October 5th 2014
Yes, but can you relate…?
The issue of “relatability” is not a new one, although the word describing it has been a relatively recent arrival in modern dictionaries.
In a recent essay in the New Yorker of all places, Rebecca Mead opens up by a critic’s dismissal of King Lear, in particular, and Shakespeare, in general, as not being “relatable”. Given that Shakespeare lived and wrote all those centuries ago, I’d think that the mere fact that his plays were being performed AT ALL today, let alone with such reverence and adulation which has been the Bard’s due ever since he put quill to parchment would be a more than adequate indication of just how “relatable” the audiences have found them.
I have to wonder what this critic’s beef is. I mean, I think we can take it for granted that absolutely nobody in any audience at any performance of Lear is likely to be a mad old king or a capering fool on a blasted heath or a snotty princess dissing her royal daddy. Not directly, at least. There are plenty of snotty ‘princesses’ all too happy to diss “royal” daddies out there, though, and I guess enough of them live on the Upper West Side of NYC for something like this to be eminently relatable to some of them.
But the point is, are we really to understand that people read – or go to the theatre – or watch a movie – simply and solely so that they can narcissistically gaze upon themselves and for no other reason? Because that is what “relatability”, in this context, seems to imply. A dismissal of a work because it isn’t “about me”, because I can’t “find myself in it”, is, at best, shallow. It simply fails to take into account that there ARE other people out there who are not, and will never be, you. The issue that you may not be particularly interested in what a particular “other” says or does is one thing; to dismiss the work in which the ”other” appears (or perhaps does NOT specifically appear…) is to willfully ignore the fact that that “other” actually exists.
This started with Shakespeare – but it is something that can be particularly applicable to things like genre fiction, particularly the fantasy and science fiction stories which may contain by definition mythical non-existent creatures or alien races which are emphatically not “relatable” to the human being. I mean, if you are reading “Lord of the Rings”, are you REALLY literally trying to find your inner Hobbit? Are you literally looking at Captain Mal, or Worf, or Deanna Troi, or (God help us) Captain Kirk, and going, “Wait, that’s MEEEEE!” ? I think the best you can do is to look for qualities inside those characters which might be meaningful to something human inside of yourself – but that cannot be the reason you read those books or watch those shows. The rational part of your brain knows that one kind of genre has never been and will never be possible, and another is far from being possible YET. But you’re there anyway. You’re “relating” as best you can to something that is squarely non-you. And the best enchanters who practice these arts are good enough to make you shed your human skin for just a little while and know what it FEELS like to be an alien or an elf. That’s as relatable as things get.
Are we, and should we be, holding human characters to a higher standard than this, then? Does a human character – who after all is as human as you are – have to be transparently “relatable” to your precise parameters of humanity in order for you to be able to understand that character, or like him/her?
I understand that there is a different problem that can be framed by this context, and that is that not nearly enough characters out there are anything other than Great! White! Hero! tropes, riding to the rescue to redeem worlds (look at “Avatar” – the GWH even gets morphed into a blue Na’avi but he still remains a GWH who is the cavalry to the poor benighted natives…) I can understand perfectly that a young woman of color, for instance, is going to struggle to find a heroine who looks and acts like her in the overwhelming majority of genre stuff out there (although I can see that, slowly and ponderously to be sure but still, changing in recent years…) But should stories be, must they remain, merely mirrors in which a reader (of any stripe) hopes to see themselves reflected? What about seeing stories as windows, instead, growing out to “relate” to that other, out there, rather than constantly looking for a spirit reflection of one’s own self?
No, Shakespeare – any more than Heinlein, or Burroughs, or Howard, or Tolkien – is not “relatable”, in a direct way. We don’t live in Middle Earth, or Barsoom, or next to an ocean which harbors a fitfully napping Cthulthu, or at any time during the 1400s. We don’t, and we can’t, and we never will. But those of us who are readers have travelled to all those places and times, and more. And if the windows we’ve been invited to look through were clear enough, we could “relate” just fine.
What about not whining that you aren’t King Lear, and instead, find that still small kernel inside yourself with which you can understand what drives a King Lear… and ask what kind of insanity it might drive YOU to if you listened too closely to its insistent cries? What about seeking empathy, and understanding, and a deeper comprehension of all that it is to be human… rather than insisting that all we should be watching and reading has to reflect just the shallow shell of its outer trappings…?
Read widely. Read DEEPLY. Seek out new life, and new civilizations, as it were. And when you find them, don’t expect them to be pale copies of the things that you already carry inside yourself. A healthy sense of wonder is a far, far greater thing than a tightly trammelled “relatability”.
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Alma Alexander is a novelist, short story writer and anthologist whose books include High Fantasy ("Hidden Quen""Changer of Days"), historical fantasy ("Secrets of Jin Shei", "Embers of Heaven"), contemporary fantasy ("Midnight at Spanish gardens") and YA (the Worldweavers series, the Were Chronicles). She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two cats. Visit site.
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