Why is it that at the slightest hint of emotion most critics accuse the writer of being “sentimental”? Novelist Andrew Sean Greer, author of The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, takes a stand for emotional fiction and against lazy criticism.
"A sentimentalist,” Oscar Wilde wrote, “is simply one who wants to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.” We know what he’s talking about every time a dog video goes viral: the easy mark, the least complicated of sentiments, hits us hard. An elephant funeral makes me weep every time, and so does an ad with a kid leaving home for college. What’s wrong with them? Nothing, really, as long as we smile at our indulgence; these sentiments ask nothing of us, question nothing about our lives, and the emotions they bring up are stored close by, in the coin jar of our feelings. “And remember,” Wilde scolds us, “that the sentimentalist is always a cynic at heart. Indeed, sentimentality is merely the bank holiday of cynicism." Distrustful of engaging fully, the cynic engages superficially, gets the drug he needs, and moves along. I reach for these hits daily—online, on television, in movies (how many times will Netflix let me watch Beaches before it blocks my account?)—but in fiction I reach for something more. The slow burn of Marcel Proust, for instance, in which he takes hundreds of pages of diligent observation and reversals to lead us to Swann’s final listening of Vinteuil’s sonata—in which he stands like a forlorn figure before his former scenes of happiness—felt, when I first read it, as the first time a grown-up had finally told me the truth about love. It was hard-won, upsetting, as it went against all the sentiments I had been given in literature, and what I had told myself. But it changed my life. And emotion for which the writer has paid dearly, for which the reader is asked to lay aside resistance, is a category apart from those YouTube videos I love. Because, rather than underline an emotion I have readily available, it reminds me of a world I passed by without noticing. It is why I read.
Critics are right to hold Wilde’s brand of sentimentality as a flaw in a work that purports to illuminate an unseen portion of the heart. But for long time now, “sentimentality” has taken on another meaning: that of being “too emotional” or, many times, being emotional, period. Recent issues of The New York Times Book Review deploy the term like a depth charge within their reviews: Frank Bruni recently charged David Levithan’s novel Every Day as being “wantonly sentimental.” Charles McGrath took Andre Aciman to task for an ending that was “both sentimental and that suggests the drawback of dwelling too much in places on the page.” I am a great fan of Aciman (a Proust scholar himself) and have read Harvard Square, and I know just what McGrath means: Aciman is reaching for an upswelling of emotion and, for some, will fail to touch it. The bell of resistance rings; the doors to the heart close shut. Better, the conventional wisdom holds, not to reach at all. Don’t summon that particular demon. I hear this all the time in workshop, where is it especially hard to discuss because the work at hand is newly drafted by writers not yet in control of their words, and I see young writers slowly learning the art of subtlety, which so often looks to me like mediocrity. End before the ending, students are advised. A writer knows when to leave a room, we’re told. And so the furniture of a story begins to get more time than the characters, and gestures more importance than feelings—most important the feelings of the author, which must be wrestled with for weeks to discover why they were drawn so burningly to that particular story. A frayed, foreshortened square of cloth is produced, a remnant of some great emotion. That emotion, however, is elsewhere: because the author was advised to leave it out. But because they are good writers, they know that something new has to exist in their writing, something to surprise and delight the reader. With the heart off-limits, they turn to their minds.
Clever, clever, clever, I find myself writing in the margins. “People who prate of sentimentality are very often people who hate being made to feel,” wrote Robertson Davies, “and who hate anything that cannot be intellectually manipulated.”
When I was in graduate school myself, the mode was minimalism. Raymond Carver—an author I had never heard of—was on everybody’s lips. The unstated goal, in those workshop stories, was to write a detailed story in which everything was implied and never stated. I should add that this was in Montana, and thus drew a certain young man with a fantasy of Western living: hard-drinking, solitude, landscape. It was natural that reticence would appear in their literature. My own taste in books—Colette, Faulkner, Marquez—was hopelessly out style, as was my own writing (not that I claim my stories were any good, or that I had any emotional maturity). I felt hopelessly ill-at-ease, but my exit strategy was to be smarter and cleverer than anyone else; I filled my stories with aliens and French aristocrats and references from literary criticism. These stories were baffling, and bad. Clever, clever, clever. Then, one day, I thought I would be cleverer still. I would write what they all claimed to want—a realistic story in real time with solid characters and scenes—and I sent it to workshop with a smirk. It was a story about a gay man and lesbian who get married in the ’60s as cover for their lives, and the love that grows between them. My “clever” idea left without the need for cleverness in the writing; I even included a reunion ending. Without knowing it, I had written straight into the heart of the beast. “Sentimental,” students wrote on their copies. “You need to pull back,” one said in class. And then our professor, William Kitteredge, a writer and former ranch hand in his sixties, who for many was the last word in Western manliness, said, “If you can’t be accused of being sentimental, you’re not even in the ballpark.” With his help, it was the first story I ever published. I have never looked back from sentimentalism.
If sentimentality is a literary sin, surely it cannot be the only sin. Yet in much fiction, especially that written by men, overload is not a problem for other emotional states. There can never, for instance, be too much violence; an extremely bloody book like, say, The Road, is taken more of a test of the reader’s willpower than a test of the writer’s skill. Too much violence? Can’t take it, can you? There is no word, either, for a book that is too angry, or too cruel, or even too removed from the emotional world. “Emotionless” would seem the worst a reviewer could say, but that’s not particularly damning; it is also a kind of praise, as is the word “restraint.” Violence, anger, cruelty, lack of emotion—none of these can ever be deadly criticisms; they still reaffirm the “manliness” of the piece. As it is in the schoolyard, so it is in the book section: the only style that gets a male writer beaten up is wearing his heart on his sleeve. Boys don’t cry.
I have come to this conclusion: if “sentimentality” is lazy emotion, then the term itself is lazy criticism. That single word is a curious poison that no other praise in the review can dilute; the smallest amount can kill the book under discussion, as well as the writer who reads it. It exempts the critic from considering whether they are simply uncomfortable with emotion, as they might be with robots or blood, and are in fact improperly suited to judge the book. The word is deployed like a drone, to destroy without culpability. I think it should be stricken from the critic’s vocabulary. It has become mere jargon, like “earning an ending,” to stand in place of a firm opinion. It is the precise sin they are declaiming against: the luxury of an opinion without paying for it. If “sentimental” is banned, then critics will forced to grapple with the emotion and explain themselves. They might be forced to invent other phrases—“writing without skin,” “impassioned characters,” “warm-hearted scenes”—so that the reader understands what the author is risking. How dare we guffaw at this risk, like high schoolers at a Shakespeare play, finding it easier to laugh at the words than do the hard work of engagement, vulnerability, and human connection? Nudity is not pornography, and bare emotion is not sentimentality. It is the way that art transforms us.
David Foster Wallace touched on this risk in his essay on television and fiction. “The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching,” he wrote. “The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘Oh how banal.’ To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama.” To paraphrase Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey: “In this world, you must be oh so clever, or you must be oh so heartfelt.” For years I’ve been clever. I recommend heartfelt.
Critics, how I would love if you could clear the word “sentimental” from your minds. And readers, if you could let down your guard to feeling something. For writers: don’t hold back. Be weird, be sentimental, be melodramatic. Take the risk of being not-cool, not-hip. The risk of being laughed at by the in-crowd; they are on their way out, anyway. Tear out your guts and put them on the page, with scrupulous, faithful, unromantic honesty. And, all right, I’ll say it: with love.