Rebecca Mead’s recent New Yorker blog entry, “The Scourge of ‘Relatability’” does a fairly good job of outlining the perfunctory nature of literary thought that we have allowed to creep into our classrooms. There is nothing wrong, per se, with the term ‘identifiable’ being supplanted by ‘relatable’; rather, the finality with which ‘relatability’ is offered up as a criterion for judging the relative merit of a piece of writing is the disturbing issue. A student citing that a work is ‘relatable’ or not is often a thinly disguised admission that said student has given a piece of writing a most cursory reading. It is the equivalent of “going with one’s gut,” and its appeal to a highly subjective, self-centered knowledge is exceedingly off-putting.
Indeed, Mead may not go far enough in condemning the use of ‘relatability.’ She rightly acknowledges the solipsism inherent in ‘relatability’, but the damage does not end there. By insisting that one find a piece of writing ‘relatable,’ that the reader find motivations or experiences in a piece of writing that recall his or her own experience, we allow a severe circumscription of the empathy developed by a healthy reading habit. Certainly characters and situations might be expected to appeal to some universal code of plausibility, but beyond that, aren’t we better served by a literature that honors diversity of experiences? Doesn’t literature have a duty to make us uncomfortable in a fundamental way, and isn’t this aspect of discomfort necessary to expand our perception of the complicated world around us?
We should always press our students to be precise in their use of terms, just as we should always urge them beyond surface-level readings. Teachers have a duty, as well, to mentor their students through the discomfort of the unfamiliar. That a character or plot line strikes the reader as familiar to their own experience is—at best—a happy coincidence, the merest of openings, perhaps, into the otherwise challenging world of a story. But it is surely no more than that, certainly not the basis upon which a work should be judged and certainly no more than the beginning of the discussion.