boys) in our US system, however, aren't as fully taught to read works by women, minorities, people from non-Anglo cultures, and so on. That's part of white male privilege, right?

If you say at the same time that the value of literature is to be "relatable" and also say that students should read literature by underrepresented people, then there are going to be white boys who complain that they can't relate to some Hispanic person, and shouldn't be asked to read the work because it's "not relatable."

But if you take out the "relatable" and say that the purpose of reading is to learn about experiences you don't have, to broaden your horizons, to understand the greater world and stretch your thinking, then suddenly, yes, the point of what you read in school IS to read what's not easily "relatable," but rather what is most challenging.

I have a true confession to make: I listen to books on CD and tape a lot. My "reading" is dependent on what the library has available that's not mysteries (because I've tried but don't much enjoy them) or self-help (because if it's something I really need help with, I'd need to read and take notes). Lately, it seems like the tapes have been very 50s canonical. I've listened to Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises and most recently For Whom the Bell Tolls. And you know what, I found FWTBT quite compelling and interesting, despite my high school aversion to Hemingway (which was about his sexism, mostly, though I couldn't have articulated that in high school). There were some parts that were a bit repetitive, because Hemingway likes to repeat himself a fair bit. But mostly it was a good book; I stayed awake listening for a couple nights way later than I normally would. (I still found TSAR a bore. I'm bored by people who drink a lot. There, I said it.)

One of the things I really did like about FWTBT was that it caught some of the nuances of spoken Spanish in English nicely. But I doubt I would have gotten that before I was pretty decent at Spanish.

So why did we read TSAR and not FWTBT in high school? Did the powers that were not want to have to explain the Spanish Civil War, especially since we were scared witless of communism and vaguely supportive of Franco's fascism? Did they not want to deal with the sexuality or the cussing? (But then, we read Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, which has some cussing as I recall.)

But neither book is really "relatable" to me. I've never been in war, or lounged around drinking day after day, or blown up a bridge, or serially slept with one sexist male after another.

To what extent is it the author's or work's responsibility to be "relatable" and to what extent is it the reader's responsibility to stretch intellectually and think about different experiences? I tend to think it's mostly the reader's responsibility. Chaucer, for example, couldn't possibly have imagined himself being read on a computer screen; it's simply impossible that he could have tried to be "relatable" to a 21st century woman living on a continent he knew nothing of, speaking a language he wouldn't have understood. But I think Chaucer rewards his readers for stretching and reaching out to understand him, no? The same holds for Shakespeare. And, possibly, I'm willing to admit, for Hemingway.


  1. I've talked about this a lot with my summer class because we're reading memoir, which I do think relies a little bit on being relatable or at least recognizable. But I've tried to press them toward thinking in terms of authenticity. Does the writer represents her experience in a way that has the ring of truth, even if it's entirely outside of our own frame of reference. I don't know if that's actually better but I'm a little sick of hearing about whether or not they relate.

  2. In forme of speche is chaunge,
    Within a thousand yere, and wordes tho
    That hadden prys, now wonder nys and straunge
    Us thinketh hem, and yet they spak hem so,
    And spedde as wel in love as men now do . . .

    Chaucer may not have been able to imagine precisely who his future audience would be, but I think he may have expected one. And have seen love as a "relatable" concept up and down the centuries.

  3. I don't like the term "relatable" either. I'd rather we look for things in literature that are "universal" -- part of the human condition that we may NOT be able to relate to on a personal level, but that we can see some truth in. If you substitute "relatable" with "universal," then maybe you can find some similarities between you and Hemingway's work. No, you haven't been in war, but you know what it's like to fight for something you believe in when it comes to defending an argument or even going up against the administration on something. You may not have slept with tons of sexist men, one after the other, but you might have had a romantic life that was either very satisfying or very disappointing. We all experience love and loss -- those are universal enough for anyone to understand, whether it comes from a the perspective of a Latina or a white dude. Maybe we can't relate to "being" a Latina or a white dude, but we can often relate to the universality of experiences. That's what makes literature "relevant."

  4. When I saw the opening of this, my internal yelling was exactly the same point: if it's perfectly relatable, it's just what you already are - why even bother to read it? By that theory, to anyone, the best book written ever would always be their own autobiography. The whole point is to get to something that BROADENS your viewpoint.

    I mean - take one of my all time favorites: is ANYONE in Lolita "relatable?" Would you even want them to be?

    Goddess, it's the pop culture "me first" mentality invading reading.

  5. fie and sara have great points -- literature should take one past the boundaries of one's own experiences, while exploring themes or ideas that are more universal. the expressions of those ideas may vary widely, just as the variety of personal experiences do. i always thought of literature as opening doors that would never present themselves in my ordinary life, and of making me think of those larger concepts in ways i hadn't.

  6. Hmmm...I'm with you on the relatable, but I'm finding myself a bit wary of just substituting it with the idea of the universal. I think there's a beauty in the particulars that literature forces us to look at in ways that other areas of study do not.

  7. no quarrel with that, dr. mon.

  8. And I also express disgust that the word "relatable" has made it into the dictionary. It sounds so Valley Girl, "It was, like, totally relatable!"