Don’t read the Goodreads reviews, a writer told me once. Or reviews in general, for that matter. You don’t need to put yourself through that kind of torture unless you’re a masochist. And then, of course, I revert to being that defiant child who sneaks sips of beer, rummages through her parent’s drawers and uncovers their secrets — I do all the things I’m told not to do. My curiosity and desire for minor rebellions run that deep.
After I wade through two hours of tepid reviews, I emerge hung over, bearing the weight of uncomfortable truths. I wish I hadn’t finished the six-pack; I wish I could unsee the dirty pictures buried beneath the clean socks. Strangers’ words leave indelible marks.
Felicia’s selfish. Felicia’s heartless. Who wouldn’t forgive their mother? Who grows up with an addict and decides to become one? If I were Felicia, I would have done ______ and ______. To be honest, I really didn’t like Felicia. I couldn’t relate to her, but I’m giving a half star because the writing is pretty good.
When I read a handful of reviews aloud, my friend sighed and said, “Didn’t I tell you not to read the reviews? No good comes from reading the words written by people who judge you rather than your work.” Hearing this, I felt as if I was small again, and there’s my mother slapping the hand that holds the dirty pictures.
Are you a masochist? Perhaps I was, or maybe I was a glutton for other people’s snap judgments and armchair therapy.
When people talk about the books they love, they think about characters who are likable or relatable — stories that comfort and feel like home. Great stories are a fakir: They’re charming and seek to draw you in, so much so that you feel like you’re a part of the world to which you’ve been given temporary trespass. And much like traveling to a foreign country, you cart along your passport and six-piece luggage set, the contents of which include your language, personal history, values, belief system, and your vision for how society should function. You navigate, with some difficulty, the new language, cars that drive on the other side of the road, and the strange food, but there comes a moment when discomfort morphs into disbelief because you’ve seen or experienced something that wholly challenges what you believe at your core.
If you don’t want your world altered, you reject the story, set aside the book, and leave a one-star review with the comment: “Oh, please, so not relatable. Who does this?” Then the world presses on, ad infinitum, until you find a story that cuts closer to home — one where you’re temporarily challenged, but not altered.
In “The Scourge of Relatability,” Rebecca Mead writes about our desire to identify with a character and how that metaphorical mirror allows the reader to forge a deeper, more engaged relationship with the work. However, Mead takes this desire to task when identification dovetails into a fervent need to relate to a character or elements of their world:
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.
Do we need to see ourselves in a man like Patrick Bateman, a nihilistic psychopath, to find American Psycho a compelling satire of 1980s excess and privilege classism? Do we rid literature of the likes of Medea, Kitty Finch, Ingrid Magnussen, Iago, Lady MacBeth, Corrine Dollanganger, Svidrigailov, Cathy Ames, Norman Bates, Hannibal Lecter, Annie Wilkes, or Humbert Humbert because we can’t relate to the unspeakable, horrific acts they commit or the pain they inflict on others? Should we dismiss Lolita as a great work of fiction because Humbert is a pathetic pedophile? Would Medea have been more palatable, relatable, had she not exacted her revenge against Jason by going on a murderous rampage?
The most powerful books examine all aspects of human nature, including the odious and profane, and because a character doesn’t behave in ways that reflect our strongly held beliefs doesn’t make the work any less profound or the character any less meaningful. A book isn’t bad simply because it’s not an account of how we would have lived our lives had we walked in the character’s proverbial shoes.
“There’s much to be learned from beasts,” says the villain in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
We like to believe that we’re infallible, that we would always be our best selves and that our actions would be held to the highest moral standard. We would never cheat on our spouses. We would never resent our children. We would never scheme, connive, or manipulate to get the things we want. And we apply that moral code to the characters we encounter, and then reduce their importance or relevance if they don’t rise to that standard.
While the vast majority of us wouldn’t embark on a serial killing spree or feast on the remains of others à la the census taker’s liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti, we live in a world where people murder and maim, rob and rape. Great stories hold up a mirror to this world and we’re often faced with things we don’t want to see. But they do exist.
In my second book, Follow Me into the Dark, I wanted to populate a novel with a wholly recognizable world — one where men are the aggressors and women assume the role of caretakers, except something is amiss, off. At first, you can’t quite put your finger on it, but as the story unfolds, you realize that Kate, the protagonist, might not be the good girl society demands her to be. In fact, she’s a vengeful, unrepentant murderer who escapes suspicion, even in the midst of mounting evidence, because no one expects the college-educated baker to mercy-kill her mother. No one believes that Kate’s mother, as a child, would push her mentally ill grandmother off a roof out of love. Sex (or even psychopathy) doesn’t make the women in my book dangerous or unrelatable. Society’s blindness to their agency does.
Kate doesn’t seek catharsis or redemption; rather, her motivations are base (familial love, desire, revenge) and almost childlike in their blind selfishness. Kate is amoral — she’s a cruel misogynist and narcissist, and it would be disturbing if you related to her most primal urges. But here’s the thing: You don’t need to relate to Kate—or even like her, for that matter—for her to be a fully realized character. Instead, you need to seek out that part of her which is human. You need to see the extent of her brokenness and how she’s a woman in disrepair, constantly dressing her wounds. This is a woman who murders without remorse yet creates for herself her own prison, one where she remains forever tethered to the hope of familial love. A place where loneliness is a constant state and pain is palpable. What’s needed here is not relatability, but empathy.
Change doesn’t happen from a place of complacency. Our worldview doesn’t shift if we remain content to sit comfortably in our echo chamber. We should read works that challenge and scare us. Sit with infuriating characters and try to understand and empathize with them. Read books you hate. Pamela Paul, in “Why You Should Read Books You Hate,” offers this:
[R]eading what you hate helps you refine what it is you value, whether it’s a style, a storyline or an argument. Because books are long-form, they require more of the writer and the reader than a talk show or Facebook link. You can finish watching a movie in two hours and forget about it; not so a novel. Sticking it out for 300 pages means immersing yourself in another person’s world and discovering how it feels. That’s part of what makes books you despise so hard to dismiss. Rather than toss the book aside, turn to the next page and wrestle with its ideas. What about them makes you so uncomfortable?
Great books invite you on a journey. Find your passport, get lost finding your way home, but leave your belief baggage at the door.