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Relatability in the Novel

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Organizer: Thom Dancer

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This seminar explores the value of relatability in the novel. For many years, claims about the relatability or, more often, the unrelatability of characters, plots, and stories were understood to be an immature response, or at least an uncritical and untrained response.

Recently scholars and novelists have begun to reconsider the ostracized legacy of relatability. Scholars of the therapeutic and self-help impulse have questioned the idea that “serious” novels ought to shun "preachy lessons" and the "vulgarity of use" (Blum & Aubry). Interest in aesthetic education (Stanley & Gaskill) and relevance (Tamarkin, Glavey) has led to an alternative pedagogy of the novel that challenges the views that dispositions such as attachment, identification, and instrumentalization are automatically uncritical, lazy, and intellectually stunted. Relatability becomes, in these authors, a way of speaking in positive terms about part of the literary experience that has been almost impossible to talk about over the last half century: the ways that books can and do (for good or ill) engage us directly in the world, with each other, and in practical questions about how to live.

Though some of this work has taken a more anthropological approach by studying the evidence of how actual readers interacted with, used (and "misused") works of fiction, this seminar takes a different path.  We will be interested in how novels themselves use, theorize, and represent relatability and relevance within the work itself. I am thinking here

of Catherine in Northanger Abbey who frequently turns to novels to learn how to relate and live
of other coming-of-age novels by A. Emezi, C. Whitehead, and Z. Smith that suggest that the self is not given in society but produced in art. 
of Elisa Tamarkin's claim that one of the most important functions of art is to generate relevance to a specific moment and person
of growing interested in the role of art in not just teaching us how to live but how to live a beautiful life
of the role of art in the Nietzschean and Foucauldian idea that we must create ourselves as a work of art
of the question of relatability beyond the paradigm of realism (in fantasy, science fiction, etc)
of what it means for aesthetic education to train us to experiment with the possibilities enable by aesthetic objects

The seminar seeks to understand relatability as a problem and question actively being experimented within the novel through out its history. Is relatability part of fictionality itself, woven into the very experience of the novel and unthinkable without it?  How does the questions raised by relatability--relevance, community, utility, value--extend to the ethical and political concerns of literary studies?  The seminar invites friendly challenges as well—that is, challenges that seek to push forward the work of finding relatability useful by tracing its limits.

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