Sentimentality in Literature

It’s been a long wait, but The Blue Bookcase’s Literary Blog Hop is back. This week’s topic:

Discuss your thoughts on sentimentality in literature. When is emotion in literature effective and when is it superfluous? Use examples. 

At its essence, sentimentality is manufactured emotion, feelings which are thrust upon the reader rather than sprouting organically from plot and characterization.  It’s an author flatly telling the reader how a character feels.  She had never been so sad in her life is a very simple, but apt, example.

In most writing (even Dan Brown’s laughable yet engaging works) it’s usually a bit more complicated than this.  Still, overly sentimental writing can leave the reader feeling cheated.  I don’t want the author telling me precisely what the characters are feeling.  I want the author to lay out subtle clues which I can then use to construct a more complex, more real emotional landscape.  That the real pay-off for the reader, the sense of discovery and creation involved in real reading.

All this being said, sentimentality is not always a bad thing.  Take Charles Dickens for example.  Is there anything more sentimental than poor, crippled Tiny Tim on Scrooge’s shoulder saying “God bless us, every one!”  Yet, A Christmas Carol is one of the most beloved of Dickens’ stories.  Or, for a more relevant example for me at the moment, consider the epic World War II soap opera that is Herman Wouk’s Winds of War and War and Remembrance saga.  Lines like, “His face frozen in a drunken expression, he was staring at his brother and tears were falling down his cheek,” are about as subtle as a kick to the head.  Yet, in the context of Wouk’s story, they fit.  Wouk’s interest was in painting a grand portrait of a world at war, and on this level it wildly succeeds.  The sentimentality of the writing quickly connects the readers to the characters so that Wouk can get down to his main task – chronicling the war and its effects on the people who lived through it.

On a deeper, more philosophical level, any emotion in a novel is manufactured.  Written emotion is not real, just ink on paper.  The question becomes, then, a question of degree.  Not if writing is sentimental, but how sentimental is writing.  In some settings, like historical romances, a higher level of sentimentality is acceptable, perhaps even desired.  In others, short stories for instance, too much sentimentality feels artificial and lifeless.  The reader needs to care about the story and the characters.  That is the primary purpose of fiction writing.  Sentimentality can kill a readers connection to the characters before it even begins.  But it can also forge a connection.

In conclusion, I’ll point you to a wonderful essay written by John Irving in 1979 regarding sentimentality.  He sums it up well.

” A short story about a four-course meal from the point of view of a fork will never be sentimental; it may never matter very much to us, either.”

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8 comments

  1. Any written emotion is reliant on an artifice to convince the reader of its veracity, its how they deal with it that makes it work, like slight of hand, when done well all you see is the magic, if not you see some fool playing with his hands.

  2. I agree with your mention of all emotion in books being manufactured. The author wrote the story a certain way for a reason. I think that the difference for me is that I don’t want to FEEL manipulated into feeling a certain way. Like most people who answered this question this week, I want the emotion to flow through the strength of the characterization and plot, not through contrivances.

  3. Good post. I think from a writing perspective, character motivation is incredibly important, which is why it is important to ‘know’ them, and make them round. Dickens’ characters are types, and even when they change their emotions seem to be a part of them in the same way that a pair of spectacles, or a verbal tick is a part of them.

    Check out my hop here.

  4. @Miss GOP – Glad you appreciated the Irving essay. He’s such a great writer and has some good thoughts on this topic. Thanks for coming by!
    @BookBelle – If you’re into historical fiction, definitely try to read Winds of War/War and Remembrance. It’s such a well told and absorbing story.
    @Parrish – I completely agree. When the author bungles the emotions, the whole story comes crashing down. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain….
    @Socrmom78 – It would be an interesting story, no doubt. And in the right hands, I’m sure that it could be an emotionally involved piece.
    @Heather – Absolutely. No reader wants to be told what to feel and, if the writer does so, the story suffers. Thanks for coming by!
    @Laura – unfortunately, my knowledge of Dickens is limited to A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist. But, you make a good point about the writer needing to know the character. If not, the character will never be ‘real’ in the reader’s mind. Thanks for coming by!

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