If Twitter is a place in which a user may be rewarded for exposing his most stupid self, Ira Glass put the medium to good use last week, when, after watching John Lithgow appear as King Lear at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, he tweeted his response: "Shakespeare sucks." Glass admired Lithgow's performance but thought the play flawed. "No stakes, not relatable," he wrote. Later, he tweeted that the productions of "Richard III" and "Twelfth Night" in which he had seen Mark Rylance perform last winter had affected him similarly: "fantastic acting, surprisingly funny, but Shakespeare is not relatable, unemotional."
The suckiness or otherwise of Shakespeare is a topic that cannot be broached without generating considerable online outrage, and Glass later backtracked, telling Entertainment Weekly that his provocative comment was "kind of an off-the-cuff thing to say that in the cold light of day, I'm not sure I can defend at all." What Glass didn't rescind, though, was the yardstick by which he was judging the merit of Shakespeare's work: whether the plays are "relatable."
Perhaps that's no surprise, because relatability—a logism so neo that it's not even recognized by the 2008 iteration of Microsoft Word with which these words are being written—has become widely and unthinkingly accepted as a criterion of value, even by people who might be expected to have more sophisticated critical tools at their disposal. What was remarkable about Glass's tweet wasn't so much his judgment of Shakespeare's merit but the fact that the Bard of Public Radio expressed himself like a resentful millennial filling out a teacher evaluation.
Whence comes relatability? A hundred years ago, if someone said something was "relatable," she meant that it could be told—the Shakespearean sense of "relate"—or that it could be connected to some other thing. As recently as a decade ago, even as "relatable" began to accrue its current meaning, the word remained uncommon. The contemporary meaning of "relatable"—to describe a character or a situation in which an ordinary person might see himself reflected—first was popularized by the television industry. When Rosie O'Donnell launched her TV talk show in 1996, she said that she hoped to preserve time with her family. "It's the stories about living your life that makes you relatable to your audience," she said. In 2004, the critic Virginia Heffernan called "relatable" "a weird daytime [TV] word" and characterized it thus: "I thought the stock way daytime people become 'relatable' is by being older than starlets, with wider hips. They talk about dieting."
That weird daytime word has jumped decisively to other realms of the arts and entertainment, like an interspecies contagion. Five years ago, Times writers resorted to "relatable" on only sixteen occasions in a twelve-month period. By last year, the newspaper's reliance on "relatable" had surged: the word appeared in a hundred and sixteen articles in 2013. In the Times Book Review, the reviewer of Leila Sales's Y.A. novel "This Song Will Save Your Life" observed that its heroine "is a mostly relatable misfit." In a review of the movie "Blue Is the Warmest Color," it was noted that a character's "journey towards self-actualization is deeply relatable." The term has appeared in the fashion pages (Han Kjøbenhavn's clothes are "accessibly luxurious, relatable shapes done in rich fabrics in unexpected and beautiful colors") and the sports columns (Andy Murray, the tennis player, is a "relatable underdog").
Elsewhere, too, praise for relatability proliferates. Writing on the Web site The Millions, David Masciotra said that Karl Ove Knausgaard's account of his teen-age pursuits—drinking beer, kissing girls, playing electric guitar—in the "My Struggle" novels is "universally relatable." Goodreads, the peer-book-recommendation site, lists books designated by its users as "relatable": they include the works of the Y.A. authors Rainbow Rowell and John Green, as well as several authors who were embraced by young adults well before that marketing category was coined (Sylvia Plath, Harper Lee, J.D. Salinger). A Web site called Thought Catalog offers "29 Incredibly Relatable Quotes from 'Girls' That Will Make Any 20-Something Feel Less Alone," among them the following, from Hannah Horvath: "I'm an individual and I feel how I feel when I feel it." Richard Linklater's film "Boyhood" reduced Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post to tears because it allowed "viewers into the lives on screen not as specimens to be watched from a safe distance but as resonant, relatable touchstones of our own." (That "Boyhood" has been almost universally hailed as a masterpiece, despite the banality of its plot and the cliché nature of much of its characterization, is due, in part, to the irresistible emotional power that lies in the harnessing of the passage of time, a passage that takes its toll upon all of us. The movie is the apotheosis of relatability.)
What are the qualities that make a work "relatable," and why have these qualities come to be so highly valued? To seek to see oneself in a work of art is nothing new, nor is it new to enjoy the sensation. Since Freud theorized the process of identification—as a means whereby an individual develops his or her personality through idealizing and imitating a parent or other figure—the concept has fruitfully been applied to the appreciation of the arts. Identification with a character is one of the pleasures of reading, or of watching movies, or of seeing plays, though if it is where one's engagement with the work begins, it should not be where critical thought ends. The concept of identification implies that the reader or viewer is, to some degree at least, actively engaged with the work in question: she is thinking herself into the experience of the characters on the page or screen or stage.
But to demand that a work be "relatable" expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual's solipsism.
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. It's a failure that has been dispiritingly sanctioned by the rise of "relatable." In creating a new word and embracing its self-involved implications, we have circumscribed our own critical capacities. That's what sucks, not Shakespeare.