Responding to the brouhaha this week over “This American Life” host Ira Glass’s irritable response to some Shakespeare, the New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead has published a valuable — if, I think, incomplete — meditation on one of Glass’s complaints, that the Bard does not feel “relatable” to him.
In the rise of this standard for judging the merits of fiction, Mead sees an expectation “that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her.”
Taken alone, this might reflect mere solipsism. But the rising cry for more “relatable” art operates in conversation with other changing means of talking about culture. In particular, there seems to me to be some synchronicity between the request that art be “relatable” and the request, which has become more clamorous in tandem with the phenomenon Mead describes, that it be more broadly representative.
For certain classes of people, consuming mass culture is a constant exercise in empathy. If you’re anything but a straight, white man, action movies are an opportunity to exult in the strength and persistence of people who look nothing like you. Cable television has taken people of all backgrounds into a journey through the troubled mind of the middle-aged man that is well into its second decade.
Demands for “relatable” stories or characters can, in these circumstances, be a cry of “enough!” If traveling into someone else’s mind and experiences through fiction is meant to be morally improving work, we must acknowledge that sometimes that work can be tiring.
For people whose experiences (or at least basic characteristics) are well-represented in mass culture, it is one thing to visit the world of transgender women through “Orange Is the New Black,” or to muse on the experiences of young urbanites by watching “Girls” or reading “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.” At the end of the journey, you are guaranteed safe harbor. There are plenty of stories out there that might require you to exert yourself to understand sophisticated language, challenging cinematography or a non-linear story structure but that do not demand that you accept the first principles and life experiences of a character wholly unlike yourself.
These tranquil inlets do not exist for some readers, viewers and listeners — or if they do, they are small and poorly sheltered from the vast oceans that lie beyond. Is it such a sin to want to make it so that weary travelers coming home can refresh themselves deeply and head out on more ambitious adventures? Or so that visitors might be tempted to linger longer than they had planned?
If we ask for art to be more broadly relatable with the goal of nourishing curiosity, I can see no harm in it. But I think Mead is correct to identify a darker undercurrent in these waters. As she writes, “to reject any work because we feel that it does not reflect us in a shape that we can easily recognize—because it does not exempt us from the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy—is our own failure.”
But it is not an entirely random failure. To curse something as “not relatable” is often to suggest that the person wielding those words does not want to relate to the object of his or her condemnation.
Take the fierce debates over whether Hannah Horvath, the protagonist of Lena Dunham’s “Girls,” in whom entitlement and idealism make for discomfiting marriage, is “relatable.” Hannah’s sins are against herself, rather than others, unlike those of many of her fictional pay-television counterparts.
The contrast between the desire to be mesmerized by the evil charms of a Tony Soprano or a Walter White and the rush to render Hannah a pariah on the grounds that she is annoying suggests that whether someone is “relatable” has little to do with any actual desire to bond with him or her over a drink or any real shared experience. In fact, it may be the opposite. We label as “relatable” the traits we admire and aspire to, no matter their application, including strength and an active approach to the world, and condemn as alien the things we do not want to recognize ourselves, including whininess, passivity and a tendency to harsh someone else’s buzz.
And making “relatable” an adjective with both aesthetic and moral power can be a way of distancing ourselves from worldviews that are distant from our own, as measured by years or mind-sets. Shakespeare’s characters are different from us. Sexual chastity matters more for women, honor more for men. Economic mobility is as fantastical an idea as the things that take place under Oberon, Titania and Puck’s influences in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
But is it so terrible to venture thence, or into any other world not our own? The worlds we find in fiction may be enchanting or repulsive. For good or for ill, we must always return from them. Whether we come back from the journey enriched or impoverished is our choice, but we are all better off for having more to choose from.