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Alastair Benn

Do u get me?

On modern culture’s a complicated relationship with relatability

Early on in the run-up to the UK general election in December, BBC journalist Naga Munchetty asked the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson: “Why are you relatable to families up and down and across the country? How can they relate to you?... You’re privileged.” After much umming and ahing, Johnson replied: “If you ask me why am I relatable, am I relatable? I haven’t the faintest idea. It seems to me the most difficult psychological question that anyone has ever asked me.” Johnson was confused – what does it mean to be relatable? And why have I just been asked about it on prime-time TV?

Relatability is very much a mot du jour. It’s a cliché of daytime television: “It’s the stories about living your life that makes you relatable to your audience,” Rosie O’Donnell told viewers in her inaugural chat show in 1996. The book recommendation site Goodreads even has a category of its own devoted to “popular, relatable” reads.

Its origins are mysterious. The word derives from the Latin noun relatio. Deriving from the verb “refero” (“I bring back”), the Roman rhetorician Quintilian uses “relatio” to describe the process of moving his pen to and fro from the ink jar to the page. “Relatio” was used by Latin authors to mean all kinds of things. When a soldier sets down the action of battle in a military log book, it could be characterised as a “relatio”, as could the act of setting down stories or poems. And that is the sense it retained in its English form – we relate the day’s events to each other, or relate a folktale or the plot of a novel.

In encountering a text populated by characters penned from another’s imagination, we come to know ourselves better and to learn to express hitherto dormant desires, fascinations, and fears in intelligible form. But nothing is quite as it seems.

Relatability, as a full-fledged noun, appears for the first time in the 1965 OED as “that which can be related to; with which one can identify or empathise”, rather than in its older sense, “able to be related”. It seems to have originated in a paper on childhood psychology in the journal Theory Into Practice: “Boys saw teachers as more directive, while girls saw them as more ‘relatable’”.

If, in the Victorian and Edwardian era, teachers were expected to be wholly “directive” (Muriel Spark’s terrifying Miss Jean Brodie comes to mind), then the modern notion of relatability seems to chime with a gentler view of the relationship between teacher and pupil, a more empathetic sort of connection. We no longer believe that a student should be beaten for misbehaviour, for example.

As a catch-all-term, relatability seems to have taken on a whole range of random notions that take in taste, personal disposition, even moral worth. In 2014, the American radio host Ira Glass tweeted, after seeing a production of King Lear: “Shakespeare: not good. No stakes, not relatable. I think I’m realising: Shakespeare sucks.” He clarified: “Shakespeare is not relatable, unemotional.” Glass didn’t dislike King Lear on aesthetic grounds or because of poor staging; in fact, he liked the production more than he disliked it, and he later acknowledged that he had very much enjoyed Mark Rylance‘s Lear. His objection rested on a different claim: that Shakespeare had somehow failed to take into account his feelings, and had created art that was defective precisely because it didn’t chime directly with his life experience.

There is nothing new, of course, in literature or art inspiring close personal identification with the characters that populate the page, the stage, or the silver screen. All of my friends’ middle-aged dads love the nineties cult classic Heat starring Al Pacino as a neurotic but brilliant cop and Robert De Niro as a master criminal. Both men have complex personal lives (and stunningly beautiful girlfriends) while being at the top of their professional game. It’s about wish fulfilment – wouldn’t it be cool if I were more like him? In the early 19th century, vast numbers of young men took part in a form of “literary” suicide, in imitation of Goethe’s creation Young Werther, who kills himself after an ill-conceived love affair. They were often found with a copy of Die Leiden des jungen Werthers and dressed in the same style, complete with a pistol of the type Werther used to end his life. The book was promptly banned in Leipzig to prevent further youths from imitating Werther’s fate.

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His objection rested on a different claim: that Shakespeare had somehow failed to take into account his feelings, and had created art that was defective precisely because it didn’t chime directly with his life experience.

Close identification with a character in a book is popularly regarded as an important function of literature. Gustave Flaubert was thought to have said: “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!” In the film adaptation of Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys, English teacher Hector tells one of his students, David – a nerdy literature obsessive – in an after-school poetry class: “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.”

In encountering a text populated by characters penned from another’s imagination, we come to know ourselves better and to learn to express hitherto dormant desires, fascinations, and fears in intelligible form. But nothing is quite as it seems. Hector is simultaneously an archetypal “inspirational” teacher – who really does want to instil a lifelong love of the arts in his charges – and a lecherous, nastily abusive figure who preys on teenage naivety – the boys accept his fondling as just another of his amiable teacherly quirks. Literature can improve the imagination, yes, but Hector’s championing of relatability is eventually exposed as bogus. And the quotation so often attributed to Flaubert is completely fictive. It was initially popularised by a literary critic called René Deschermes, who had it on hearsay.

“Sally Rooney gets in your head,” wrote Lauren Collins in her New Yorker profile of the 28-year-old Irish novelist. Meaghan O’Connell, winner of the New York Times Editor’s Choice Pick in 2018 for her novel And Now We Have Everything, described reading Rooney’s Man Booker Prize nominated debut novel Conversations With Friends with “the slow burning dread of recognition”. Rooney’s second novel Normal People has sold well into the millions on both sides of the Atlantic. Both novels tell the stories of how affluent, literary types live in Dublin.

In February, the novelist Will Self described Rooney’s novels as “very simple stuff with no literary ambition”. On literary grounds, Self was right. Even though Rooney’s characters are all self-consciously literary and her characters definitely see themselves as “book lovers”, she writes in a decidedly anti-literary style: all fractured dialogue, and often simple transcripts of text conversations and emails between characters. The effect is rather fascinating – like the novelist, Ali Smith, it is impossible not to feel Rooney’s words working “like [an] undercurrent in the blood”. The effect is so immediate and honest – but crucially, makes no literary demands on the reader. Here you cannot look for patterns, linger over simile, or let your mind be drawn into imagery or be carried off on a metaphor, because these are stripped out of the text.

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Rupi Kaur strips her poetry of suggestive allusive possibilities – instead, it is abrupt, direct and straightforward… This is precisely the thing I’m feeling, Kaur seems to say, and nothing more.

Rooney deliberately cultivates relatability, and it works. Self’s comments were roundly criticised by Rooney’s readers. Author Dana Schwartz wrote: “Very Serious writer Will Self is denigrating Sally Rooney for being young and selling well.” One of the New Statesman’s columnists Megan Nolan commented on Twitter: “I don’t think it’s very surprising that about ten old men publicly dislike Normal People [her second novel]… Whu [sic.] cares tbh, let them be grumpy I’m sure S Rooney isn’t crying.” Young and selling well vs old, serious, grumpy old men. Sod literary value, the argument runs, it’s for old fogeys. What matters is that Rooney is “relatable” and she sells well.

Similarly, the acclaimed poet Rupi Kaur, whose debut collection Milk and Honey was released in 2014 and has sold 2.5 million copies worldwide, is a brilliant exponent of relatability. She writes only in lowercase and has no interest in poetic form or style. Her “poems” are made up of totally literal sentences and released directly on Instagram, accompanied with sketches drawn by herself: “fall in love with your solitude” reads the sum total of one her poems – in this way, she cultivates an immediacy, an intimacy even, with her readers.

She strips her poetry of suggestive allusive possibilities – instead, it is abrupt, direct and straightforward. In her poem I don’t need more friends, she writes: “you ask if we can still be friends i explain how a honeybee does not dream of kissing the mouth of a flower and then settle for its leaves.” The honeybee does not dream; it is a honeybee. The honeybee does not dream; and nor do I. Ergo, we can’t be friends now because we aren’t friends now. This is precisely the thing I’m feeling, Kaur seems to say, and nothing more.

The uncharitable conclusion to draw about the vogue for relatability is that it is nothing more than a function of millennial self-obsession and shortened attention spans, and that old-fashioned poetry and literature have become mere artefacts of a literary culture that this new generation believes has long outlived its purpose. The pessimistic reader is quite justified in shrugging his shoulders and murmuring to himself, “sign of the times”, and snapping the book shut. The demand that texts be read in a spirit of relatability does seem quite new. Relatability seems to suppose a deeper relationship between reader, the author and the words than Self’s “literary ambition” might allow, where the vectors of criticism depend on structure, analysis and reference to allusions and correspondences with other texts. If directness, intimacy and personal connection are to be the predominant mode of artistic expression, then what does that mean for Western culture?

It could mean that the novel is effectively finished as a genuine “high culture” product. There are notable exceptions in the late 20th century, like the Latin American magical realists and the Czech writer Milan Kundera, who has used novelistic forms to distend reality – showing how the novel could stand “at the farthest frontier of the possible”. But if the development of novelistic and poetic expression began in the 17th century, with Cervantes’ fantastical Don Quixote, and peaked in the late 19th and early 20th – with the crazy, magnificent worlds of Stendhal or Balzac, in Baudelaire’s starry imagination, Rimbaud’s synaesthesia-driven experimentalism, and Djuna Barnes’s super-baroque sensibility, culminating in Proust’s endless journeying into the interior self with its unique combination of metaphor, story, style and representation – then the 21st century has seen the novel being progressively stripped of its resources. Auto-fiction is now one of the most popular novelistic styles, with key exponents including the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard, who minutely details everything he does from shopping to sex in his massive series My Struggle and in the process has alienated most of his family because of his honesty. Auto-fiction is seen elsewhere in the work of Olivia Laing in the UK and Chris Kraus in America.

Quintilian’s relatio serves as his metaphor for writing, the pen moving from ink pot to the page and back.

We should not despair however. The aesthetic values that gave weight and beauty to the history of the novel and poetry do endure in the present: indeed, they flourish. It’s just that they have switched channel.

Take the short story – very many of our greatest novelists wrote short stories either for serialisation (a serious money spinner), or because they regarded it as a worthwhile art form. Among countless others, Graham Greene wrote “penny thrillers” and often used them as inspirations for novels (Brighton Rock’s first third almost works as a short story on its own). There is almost no commercial appetite for short stories in literary form nowadays, but in television, our newest art form, short story-telling is more popular than ever. Each episode of the wildly successful French cop show Spiral (in French: Engrenages – literally “Gearing”) has at least three parallel short story figures developing at the same time, but each of them remains locked in its own particular storyline. If it were set up like a tapestry, the images of the police officers and lawyers in the core cast would be set around the edges of each little story – the jealous wife who murders her adulterous husband, the prostitute killed for her beauty, the mad mother who kills her baby.

The Sopranos, arguably the most important television event of the new millennium (its six series were broadcast between 1999 and 2007 and running to 86 hours of viewing time) follows the life of mobster Tony Soprano and functions on several dramatic planes. It is, first and foremost, a family drama (most of the action takes place in Tony’s quaint suburban house), but also offers a dissection of organised crime and its deep roots in Italian-American society. Was Tony Soprano relatable? New Jersey mobsters of the early noughties might ruefully agree: the FBI managed to nab several of its leading capos and figureheads after they were recorded comparing real-life hits to killings carried out by cast members of The Sopranos. “Tony Soprano, c’est moi!” But for those of us who might not have links to the mafia, The Sopranos was a triumph of novelistic story-telling on the small screen. For many of its key episodes, it relies on the novelist Marcel Proust’s famous notion of involuntary memory – in encountering the madeleine (a small, tea-soaked sponge cake), Proust’s narrator finds himself able to recollect the whole world of his childhood. For Tony, it’s a leg of ham – and suddenly whole vistas of his past are available for the viewer to enjoy, and the origin and scope of his teenage traumas are beamed straight into our living rooms.

The question “is it relatable?”, what Boris Johnson called the “most difficult psychological question”, should be reclaimed in its simpler form, as something that can be told, spoken, sung about. If we accept that relatability as an aesthetic standard has fundamentally altered European high culture, the novel, the poem, then we should not do away with it all together, but rather work with the grain of its deeper resonances in Western civilisation. Quintilian’s relatio serves as his metaphor for writing, the pen moving from ink pot to the page and back. The pen is the human senses – eyes, nose, ears and touch. And the page is the public. The world, still so full of stories, is the ink.