In defense of sentimentality

Over at John Salzi’s blog, the sci-fic author James S.A. Corey (the nom-de-plume for the writing team of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) defends sentimentality in fiction. In fact, they come right out and say, “Embrace sentimentality.” And they contrast the joys of embracing the sentimental with the tactic of either going Fluffy Bunny (not taking your characters seriously and winking at the readers) or becoming the Solemnist (larding everything with too much, ponderous, overstated meaning).

I agree, and I think that there are some lessons here for Mormon fiction.

Sentimentality is the big bugaboo of those who take Mormon fiction seriously. It is the number one thing to avoid.

Sentimentality is also supposed to be the major hallmark of the “bad” Mormon fiction, the treacle.

I suppose. And I think that Daniel and Ty would also note that you still have to write the sentimental well. That you need strong characters and deft prose and good plotting.

But they still say:

Writing genre fiction is undignified. Reading genre fiction is undignified. If we’re going to do this, it should be joyful. We should create a little literary pocket universe where we can shuck off the irony and defensiveness and care about these imaginary people, and weep for them, feel awe when they’re awed, triumph with them when they win, and grieve with them when they fail.

Writing Mormon fiction is undignified. If we’re going to do this, it should be joyful. And if we’re going to do this, love should be our grand motive because love, true love, involves a deep investment in the progression of others. And narrative art is how we show that progression (and why love is the crucial component to it).

15 thoughts on “In defense of sentimentality”

  1. I might put their point a little differently. It’s OK for the characters to live in bold strokes.
    It’s OK for the readers to care about the characters.
    It’s OK for the characters to be happy.

  2. I think that’s an excellent restatement, Adam.

    I would also say that it’s OK for the characters to feel and feel deeply and for the author to try and bring readers to that same depth of feeling without either pounding people over the heads or short-circuiting it with a move in to irony.

  3. And I also like what you say about bold strokes. One of the problems I have with the authentic school of mainstream (literary) fiction is that it comes across to me as painfully authentic. It’s like beard rock. I just can’t stand the preciousness and delicacy.

  4. I wouldn’t define “sentimentality” the way I think these guys are. They seem to be talking about happy, or fulfilling, emotion, or emotionally satisfying denouement. Not the same as sentimentality, in my book. Sentimentality is a viewpoint in which characters are driven by emotions that lack reason, or make no sense, and lead to an (often hyperbolic) climax that proves the emotion that made no sense was justified. This is what many MoLit types write and what many reject.

    But emotion that is appropriate to the character, situation and setting–reasonable emotion that *drives* a character–is and always has been/will be a positive thing. Only this kind of emotional catalyst makes the happy ending work.

    So if what is meant here is that LDS writers shouldn’t shy away from, but embrace, writing emotional stories, and happy-ever-after stories, I’m on the same page. The so-called “reasoned” viewpoint that criticizes the kind of joyful lives many LDS live as being impossible or lacking (or untrue) is as annoying to read as genuine sentimentality. Writing strong emotional stories takes a balance between the emotion and reason behind the emotion. It won’t work if the reader doesn’t accept the reason behind the emotion.

  5. It’s not a surprise that they have a sci-fi background when approaching this idea. Science fiction — “classical” science fiction, anyway — is known for being brutal, cold, and unforgiving to its characters, with hardly a “happy ending” to be found.

    (If Wall-E were “true science-fiction”, for example, it would have ended with him remaining an empty, unliving automaton without regaining his memory or personality. Which, naturally, would have left millions of kids crying and dropped at least $100 million of its box office, but would have met the approval of sci-fi “purists”)

    I think the issue isn’t having to choose “sentimentality” versus “cynicism”, but a recognition that reality contains both, and good writing and good characters can lean towards one end but should include just enough hint that the other side exists in their world to be realistic and identifiable to the readers.

    Of course, if LDS audiences genuinely don’t want “real world” stuff in what they read, then maybe the equation is different.

  6. I think that’s exactly what is meant, and I like the polemical way in which it was delivered even if it lacks precision because the study in contrasts helps sharpen their point.

    So this is both defining a celebration of genre, but also, perhaps, in the Mormon case, a clarification of what to shoot for when it comes to the sentimental. And you’ve defined that well, Lisa.

  7. Well, this is why romance is always in the genre ghetto: happily ever afters. It’s not only a hallmark, it’s EXPECTED and if readers don’t get that, instant wallbanger.

    But HEA != treacle.

    And I read romance because I want a happily ever after. Period. I cannot stand Despair Porn.

    Tragedy once in a while is fine. But a steady diet? I don’t think so.

  8. Would sentimentality in this case include “funny”? As in, comedy isn’t taken seriously?

    See: Marisa Tomei winning an Oscar for MY COUSIN VINNY. Howls from all Hollywood were heard across the nation that it must have been a mistake. Because heaven knows, we can’t have Oscar-winning acting in a comedy.

  9. I’m still annoyed that Lois Lowry won the Newbery (twice!), not for her much better (upbeat and optimistic) Anastasia and Sam books, but for her “serious” and dystopian stuff.

  10. I really like what Lisa said above. In our current literary culture “sentimentality” to me means calculated manipulation without believable character development, essentially cheap emotion, whether happy or sad.

    I think a reason why sentimentality exists so much in MoLit, is because so much already exists in the church culture, which encourages a spirituality based on “feelings,” “burning bosoms,” and “tearful testimonies.”

    This can cause problems for a “average” church-goer when reading a book, because if it doesn’t make them “feel” a certain way, then it “lacks the spirit” and should be avoided.

    I don’t think is the case for people who read a lot, but I’ve seen it too often w/ people in the church, that I think it will always be a barrier that will likely never be breached.

  11. One of the problems with describing something as “sentimental” is that it tends to be such a subjective judgment. Even Lisa’s reformulation suffers from this problem, in my view. Who judges whether emotions lack sufficient reason? Sufficient for whom? I would argue that notions of sentimentality are *highly* genre dependent and based in the judgments of specific interpretive communities–highly social, in other words. Contingent, even.

    Sentimentality is often contrasted with authenticity. On the other hand, many people–many Mormons–are genuinely (but perhaps not authentically?) “sentimental,” in that they cry and get emotional over things that make me feel like I’ve been emotionally manipulated. Indeed, I think that often “sentimental” is code for “that which makes me cringe.” Sometimes, I think, our argument with sentimentality may be because it too accurately (in our view) reflects elements of our culture, both as Mormons and otherwise, of which we’re embarrassed.

    And then there’s the meaning of “sentimental” that I encountered years ago in an essay by Schiller that contrasts the sentimental with the naive, in which “naive” is code for something like “authentically arising out of one’s cultural condition” (e.g., Homer as an epic writer), while “sentimental” is code for a conscious artistic approximation of naivety (e.g., Vergil or Milton as an epic writer). It’s sufficiently different from how we currently think about the term as to be almost unuseful–but still a (thought-provoking) part of the heritage of this highly problematic term.

  12. A follow-up in response to Kevin (comment #6): while gritty realism and dystopianism have a long and respected tradition within sf&f, I can’t think of any period or subgenre except for dystopian fiction itself in which gloomy endings have outnumbered happy endings. Certainly not “classic” sf. See, for example, Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, Niven, Herbert, Zelazny, Le Guin… Stories like “The Cold Equations” are noteworthy within sf at least as much because they resisted the expected happy-ending, ingenuity-and-technical-competence-can-solve-any-challenge solution.

  13. Jonathan wrote: Even Lisa’s reformulation suffers from this problem, in my view. Who judges whether emotions lack sufficient reason? Sufficient for whom?

    I answer: Sufficient for the reader. If the reader can’t identify with the reasons for the emotion, then there will be the judgement that the writer trespassed into the sentimental. So, yes, it is a subjective evaluation and audience matters. Hence, a romance reader who accepts love at first sight won’t deem a fiction based upon such affection as sentimental, but many critics (or other readers) will.

    As far as MoLit goes, there is a level of acceptance of emotion that makes no sense (eg. revelation as a motive), so there is a tolerance among the audience for what critics would deem sentimental. But I don’t think this post was about such works. Rather, I think the point was that (non-genre) MoLit ought to embrace the emotional side of life unabashedly, including the aspects which may seem cheesy to the heart-hardened.

  14. Jonathan has pointed out the most slippery aspect of this topic. Sentimentality means different things to different people, which makes it difficult to even speak about it without causing confusion or miscommunication.

    The fact that the idea of “sentimental” means different things to different people renders the word a less usable. In the course of this topic it’s been used to refer to: happy endings, emotion, feeling, unreason, etc… All which I see as different things. So where does that leave us?

    Jonathan’s reference to Schiller reminds me of my first thought regarding sentimentality. Which is the idea was born during a time and place in reaction to rationality of the Enlightenment, primarily seens in works such as Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werter, and Henry Fielding’s A Man of Feeling, and the ouvre of Rousseau.

    And to be grossly reductionist, such literary moments has a huge influence or established the rise of the Gothics, British Romanticism, and the culture of Sensibility. Hence, Austen’s Sense and Sensibility was partially about the struggle and dialogue between realism and sentimental.

    But since then sentimentality has become so many different things to people (a sentimental idea itself) that it’s difficult for my brain to navigate through it all.

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