Saturday, February 28, 2015

What’s relatable

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.]

comments: 2

Michael Leddy said...

The Crow left a comment that wouldn’t come through:

I'll see your "Amen to that" and raise you two - for the pot.

How have we arrived to this point? Is "not relatable" applied only to literature or has it spread to the other arts? To the sciences? Is this why there are so many warehouses for the elderly and the infirm? Is there an age limit or a gender bias to being relatable? How long, nowadays, does something or someone remain relatable? Until the next generation of technology comes along? Is this idea of 'not relatable' a by-product of the forever-evolving race to develop self-sustaining AI?

When did being human, and all that that phrase entails, become irrelevant?

Michael Leddy said...

You can see it, I think, in attitudes toward art, movies, music, especially when younger adults write things off as before their time, antiquated. As I always say to my students, most of what’s worth knowing about happened before our time.