You can’t relate? Sorry, can’t relate.

One of the most common reasons offered when a person dislikes a book is some form of the sentiment: “I couldn’t relate to the main character, or any of the characters really.” It’s never limited to one single sampling of people, and I hear it from casual readers just like I hear it from other aspiring students of literature. (Even graduate students, who at least do a pretty dang good job of pretending to like books … unless it falls outside of their field, of course.) I’ve heard it as a response to Toni Morrison’s Beloved from a class full of puzzled undergraduates, and I’ve heard it in a tiny graduate seminar dedicated to the novels of Cormac McCarthy. Creative writing classes, Goodreads reviews, book clubs—you name it, and somewhere the relationship wires are getting tangled.

It struck me as odd, sure, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve grown to understand it more as a response to art. It ties indirectly into the problem of representation in fiction. The literary canon has been limited to the writings of straight white men until recently (a few decades), and in such their experiences alone have been regarded as a singular, universal experience for a long time now. Thankfully, we’ve begun the work of diversifying fictional representation, and though this work is still sometimes regarded as “niche work,” at least we’ve cracked the surface. It gets tiresome to pick up a book (or consume any other kind of media, really) and be bombarded with one lived experience, again and again, and it never overlaps with your own. (Consistently male protagonists, absence of characters of color, all straight folks, only young or youthful characters, etc.) As a woman, I’m definitely attuned to this concern.

But relatability isn’t really about representation. It’s sharing “fictional” emotion, sensation, and experience that we can somehow translate into reality—if not through our own, then through those of another person we know (lover, friend, frenemy, teacher, parent—whoever). It seems that “relating to a character” has become shorthand for liking a character, though there are plenty of characters in fiction to whom I can relate but at the same time totally loathe. This leads to asking the inevitable question: why does anyone need to relate to characters, and why especially in order to really like a book?

I think that’s what confounds me the most, because of course I do understand not relating to characters, humans being human and unpredictable all that—but taking it out on the book utterly baffles me. It’s a matter of craft for an author to engineer characters with whom the reader can really connect, and most authors succeed at least on a basic level (again, humans being human), typically with a main character. There are notable exceptions to this, one being Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, considering Humbert Humbert is one of the least “relatable” characters I can summon from memory. Were it not for Nabokov’s writing, reading Lolita would be one of the most loathsome experiences ever. Still, even though my brain jumped to the most hideous example in my personal literary repertoire (of course!), I appreciate why I can’t relate to H.H. (uh, for starters, because he’s an unreliable creep of ungodly proportions).

Moments where, as a reader, I have to take a step back from a character, and especially from a character-narrator, are one of the things that make fiction enjoyable. When a statement is given as a universal and accepted as such within a book, that sensation of, “Hey, wait, no, no, nope” is what ultimately leads to a greater understanding of a character, an ideology, or the book overall. Asking myself later why I felt unable to relate to a character led to at the very least a tacit reexamination of myself and my values, and I hold most books that can inspire self-evaluation in high esteem for that quality alone. (Some serious bonus points if they’re brilliantly written, though.) Dissonance in literature is rarely accidental, and to push away a certain book because of that seems at best shortsighted. And honestly, sometimes, it comes down to complacency: readers don’t want to do any work in order to “come over to” a book. (Believe me, as someone who studies modernism, I know. “Coming over to” something like Joyce’s Ulysses is damn exhausting.) Still, it’s a useful experience in keeping your mind open enough to accommodate all kinds of new things.

So next time, if you find yourself victim of a book with no relatable characters in sight, give it another chance (or a first chance, even) before you write it off as “bad.” You may just learn something new about yourself—and other people—in the process.

Returning to the scene of the crime.

No, my blog is not forgotten! I have been retooling things “behind the scenes,” preparing for some changes this year, including the possible resettling of my blog into its own little subdomain to make room for some more personal literary projects on the pipsqueakery network. (Hooray for being vague!)

I’m planning a long post on a subject near and dear to me, and I mean that in the most sarcastic sense of the phrase, so there will be a substantial new post within the week.

As for my PhD program endeavors, they’re just beginning to heat up, but I’m going to save all of my waxing about the process (and believe me, there’s a ton of it) for a big post when all is pretty much said and done in March or April. The tone of said post will depend on how thoroughly crushed my dreams are by that time, ha.

But yes, happy 2013 to everyone. May we all have a healthy and productive year!

Poetry Thursday: “Of Modern Poetry” and Wallace Stevens

For the return of Poetry Thursday, I decided to pick from my solid favorites, and came back with none other than the formidable Wallace Stevens.  Without a doubt, Stevens has been a favorite from the start.  (A former mentor once said to me that his early poems are reminiscent of Edith Sitwell because of their relationship with sound and sense, which only kindled my love further.)  After studying him in several classes (and being forced to recite him on cue, no less) and then going on to teach his poems to students, I find myself enjoying his works more each time.  There’s an unbelievable richness of thought to be found in every poem, in the words, the structure, the ideas–I never find myself lacking something to say about him, although often it’s a little muddled at first!

At random, simply because it’s so hard to choose with Stevens, I’d like to share his “Of Modern Poetry” today!

Of Modern Poetry

The poem of the mind in the act of finding
What will suffice.  It has not always had
To find: the scene was set; it repeated what
Was in the script.
                                  Then the theatre was changed
To something else.  Its past was a souvenir.
It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time.  It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice.  It has
To construct a new stage.  It has to be on that stage
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens,
Not to the play, but to itself, expressed
In an emotion as of two people, as of two
Emotions becoming one.  The actor is
A metaphysician in the dark, twanging
An instrument, twanging a wiry string that gives
Sounds passing through the sudden rightness, wholly
Containing the mind, below which it cannot descend,
Beyond which it has no will to rise.
                                                                    It must
Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may
Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman
Combing.  The poem of the act of the mind.

(The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, pp. 239-40)

***

Wow–even in transcribing, I was blown away anew by this poem.  There have been countless poems dedicated to poesis itself, but I feel that Stevens’ comes the closest to being “correct” insomuch as it can for me as a reader.  I like poetry as a cerebral creation, one that needs to be excavated, and thus welcome the transformation into “the poem of the act of the mind.”  The first little ‘stanza’ is an homage to history, to the days when poetic form (sonnets, meter, etc.) was a requirement rather than just one possible aesthetic, and then suddenly form is thrown away with the first large break.  We come into the world of the vernacular, and into consideration of the “real” (war) instead of the fantastic, and even come to include women (!).  I love the image of the actor-poet as a metaphysician, and really, “twanging”–you couldn’t ask for a more fantastic word to appear in a serious meditation on the state of poetry. (My southern roots are showing, oh no!)  Most artists understand that feeling of “sudden rightness,” though it seems more fleeting for some than others, for whatever reason.  As with all of his poems, Stevens fills “On Modern Poetry” with not only beauty but truths, which is one reason I admire him so deeply for his ability to combine the two.