Does art provide us with a mirror for our lives or a window to the world? Does it reflect our lives back at us, or allow us access to the lives of others?
Both of course, but I prefer windows to mirrors. I'm capable of reflecting on my own life in all its preposterousness and am constantly subject to gloomy introspection and crippling self-doubt, so I want ways out, not ways in. I want to see the world, to experience the world, through the eyes and ears and hearts and minds of other people.
I raise the matter because I came across the word 'relatable' the other day, used as a term of praise for a work of fiction. The user valued the book in question because the content (harsh, volatile, innovative, challenging) was something to which this reader could 'relate' - it spoke to him, to his own experience and therefore (a slightly dodgy 'therefore') had a purchase on his imagination denied to the rest of us, who could only admire the same book from the position of outsiders, the disenfranchised.
This is nonsense, of course. We are free if we choose to 'relate' to fictional characters, to their situations, predicaments, moral choices and actions, from Hamlet to Winnie-the Pooh But that's only a fraction of the range of responses that literature can elicit, and on a level with the commentaries offered by the sinister and illiterate Mr Todd, on listening to a reading of Dickens in Waugh's A Handful of Dust. To judge a novel on the basis of 'relatability' is a form of arrogance, implying that a narrative must in some way reflect and endorse the reader's own behaviours, rather than offer alternatives.