Critical Commentary: But Can You Relate?

Fighting for the intellectual integrity and independence of arts reviews means demanding more analysis and less sales talk.


By Bill Marx

Rebecca Mead’s short online commentary for The New Yorker on the pernicious spread of the word ‘relatability’ doesn’t hit pay dirt until about about mid-way through. The lead is a celebrity gotcha. Mead first suggests that “Twitter is a place in which a user may be rewarded for exposing his most stupid self.” She then takes a couple of easy pokes at Ira Glass, the “Bard of Public Radio,” for recent tweets in which he wrote that Shakespeare’s King Lear, Richard III, and Twelfth Night were “not relatable.” Predictably, the genteel eyes and ears of of NPR listeners exploded! But what is the point of the take-down? Those who expose their stupidity via Twitter are legion. But aren’t those looking for a reward when exposing the inevitable inanity of tweets also thick-headed? Shouldn’t there be a higher standard for professional critics than for Glass or the contributors to “the peer-book-recommendation site” Goodreads? (Question: Would there have been a social media flap if Glass written that Shakespeare’s plays were relatable? Was it his negativity (honesty?) that got him into trouble?)

Where Mead makes a stronger point is when she looks at critics who should know better than to use a word like relatable. It isn’t often that there is a public discussion of how reviewers articulate their judgments – most commentators usually wrangle over issues of critical power, the inevitable subjectivity of verdicts, the questionable presumption of authority, etc. But words are the elemental tools of the critic – when they are corrupted or decay into nonsense the efficacy of criticism itself comes into question. Mead comes up with some sharp examples of the use of relatable in publications that are edited — the Times Book Review, the Washington Post, and The Millions. She goes on to do an effective job explaining that ‘relatability’ has little to do with an active grappling with the demands of art. It is essentially a passive response: does the art mirror the contours of the consumer’s ego? It is “a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.”

All well and good — may critics and editors take note. But a larger, more pernicious form of linguistic decadence has been eating away at the foundations of arts criticism for well over a century. Criticism is sounding more and more like publicity, the vital language of analysis and discrimination replaced by advertising jibber-jabber. Critic William Dean Howells foresaw the transformation in a 1911 piece for Harper’s Monthly, “Functions of the Critic”: the critic “must feel more and more that the ad-writer’s manner and matter are what the people want, and what the critic of the future must study to supply.” Where Howells was wrong is that it isn’t just the people who want “the ad-writer’s manner and matter,” but artists, editors, critics, and institutions as well. Happy talk generates sales, furthers careers, ruffles few feathers, etc.

Mead’s chastizing of ‘relatability’ is a terrific start, but that is just one bogus term. Given that the word count of arts reviews are being cut at The New Yorker and elsewhere, the burble of blurbing is rapidly elbowing reasoning aside. Fighting for the intellectual integrity and independence of arts reviews means demanding more analysis and less sales talk. It also means scolding some of the power players sitting in hallowed professional precincts. ‘Relatability’ may be banished from the columns of The New Yorker but the language of ad-men is alive and well. (The magazine’s short book reviews are a gold mine for cliches). As for what Mead is up against, here is what Nicole Cliffe, the editor of, wrote about Mead’s recent volume My Life in Middlemarch: “So I was excited to read this book, which offered the ultimate dream: that the magazine article you are devouring might suddenly say, “Hey, do you want to meet up later?” and continue on for a few hundred pages in much the same vein [sic] it started.” I would say she found the book relatable — wouldn’t you?

As for the reviews in The Arts Fuse this week, Franklin Einspruch makes a compelling case for taking another look at the paintings of John Heliker. Glenn Rifkin expertly takes the assembly-line feel-good foodie film The Hundred-Foot Journey to task, while Christiane K. Alsop says a number of interesting things about Elsewhere, Israeli-Austrian writer Doran Rabinovici’s ambitious but problematic novel about the elusive nature of post-postmodern man. Note that this is a book in translation (from the German) and published by a small press. The Arts Fuse is dedicated to going off the well-beaten mainstream path.

Bill Marx is the Editor-in-Chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.

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