We need to have a talk, friends. It’s about that whole “Scourge of Relatability” thing from about a month ago, and which keeps threatening to pop up in various conversations and high school and college classes with professors who are entirely too smug about a writer from The New Yorker (“The New Yorker, class!”) validating their misinterpretation of a neologism.
I am hesitant to link to the post because, like so many other (ultimately banal) pieces unhappy with The Way Things Seem to Be Going, it doesn’t accomplish anything; it does not prescribe any action or truly seek to understand why, precisely, Things Are the Way They Are — why people are using this darned word and not experiencing Art the way it is supposed to be experienced. It seems odd that my generational cohort is incessantly mocked for our need to constantly express ourselves (often via Twitter or Facebook) when these Boomers and Gen-Xers seem to do the same thing, just via a slightly more high-profile platform. But here it is.
So. There is no way to unpretentiously state this, but: I am a writer. I tell stories for a living; sometimes well, sometimes poorly. But in all my efforts* I try to find some small nugget of Truth.
This is the goal of storytelling, no? To impart some Truth to your audience, be it one they already know but have yet to hear told in your unique fashion, or one that they don’t yet realize, but when they see it in your words their heart throws itself against your ribs in ecstatic recognition. This is the reason we gathered around fires to listen to scops and bards, why we paid hard-won pennies to see Shakespeare, why we wait in line at midnight to buy books.
Essential to this Truth is, as Ms. Mead strangely doesn’t seem to understand, relatability. It is imperative that some part of your audience be able to recognize in your story, in your characters, some part of what makes us human. If you cannot find that spark of humanity in your characters, that one thought or action that will give every single reader or viewer** a flash of recognition and understanding, you have failed as a storyteller.
This does not mean your characters must be “likable.” There seems to be much conflation between “likability” and “relatability,” which might, admittedly, stem from the latter’s newness. So let us differentiate now, once and for all. Infinite Jest‘s Orin Incandenza is not a likable man. He’s a pathological liar, a cad, a bully. But there are pieces of him to relate to, be it an intense entomophobia or a broken heart that never healed or the delight of discovering a talent you never dreamed you had. The two main characters of FX’s beautiful, sweetly caustic comedy You’re the Worst are, as the title advertises, The Worst. But they are also damaged in a way many of us are, attempting to heal in a way most of us do, and that is what makes the show not only bearable but a delight to watch.
If relatability truly is some “scourge,” as Ms. Mead alleges, and not a valid metric by which to measure the success of an artistic endeavor, then what, exactly, is the point of telling a story at all? What is the point of Art, if not to show us, for however small a period of time, that we are not alone in this world?
*Well, most. Sometimes it’s hard to find the Truth in a 200-word piece about some ass-clenchingly awful sitcom.
**Who is not a sociopath.