Ira Glass gave teachers of lit an odd little gift with his fleetingly infamous comment that King Lear is “not relatable.” Oh yeah? When I teach the play later this spring, I’ll probably invite my students to
bash that piñata argue against that point of view. I will first have to explain who Ira Glass is: This American Life, as I already know, is off my students’ radar.
Looking up Glass’s comment now, I found a terrific response by Rebecca Mead, The Scourge of “Relatability” (The New Yorker). It might be generally useful to teachers who want to resist the idea that a work of lit must somehow meet a reader on the reader’s own terms. An excerpt:
To appreciate King Lear — or even The Catcher in the Rye or The Fault in Our Stars — only to the extent that the work functions as one’s mirror would make for a hopelessly reductive experience. But 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. It’s a failure that has been dispiritingly sanctioned by the rise of “relatable.” In creating a new word and embracing its self-involved implications, we have circumscribed our own critical capacities. That’s what sucks, not Shakespeare.Amen to that.
[“Later this spring”: as in spring semester. I’ve substituted italics for quotation marks in the excerpt.]