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Chair’s Corner: On Relatability and Difficulty

By Michelle Burnham

By now, everyone has probably heard about the scientific study published in Science which finds that reading literary fiction enhances our capacity for empathy, making us better able to identify with the feelings and perspectives of others. Here’s how David Comer Kidd, one of the psychologists who conducted the study, explains it: “What great writers do is to turn you into the writer. In literary fiction, the incompleteness of the characters turns your mind to trying to understand the minds of others.” The study also concludes that these effects do not bear out for readers of popular or pulp fiction, or for non-fiction.

Not long after this news story started circulating, an article in Slate by Rebecca Onion reported that students were suddenly using the word “relatable” to judge the value of books they’re assigned to read in high school and college—expressing appreciation for stories whose characters and content they feel able to “relate” to while dismissing those they find “unrelatable.” The problem, as Onion and others point out, is that such a criteria leaves us reading more and more about what we already know and feel, and keeps us from the challenge of engaging with the unfamiliar—whether the unfamiliar is a distant historical era, a different culture or worldview, or a use of language or form that takes patience and work to begin to understand. After all, who wouldn’t find it easier to settle down with Gone Girl, A Fault in Our Stars, or some comic books, than with Sea of Poppies, an Elizabethan drama, or Emily Dickinson’s poems?

This Spring, the English Department hosted a roundtable discussion titled “Remix*Reboot*Remake: Recycling Pop Culture,” where pairs of faculty and students opened debate by considering the creative value and meaning of fan fiction, music sampling, detective fiction, and comic books. The lively and fascinating discussion which followed suggested that there is something to be gained by reading both literary and popular fiction, difficult and easier texts, relatable and unrelatable books. In fact, it may be crucial to read both kinds of texts together; after all, a careful reading of Gone Girl reveals that Gillian Flynn may be remaking the plot of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, just as John Green is remixing some Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, Frederick Douglass, and Anne Frank into A Fault in our Stars. If the project of social justice entails an ability to experience empathy for those whose lives or experiences do not resemble our own, then the future of the world just might depend, among other things, on our willingness to read challenging literary texts. But it might also depend on our ability to translate difficult texts into more relatable ones.

Are there any “difficult” books that have changed the way you see yourself or the world? Have any “relatable” books been crucial to your development as a reader or writer? Should students be required to read difficult or unfamiliar literary texts? Should they also be invited to read pulp or popular fiction? Which texts have made you a better reader and writer and thinker? What’s on your recommended reading list? Go to our English Department blog to share your responses to these questions and your comments on this issue of the Quill. We look forward to hearing from you!