Not too long ago, as a writer who was based in India, once a colony of the British, and who had once been a “citizen of the world” living in the United States, I wondered, with apprehension, whether my stories would resonate with American and global readers and editors. As a struggling writer, I presumed that great stories surmount barriers of geography and culture by bringing out universal themes. (Theme transcends plot and setting. Theme is a comment on the human condition. Cinderella is not just the story of a poor maid who overcomes the cruelty of her family and lives happily ever after with Prince Charming. The theme of the story reveals that people who are kind and patient are often rewarded for their good deeds.)
Then, fairly recently, I came across the word “relatable.” I did not have a language as convenient as that until then to ponder how my readers might relate to my stories, whether fiction or nonfiction. “Relatable” did not exist in the vocabulary of literary criticism until the mid-twentieth century, according to an article in Slate. In fact, the word has gained currency only over the past decade, writer Rebecca Mead says in her essay on the topic in The New Yorker. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists the first and the oldest definition of relatable as “able to be told or narrated; suitable for relating.” The second meaning is more recent: “Able to be brought into relation with something.”
The third and final meaning, and the most recent, is “that which can be related to; with which one can identify or empathize.” According to the OED, the first use of this sense of the adjective dates back to 1965. The term became the buzz of the literary world, including The New Yorker magazine, when Ira Glass, host of a popular public radio program, said, after a performance of King Lear, that Shakespeare is not “relatable” and that he is “unemotional.”
Shakespeare was British and Western, and here a popular literary commentator based in the Western world was calling the Bard “not relatable.” Wasn’t Shakespeare “relatable” universally? Didn’t his plays have universal themes? Aren’t universal themes not “relatable” globally?
The word relatable, as used by Glass and others since, has brought both discomfiture and relief to me as a writer who often writes of cultures and settings different from Western. If Shakespeare is not “relatable,” how could I hope to be relatable?