Piper Wheeler

So Damn Relatable

ISSUE 43 | BAR | AUG 2014

Because a few recent posts on “the scourge of relatability” have corresponded with my preparing to teach an intro-level writing course this fall, I’ve been thinking lately of what “relatable” means and what its apparent vogue at the moment can tell us, if anything, about reading and teaching to read. My own syllabus, which follows a character I’m calling the anxious male through Russian modernism, is a monument to unrelatability. It’s just spoiled white guys fondling their own neuroses for pages at a time. I’ll be attempting to interest a class of smart, driven but unliterary eighteen- or twenty-year-olds in the problems of art and form that, to me, are represented by these annoying, nervous bros. Reading Rebecca Mead’s and Rebecca Onion’s posts (in the New Yorker and Slate, respectively), I find myself agreeing with their premises, but unsatisfied with their arguments’ tones, which seem rank with smug disdain for those who want their art “relatable.” I sympathize, after all, with my prospective students’ imagined protestations that my syllabus pays far too much attention to dead white guys. I think they should be given a good reason for spending hours with the whiny, possibly insane hero of Notes from Underground—a better reason than “it’s Important Literature.” And I think that in an ideal world, college students wouldn’t be fed diets of white male voices. Yet I believe my syllabus can make them better at thinking and, if I’m honest for a moment, I believe that reading these books might make them better human beings.

Recently, Mead took Ira Glass in her crosshairs for a few glib tweets of his that dismiss Shakespeare’s plays as “not relatable, unemotional.” If we can for a moment relate to the admittedly tiresome Ira Glass: when we find Shakespeare alienating, what are we asking that art be? The gulf that separates Glass from Lear is a historical one, and that history manifests in an understanding of form that has become strange to us. Glass’ own art—the eight- or twenty-minute segments of his long-running weekly radio show—is highly formal in its own way. Each tale, told in an individual’s voice, most often grounded in autobiography and featuring confessional asides, presents a contemporary experience or phenomenon and follows a comforting, recognizable narrative arc. There are realizations; the speaker learns something supposedly subtle about himself or about the world. The requirements of the show are that each segment be “interesting,” which here means they expand the listener’s frame of experience—but very gently! For instance, the heavily accented voice of Sandra Tsing Loh’s unreconstructed immigrant father appears on the show only in his daughter’s impersonation. In her stories, she provides a middle-class American frame through which we, the middle-class American listener, can access the father’s strange subjectivity and so be “interested.” Characteristically, the point of her stories is not to come to an understanding of the father himself, but to explore the effects of his strangeness on her, the American daughter with whom we the audience might want to identify or converse.

Because This American Life is a curated collection of multiple authors who tell their own tales, the show would appear more democratic than, say, “King Lear,” written by a single individual revered for his genius. When we read or watch a Shakespeare play, we (one thinks) access only Shakespeare’s voice. I think that a persuasive argument could be made that all of the diverse—to a point—voices on This American Life give us entry only to the voice of Glass himself, his Generation X white American Jewish male persona kaleidoscoping into a set of American identities that is both multicolored and predictably homogenized, like the fresh-faced array of multiethnic youth trotted out on the cover of a college brochure. He, representing the toothlessly civic-minded institution of public radio, gives his audience the appearance of difference without ever admitting that difference exists. Indeed, the heart of the show’s philosophy is a denial of difference. This American Life insists that we are all, in certain heart-warming ways, fundamentally alike. (Compare Brandon Stanton’s “Humans of New York.” Compare video clips of wild animals playing, or feeding their young.)

That a banal insistence on the humanity of humans makes for careers as successful as that of Ira Glass is, maybe, notable in itself. Given this principle, culture becomes a veneer. Scratch off the delusory seeming of difference—of language, religion, belief, ethnicity—and anyone can be relatable, sympathetic, recognizable. No one is evil on This American Life, and nothing escapes the soft glow of humanistic understanding. Why is this pap oppressive? It circumscribes human feeling to a set of blunted sympathies. Worse, it limits human capacities to those immediately necessary for our stumbling navigation of this late capitalist globe.

Utopianism, and related visions of liberation, demands a view of the human spirit that is expansive, slippery and lithe. If only because artistic production bears such a resemblance to the utopian, a literature class seems as good a place as any to learn of what humans are capable. This is what I want to give my students: the knowledge that they themselves and the world at large are crammed full of mystery. That people and phenomena are ultimately unknowable; that any individual is a fantastically idiosyncratic product of cultural processes, all variegated, plural and conflicting—and all susceptible at any moment to transformation, by accident or by acts of will. Our contemporary narratives—so often obsessed by the plausible, the recognizable, the most moderate alterations of the self—prove to be poor laboratories for this kind of learning. That, to me, is damning.

To be equipped with a capacity for recognizing and respecting mystery means, ideally, to have a sense of self that is extravagant and open to change. You are a historical being, but works of art can allow you access (glimpsing and transformative) to foreign frames of mind. To “relate,” though, is to see oneself in another without being for a second liberated from a subjectivity bound by historical predicament, physical situation, social prejudice. To demand “relatability” from art is double-pronged. On the one hand, it is a denial of real difference, an insistence on human experience as a middling state of common impulses that are supposed to transcend history and all the complex workings of culture. (I’m reminded of the principles behind evolutionary psychology, with its certainty that The Way Things Work is the product of rude biology, and its corresponding drive to naturalize all manner of contemporary prejudice.) On the other, paradoxically, it grants enormous privilege to the detritus of existence—to the accidents of race and gender and money and era, of shoes and brand names and beverages. We relate to those who seem like us, either because they have been cleansed of real particularity or because their accoutrements resemble our own.

But once I read a preface written by Italo Calvino to one of his books. It was an instruction to the reader to set himself up at a pleasant table in the shade, to make sure he had a snack and something cool to drink, and, assuming he smoked, to have his cigarettes and an ashtray nearby. Because I smoked a great deal then I felt a flash of special kinship with the author, as though this book had been written with me specifically in mind. That flash was enough to establish Calvino—despite the seeming shallowness of the connection—as a friend.

Another moment: Walking with a female friend through my neighborhood, I mention to her how I like when older black men sometimes jut their chins toward me as I pass. (We are both white.) This habit still seems to me serene, and shot through with a respectful mutuality. It’s an acknowledgement, not a greeting, and asks for nothing but the same. “I know,” my friend said, “it’s so wonderful to be correctly read.

Compare a man who leered from the window of a white truck and declared, I SEE YOU! How do I respond? The greeting, expected to invite me into an interaction, expels me from it.

To be read is no small thing. This is the problem with “relatable”: to dismiss it is to scorn what we all know to be an enduring—and somehow pure—pleasure. Who didn’t sit in a public library at thirteen and feel himself expanding hugely into a page of Anna Karenina or Weetzie Bat or Dune? It depended on identification, that expansion. It had none of the disinterest expected of the philologist. We recognize it as immature because it depends, in part, on immaturity: we relate ourselves to Levin and Kitty because we don’t yet know how we are or are not like them. At thirteen we are still forming ourselves in a half-conscious delirium, grasping at the preferences of fictional characters the same way we examine, swallow or reject those of older siblings or acquaintances or parents. I suppose this is why I still read, and why I think it matters—because it might be the most trustworthy route to that young indeterminacy of self. I think that the best kind of reading—and the best encounters, with art or with others—gives you a sense of not knowing who you are. Calvino’s instructions to readers might be instructions for getting rid of yourself. Given a few pages, along with food, water and cigarettes, you can enter an aesthetic realm of free play; you are released from the daily activities of getting and keeping; you can stop for a while being defined by the way others see you, or by the small narratives you have built within yourself.

But this is an ideal, and doesn’t take into account that writers, like you and me, are assholes and sometimes bigots. Many books bar entrance to many among us, and this exclusion makes me want to take seriously demands for “relatability.” This problem lies close to the heart of ongoing academic debates about trigger warnings. I can imagine a student for whom Lolita feels as threatening and exclusionary as that man in his white pickup. Fundamentally, it seems unfair to demand so much more imaginative labor of females, of people of color, of the poor—especially if those readers are required to imagine themselves out of existence, as a racist narrative might seem to cancel out the subjectivity of readers of color. And despite a lexical overlap, to have one’s subjectivity and experience nullified by a fictional narrative is not at all the same as to be freed, in the imaginative realm, from the limits of one’s subjectivity and experience. I think that Lolita is a really good book, which is not a defense of pedophilia. But I am not a survivor of incest or pedophilia, and I can’t know what pain the novel might cause people traumatized by their own pasts. I can’t know the harm felt by someone for whom reading gives no relief from their own lived experiences of white supremacist culture.

Rebecca Onion, in Slate, begins and ends her essay with the Twitter feed @Relatable. This feed—along with about a hundred similar ones—is aimed at teenage girls, and skews toward black experience (although, fascinatingly, most of the feeds have white girls as their avatars). Onion, who doesn’t seem to note the racial and cultural slant of these feeds, finishes her takedown of “relatability” by musing,

Could "relatable" Twitter and Tumblr be spaces for girls to feel better about shared experiences that would otherwise be painful? Far be it from me to deny them!

Let's just erect a 700-foot, solid-ice wall between social media and the classroom. There.

But it’s woefully inadequate to pretend that our online lives have no bearing on our reading, or that we can be wholly different social beings in the classroom and on Tumblr. If black teenage girls—and gender non-conforming people, and the disabled, and all those whose desires and identities the dominant culture has failed to nurture—are driven to construct private communities of understanding and commonality on the internet, they’re doing so at least in part in order to articulate a shared minoritarian identity. These uses of “relatable,” then, might be a case of a minoritarian project that borrows normative and universal language. The girls who run “relatable” Twitter feeds are, I think, not blithely attempting to wash away difference in the same way as do This American Life and similar lukewarm products of liberal media. Their efforts at self-articulation are more interesting and odd, in that they foment communities based on specific and acknowledged subjectivities.

Great Works of Literature, too, relate to specific subjectivities, reject the normative and the universalized, and allow for extravagant difference. The anxious males that I will inflict upon my young charges will, I hope, help them find their way toward an understanding of subjectivity that is always highly specific and situated. The course will pose masculinity as a central concern, and aim to articulate the male subject, rather than allow him to stand as an unquestioned, default mode of being. I don’t know if it will be a good course, but as long as it convinces some college kid that she—in her homelessness and hunger and rage—can relate to Kafka, I think I’ll feel just fine.

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