April 13, 2018KR BlogLiteratureReadingWriting

Against Relatability

In a recent article in The Baffler, Soraya Roberts argues that the new genre of “Instapoetry,” most famously practiced by Rupi Kaur, is nothing more than a narcissistic feedback loop, a filtered reflection designed to provide comfort to its readers and a “confirmation that everything you are thinking, everything you are feeling, everything you are doing, is fine, perfect even.” Aside from admiring Roberts’s bravery at critiquing a group of poets who most journalists have opted to treat with reverence, I was compelled by her implicit argument that art should to be something more than just a mirror, as poets like Kaur declare it to be. I was reminded too of the famous Stendhal quote from Le Rouge et le Noir, which I came across again recently in Joan Silber’s The Art of Time in Fiction (part of Graywolf’s excellent series on the craft of writing): “A novel is a mirror carried along a high road. At one moment it reflects to your vision the azure skies, at another the mire of the puddles at your feet.”

At first, it seems that Stendhal’s vision of art is sadly as self-absorbed as that of the Instapoets. But Stendhal’s mirror, unlike Rupi Kaur’s, doesn’t simply reflect back the reader’s own face but instead reveals to them the surrounding world, the azure skies, the mire of puddles. It’s not a comforting mirror meant to offer narcissistic bliss but instead one that reflects the world in all its grimy detail, to help the reader see what they’ve been unable or unwilling to. Today, of course, we can recognize that Stendhal is arguing for a very particular realist school of literature, and that for twentieth and twenty-first century writers his mirror can (and often should) also be warped and broken to produce more subjective and postmodernism reflections of the world. But if we start to point the mirror at only ourselves and use the idea of “relatability” as the primary metric for judging the value of a work, as many who uncritically praise the Instapoets have been doing, then we’ll end up severely limiting the kind of art we find valuable—and as a result not only will we become unable to appreciate many past works from now-unfamiliar cultures, we’ll also start to dismiss contemporary works by minority voices that might differ from our hegemonic values as too “unrelatable.”

Recently, while reading The Arabian Nights (the Husain Haddawy translation, based not on Antoine Galland’s more famous seventeenth-century text but on the older and more authentic fourteenth-century Syrian manuscript), I was struck by just how deeply unrelatable the work is. The frame tale for the stories centers on King Shahrayar, who, after learning that his wife has been unfaithful on a regular basis, not only has her executed but also decides that from now on he will marry a woman for one night only and then execute her the following morning to prevent future infidelity. This goes on for some time until Shahrazad, the vizier’s clever daughter, marries King Shahrayar and attempts to stop his execution spree by telling him a story each night and leaving it unfinished so that he will keep her alive just to hear the next part. Modern audiences would obviously empathize with Shahrazad, but it’s hard not to feel that the writer of the text wanted his audience to identify more with the King, not just because several of the tales themselves feature evil, duplicitous women and poor, cuckolded men, but also because the very structure of the text puts us in the same position as King Shahrayar, the audience for Shahrazad’s dazzling stories.

So should we then dismiss The Arabian Nights entirely because its central character and worldview are so deeply unrelatable to us—because, to paraphrase Rupi Kaur, when we look into its mirror, we don’t see ourselves? Perhaps we should consider that the work is actually meant to be a mirror to its own world, to the ninth-century Abbasid Caliphate when many of the tales are set and to the fourteenth-century Mamluk world in which the text was produced. And perhaps it can also serve as a mirror to our world, its blatant misogyny a way for us to see more clearly similar features in our own culture.

Back in 2014, after Ira Glass famously declared that “Shakespeare sucks” because King Lear was “not relatable,” Rebecca Mead likewise critiqued the concept of relatability in a piece in The New Yorker:

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.

Ultimately, through this last point Mead highlights the larger problem with an overfocus on relatability: doing so devalues one of art’s most powerful abilities, which is to get a reader to empathize with an unfamiliar subject through an act of imagination, to bridge the gap between our world and another. In Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence (very much inspired by The Arabian Nights), the central character Akbar, the famed sixteenth-century Mughal Emperor, initially comes across as deeply unlikeable, a self-aggrandizing tyrant who’s just viciously executed one of his enemies. But by the end of the novel, Akbar has transformed into a just and wise ruler after listening to the strange and magical story of a traveler arrived at his court from Florence. The novel is thus Rushdie’s thesis on the power of stories—the mirror they hold up to another, unfamiliar world can make us into better people. For Akbar the mirror reflects the world of Florence. For us the mirror reflects both Florence and Mughal India. In each case, relatabiltiy has nothing to do with it.