I recently saw a comment on a YouTube video that I completely agreed with.
“One of my hot take (sic) is that I don’t really read to see myself in books. If I relate to character or if that author puts into words something I’m very familiar with, that’s cool and great but I don’t seek it out. I mostly like to read about people that have have (sic) had experiences that I’ve never had and are very different from me, I want to go to new places. I find that much more interesting. The amazing thing about reading for me is the fact that I can get inside someone else’s head and understand them even if they’re the polar opposite of me.”
I’ve never really understood the idea in some book reviews that characters need to be relatable. This seems to mean that characters need to act like and make the choices that these reviewers would have made. If they don’t, then the reader runs screaming to the review sites to leave flaming reviews bashing the book.
I get being annoyed by characters. I’m annoyed by characters often if they make decisions that I wouldn’t. Characters that run off and do something dumb without knowing all the facts and who refuse to learn their lesson will probably make me DNF a book. Characters who get all up in their feelings and who won’t listen to logic may make me DNF a book. I dislike those types of characters because those are the types of people who annoy me in real life. I think that’s fine.
Where this can get problematic is when I see “unrelatable” used as a cover word for racism or classism. I’m a middle aged, white, married, cis woman from North America. If only read books that featured books about people who looked like me and had my perspective I’d only be able to read – well, over 30% of all women’s fiction books published every year. Let’s be honest. (I’m only putting that at 30% because I’m getting old. The rest are written about white women younger than me.)
But how boring would that be to only read about people like you? How would you learn about the world? How would you see other people’s points of view? How would you stretch and develop your empathy?
And that’s the point isn’t it? It can be uncomfortable to have to face points of view different from your own. It can show you blind spots in your life. Once you see things you can’t unsee them. Then you need to decide if you want to take action and grow or not.
I think that is part of the issue behind the “I just want to read a good story” crowd. Their definition of a good story is one that doesn’t challenge them in that way. They can see the main character as an avatar for them in an adventure story.
I also want a good story. Bonus points if I also expand my worldview to understanding concerns about people from other cultures and areas of the world so when I hear about news from that area I already have a little bit of a frame of reference of what it might be like to be a refugee or Latina in New York or a Black Woman in the South or a person living in Ethiopia or Brazil. I might have a little bit of a clue about life working on a container ship or in Antarctica because I’ve read books about that.
Reading will expand your empathy if you let it. Why do you think reading has been so threatening to repressive regimes throughout history? Banning books is always about preventing reading about new ideas.
Expand your mind. Check out the rest of the world. It’s a big place. You never know what adventures you might find that could be way more fun than what you are limiting yourself to now.