Should Literature Be “Relatable?” (by Becca Souza)

There’s a question going around academic circles and popping up in conversation between instructors. Should literature—and art—be “relatable”?

This semester, I’m taking the heavy English course that many majors choose to undergo—Major Texts in Critical Theory. Theorists have been arguing about why we study literature and the purpose of art since the time of Plato. After hearing Professor Catherine Robson mention the topic of “relatability” in her British Literature II course last semester, I’ve realized this debate still has a contemporary application: Should an effort be made to make books of the English canon more interesting to students by stressing their relatability? Or should they be pushed forward for their other values, despite unrelatable characters and circumstances? I had a chance to talk with Prof. Robson on this subject, and her argument against relatability is summed up in this question: “Do we want the work to confirm our ideas or do we want it to unsettle us?”

Many scholars think that relatability is an amateur method of critical analysis. While identification is one of the pleasures of reading, to judge a work solely on whether or not you felt connected to the characters is a failure of engagement. “I think relatability is a quick emotion; you don’t have to sit and figure it out. It’s a first response,” Prof. Robson responds, “I think students know that academic classes are about going beyond the first response.”

Online attempts to make Disney princesses more relatable have included changing their ethnicity.
Online attempts to make Disney princesses more relatable have included changing their ethnicity.

One argument in defense of relatability points out how relatability depends on who is reading. As a non-male, non-white, modern-day reader of literature, I have to make an effort to connect with the characters in my coursework all the time. However, this isn’t to say that I am never able to relate to the works I’ve encountered. “Relatable” in this sense becomes a subjective term—who will be able to identify with what? Questioning the reader complicates the idea of relatability. If we consider how relatability depends on the reader, then all of the identities attached to that reader become apparent. Some argue that the books we study actually speak to a very limited type of experience, and that finding representation for people of color or women or LGBT people in novels is an area that still needs work. In this sense, by critiquing relatability, we may be discounting the efforts of those who work to find political representation in the novels that are read in literature courses.

Yet sometimes what is deemed “unrelatable” can surprise you. Professor Robson encountered this when she taught the contemporary novel, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. Initially she thought that the protagonist’svery specific circumstances would prevent students from relating to him, creating a barrier between them and critical analysis. “The character’s a bit older in his 60s, I’m in my 50s; I found it very relatable. I wondered ‘is this relatable, will it mean the same thing, are my students going to be able to relate since they’re not 50, 60 years old?’ It’s about looking back 40 years back to when you were an undergraduate. It ended up being a very beautiful thing. I thought, ‘how can they know that!’ We tend to think we will relate to characters who are close to us—the same age, gender, race, whatever—but a good representation of the human is going to speak to any human.” The barrier of relatability fades away in a work that actively challenges convention or opens up a new experience for the reader—which puts the reader in a place ready for critical thinking.

Jane Eyre versus Wuthering Heights

So what role does relatability have in the classroom? Perhaps we should read works precisely because they are “unrelatable.” Professor Robson finds another way to handle “relatability” in her reading lists. “I find it very useful to put Jane Eyre (which is sort of a relatable text; students will say, ‘Oh I really identified with Jane!’) next to the novel Charlotte’s sister wrote, Wuthering Heights. The central figures in that novel, Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, are simply not relatable—they’re strange, unlikeable—and if you use that criterion of ‘relatable,’ you think, well, this doesn’t work. But clearly, Emily Bronte doesn’t care whether you relate to them, or identify with them. She’s got a very different set of ideas in play.” Emotional reactions to a novel or work or art could be used as a gateway into deeper discussion.

In my own experience as an English student, there have of course been times when I felt I just “couldn’t get into” one of the books on my reading list. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, for example, has shown up in several of my classes. Each time I struggle to find myself in the world of deeply imperialistic white men. But even so, I am able to appreciate its place in literary history and the technical developments it offered, even if the story does not particularly tug at my heartstrings. Or take Robinson Crusoe, which plainly follows the daily routines of a man stranded on an island. Perhaps initially I couldn’t bring myself to relate to Crusoe’s obsessive cataloging, I am able to relate to Crusoe’s desire to create meaning or the anxieties of a shifting market society. Relate or don’t relate to the books you read, but don’t stop there.