March 7, 2013KR BlogBlogChatsReadingWriting

A Note on Sentimentality

One of the underdiscussed aspects of literary taste is the principle of exclusion: Not what is welcomed in a work, but what is disallowed.

In the world of contemporary fiction, one of the biggest no-no’s is what goes by the name “sentimentality.” It’s hard to perceive it for what it is, when you’re on the inside, but this is actually an arbitrary allergy on our part; it’s analogous to the Victorian one against “immorality” in literature. Sentimentality, as any critic or writer will tell you, is “bad.” You can’t assert on a factual basis that sentimentality is wrong or false, that it somehow misrepresents the human experience—because mushy-gushy moments are an actual part of real lived life. Personal testimonial: There are things my son has said while his twin was in the hospital that are so over-the-top heartbreaking I simply cannot put them in a novel. There have been moments, scenes, entire sequences that could not be transcribed into fiction: They strike the artistic-critical side of me, the part that judges what goes into a work or doesn’t, as too sentimental. Consider the story—this really happened, she’s a nurse—in which a mom-to-be found out very early in the pregnancy that her unborn child had a disease that wasn’t compatible with life; bore the child to term anyway; then donated all of his organs to other newborns; and keeps in touch with those kids to this day, godmother to an extended family. That’s real life; you might read about it in some uplifting church circular, or Reader’s Digest or something, but you won’t find anything like that in well-crafted “literary” fiction. (To say that we dislike sentimentality because we feel the author is designing to have an effect on us is meaningless, seeing as no writer strives to leave his reader indifferent.)

“Good” artists instinctively exclude elements of what they know to be part of real life if they feel it may be “bad,” artistically speaking. The prudish Victorians regarded sexual language in fiction that way. Charles Dickens, obviously, knew that people have sex, but he would never spell such a thing out in a novel, even though he knew dirty language was part of real life (especially among the lowlifes he sometimes wrote about, like Fagin and company). It was “bad.” It may have been “bad” in a different sense—as in indecent, improper—but it was “bad” artistically as well, in that his sense of his audience kept him from being too graphic or explicit, either in scenes or dialogue. Meanwhile, Dickens was at liberty to engineer a scene in which, say, a tuberculosis-stricken orphan switches places at the guillotine with a virginal seamstress. Today, you can put all sorts of explicit sexual references in fiction, and the average critic won’t chide you for immorality or indecency; sentimentality will get you panned every time.

The critical temperament of an age shapes an age’s creativity not just in the supply-demand way, motivating writers to produce what is praised and valued by critics and readers. The critical temperament actually blocks off areas of life to create a portrayal of the world that fits its idea of the world. So a prudish era like the Victorian will target immorality—and a cynical or ironic era like ours will target sentimentality.