“The Scourge of Relatability.”

In the wake of Ira Glass’ “Shakespeare sucks” tweets, Rebecca Mead bemoans the phenomenon of “relatability” in art:

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.”

She’s right about a lot of it, but I can’t find myself totally agreeing with her. “Relatability” is a more nuanced concept than she allows. While it can often function as a confirmation of a reader or viewer’s narcissism, the failure is not always with the reader. Relatability, it seems to me, is also a new word for “universality”—how much a character’s actions and situation seem epochal, or always relevant. It’s couched in conversation 21st Century terms. At some point—and sometimes it’s true with Shakespeare—the context of a work of art is so fundamentally at odds with our current situation as to attenuate its meaning and effect. (Would an alien version of Shakespeare be “good” to us?).

Add to that the special difficulty of determining whether a work of art is “good” using objective criteria. How does one do that, really? Infinite Jest or Moby Dick might be “better” than Paris Hilton’s novel, but the line starts to get pretty fuzzy pretty quickly. There probably isn’t any one set way to determine how “good,” but I would contend that it’s still difficult to determine exactly what an efficacious version of that would be.