Friday, May 9, 2014

What Does "Relatable" Mean to You?

I'm knee-deep in responses to the survey I distributed this past weekend at the annual conference of the New England Chapter of the Romance Writers of America, exploring romance writers' thoughts about feminism (more about the survey in this post). A first look-through shows some rich, intriguing qualitative material awaits, once I've wrangled the quantitative data. Look for more details about the survey next Friday.

In the meantime, this brief post:

I've been wanting to write about the word "relatable" for a long time now, to both express my frustration with the term and to dig deeper into what readers, writers, and editors are really saying when they use it. Even more so, now that I've read this post by Kit Nicholls, a lecturer in Expository Writing at New York University, which appeared in April on the Chronicle of Education web site. Nicholls muses about his students' use of the term, exploring both the fallacy that underlies it as well as the longings it expresses. Will be allowing some of its insights to percolate in my brain as I compile survey results, and promise a more thoughtful post on the topic later this month.

Do you use the word relatable when you talk or write about romance novels? If so, what exactly do you mean by it?


  1. I started to write a comment on this, but then I read the Kit Nicholls article and realized I had said the exact same thing as he did only less well. "Relatable" as a quality applied to art seems to say more about the speaker/writer than the object it is being aimed at. By virtue of experience, empathy or education, I can "relate" to an awful lot. That doesn't mean any of it is any good or that my view is primarily the one that matters. If I were him, I'd ask, "What would make it relatable?" as a way of getting the students to dig into their own bias. Oh, and I'm 35 since Nicholls points to a generational component for the term's use.

    When applied to romances, I can only guess what someone else means by it, as I don't believe I've ever used the term myself. I'd be more inclined to point to an offensive scene, an implausible plot, historically inaccurate details or characters who lack emotional range as reasons I might dislike a romance. I'd be afraid that commenting on "relatability" would betray ignorance or prejudice on my part.

  2. I don't use "relatable", though I do frequently say I can't relate to things, and I assume that's the same thing. ("Relatable" is one of those words I see on Twitter, where people are trying to cram things into 140 characters.) I don't read NA, for example, because I got my first paying job at 15. The idea of being 23 and freshly out in the world, finding your way amidst new responsibilities, is completely foreign.

  3. I don't use that word, sorry! But when I read it, I understand that it means that something in that fiction story rings true to you because it has something to do with your real personal experience.

  4. Yeah, what they said. It's a shorter way to say "someone can relate to that." I don't use it (I don't think!), but that's what it means to me.