Tuesday, October 25, 2011

"Relatability": BARF

by KARL STEEL

Read Eileen first! on the wonderful Bonnie Wheeler.

Ok. Thanks. Here's a comment I just wrote on a student paper. It's a long one (especially for a 600-word assignment!), but it finally articulates something that's been bothering me for a long time, namely, the word relatable. Yuck. Here's the comment:
the word “relatable” kind of drives me nuts. For a historical treatment of it, see here. The problem is that it suggests that certain characters are somehow naturally more relatable than others. But what kinds of literary characters readers relate to—and I think the better term is identify with (as is, they are willing to see the character as a second or even better self)—differs from time to time and culture to culture. Medieval people clearly identified with knights and kings, and often did so: the hundreds of surviving manuscripts of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain is sufficient evidence of that. But, as you say, for a few decades in the later 14th century, English readers started relating to or rather identifying with peasants instead of kings. And indeed we should say “as well as” rather than “instead of,” since chivalric literature continued to be produced and consumed in this period. If we say the new identifications happened because peasants are more “relatable” than kings, then we're just saying that of course people should “relate” to peasants instead of kings. We're just saying that this is the natural way of things, and that's the end of thinking. Except people did identify with kings etc. The question therefore should be: when do they identify with certain classes and why, and what kinds of effects do these shifts in identification cause or indicate? "Relatability" prevents analysis, whereas "identification" opens it up.
Obviously we could take this in any number of more sophisticated directions, but for a comment on an undergraduate paper, I think it's sufficient. Cut and paste for your own grading as necessary!

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Karl,

Your story is so...relatable...maybe we should just play dumb and misconstrue the word...

All best,

Julian

Chris said...

I feel like I've "identified" with a character in, what, maybe 2% of the novels I've enjoyed? (If we mean by "identify" something like seeing the character as "like me" or "like who I want to be".) But I recognize that "identification" seems to be a common way of taking pleasure in reading for some people. A friend was recently telling me about how she imagines going on the adventures that characters go on "with them" or sympathetic to them, or something along those lines. That's not at all how it works for me. Even when I do feel some sense of identification, it sometimes doesn't carry that much weight in whether I take pleasure in a book or not.

Anyway, just because people are reading and enjoying books about kings doesn't necessarily mean they're identifying with them, though I'm sure some are.

Karl Steel said...

Good point Chris. I think when students say "relatable" they mean that the characters are familiar, like them, that they can see themselves in the story, etc. In other words, they are talking about either identification or recognition, or both.

But of course reading doesn't always work this way. How would you go about teaching the difference?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

And: sometimes a story's power derives from its refusal to offer relatable OR identifiable-with characters and plots: that is, the defeat of the expectation that we can find ourselves in a narrative can be pleasurable, enticing.

Kristi said...

I agree with all of the above. I've been frustrated with the fixation on relatable books as well, and I would add that it seems to indicate that we shoukd only be teaching texts that mirror students' own experiences and perspectives. One of the great things about literature is that it can put readers into new and unexpected points of view. It can make them see things in a new way. It can help them to empathize with people from vastly different situations or backgrounds. If the only perspective they're getting is their own, I think we're doing our students a great disservice.

Karl Steel said...

Kristi, agreed. I think, too, that students (and not only students!) will call things "relatable" without realizing that they've been changed by what they've read. If we can call attention to this--"would you have found this 'relatable' at the beginning of the term?"--perhaps we can have them attend more closely to the transformative effects of art, affect, and desire.

Anonymous said...

sadly there really is no good evidence for the hope that "It can help them to empathize with people from vastly different situations or backgrounds."
but it certainly can teach them to focus on matters/tasks that they don't identify with, and or like.

Ruth Evans said...

"relatability" is rebarbative to me also -- or should that be "rebarfative"? But one critical problem is that many academics feel that students' identification with characters in texts constitutes a naively *un*critical reading (see Rita Felski on how to get some rapprochement between critical and uncritical ways of reading). But identification is not necessarily a simple process and *is* open to critique: see Cora Kaplan's great essay “The Thorn Birds: Fiction, Fantasy, Femininity,” Formations of Fantasy, ed.Victor Burgin, James Donald, and Cora Kaplan, London: Methuen, 1986,142-66. She has some psychoanalytical stuff on cross-identification as well, where gender, race, class, etc. are at stake. In other words, let's not dismiss identification -- but let's question what's involved in it.

Karl Steel said...

Ruth, agree entirely, and thanks. I'm thinking now of building in some in-class writing on these concepts *early* in the semester and perhaps pairing with some critical reading (like the essay you cite). Certainly can't hurt.