sentimental literature

Thomas Gaugain, Maria from Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy

The first book that I ever connected with was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. I distinctly remember, at 14 years old, sitting on my bed and crying for what felt like hours. Over the days that followed, I walked around in a haze: that state between exhaustion and elation that follows an intensely emotional episode. I had a similar experience reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Afterward, when I would try to describe to my friends what it was exactly about the book that I found so moving, I would feel myself starting to cry all over again. The book felt like an open wound, one prone to reopening at the smallest provocation. There are a handful of books that have given me similar such experiences, including Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews, and The Gathering by Anne Enright. I hold them all very dear.

I crave books that move me, that overwhelm me with emotion, and I often feel ashamed of this. The desire to feel overcome by writing sometimes feels anti-intellectual, as if feeling and thinking were two separate things, on opposite sides of the reading experience. The desire for an emotional response feels lazy, even naive. It’s the desire to feel something without having to work for it, the desire for emotional recognition to be as simple, as clear, as something transcribed on the page.

It’s not that I can’t enjoy books that don’t elicit some deeply felt emotion. There are books that I love that don’t reach me on an emotional level. But there is a special category set aside for those books that have made me feel out of control in the face of their emotional power, and there is a part of me that is looking for that experience in almost everything that I read.

Within literary circles, emotion is often dismissed as sentimentality, and “sentimental” literature has a long history of critical derision. In her essay “In Defense of Saccharin(e),” Leslie Jamison characterizes the fate of such books:

Texts are dispatched by the clean guillotine strokes of these accusatory words: saccharine, syrupy, sentimental. We dismiss sentimentality in order to construct ourselves as arbiters of artistry and subtlety, so sensitive we don’t need the same crude quantities of feeling—those blunt, craggy corpses.

To seek out sentimental writing is to lack a certain sense of taste. These reading habits are a capitulation to those base elements of literature that lack quality, nuance, and complexity.

Part of the problem with the derision of sentimental writing is the degree to which the label feels tangential. The standard literary definition of sentimentality lists aspects such as excessive emotion or false and superficial emotion, but these definitions provide no real guidelines for determining what constitutes false emotion and what constitutes real emotion. What are the borderlines of emotional and sentimental literature? Just as important, who are the gatekeepers?

Jamison argues that if we insist on dismissing sentimental literature, we should at least understand the parameters:

At what volume does feeling become sentimental? How obliquely does feeling need to be rendered so that it can be saved from itself? How do we distinguish between pathos and melodrama? Too often, I think, there is the sense that we just know. Well I don’t.

The line between sentimentality and genuine emotion can feel more than just arbitrary; it can feel personal, too. When a book elicits an emotional response in me, I often feel defensive of the work, as if it represented some part of me.

Once, in a course on British Literature, I approached the professor about writing a paper on Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. He was not impressed. Never Let Me Go lacked the sophistication of some of Ishiguro’s other novels; it was more trite than truly moving, and certainly not as thoughtful. He would accept a paper on Remains of the Day, but not on Never Let Me Go.

Barthes put into words, and thus validated, the significance of the emotional power of art, even if he was writing specifically about photography.

The dismissal confused me. What were the rules? Why did the emotional impact of my book of choice have no weight within the academic environment? I felt, rather indignantly, that the emotional power I had felt reading the book was good enough for academic exploration.

It was in academia that I first noticed the absence of discourse on the emotional life of literature. My appetite for emotional connection fuelled my love of reading, and this in turn influenced my decision to study English Literature. But in school, I spent years in classes where emotion was diligently avoided, and, if mentioned at all, done in the context of segue into more serious discussions of the text.

It was in this context that I first read Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida in my fourth year. It was, quite simply, a relief. Barthes put into words, and thus validated, the significance of the emotional power of art, even if he was writing specifically about photography. Barthes recognized the tension between art and more critical modes of discourse, describing photography as “the uneasiness of being a subject torn between two languages, one expressive, the other critical.”

Where I wanted to explore the emotional impact of the books that I loved, Barthes was unconvinced that there are words that can describe this impact. Barthes’ belief in an essential divide between the way we experience art and the way we talk about art is, for me, connected to the feelings of shame over my love of emotional literature. While I want to find a language for the way that a book has made me feel, I’m not always able to do so. I can point to a character, a passage, a line, but often in a vague sort of way, gesturing toward something without fully describing it. In a discourse where critical responses must be exact, and where emotion is easily dismissed, a state of reverence can feel like intellectual failure.

So much of our experience of art is deeply personal. No one experiences art outside of their personal context and no one experiences art objectively. When I talk about the things that a book has made me feel, I am also talking about things that are intertwined with the rest of me. In this way, engaging in a discussion of the emotional life of a book requires a level of discourse that is incredibly intimate and vulnerable. This can feel shameful, at times, like you’ve uncovered too much without knowing how you will be received.

In a discourse where critical responses must be exact, and where emotion is easily dismissed, a state of reverence can feel like intellectual failure.

Some critics take issue with the inward shift that sentimental literature seems to represent. If the experience of reading sentimental literature is one that centres individual emotions, then sentimental literature can be read as a form of solipsism. Jamison argues:

When we criticize sentimentality, perhaps part of what we fear is the possibility that it allows us to usurp the texts we read, insert ourselves and our emotional needs too aggressively into their narratives, clog their situations and their syntax with our tears.

But just because something elicits a certain degree of personal feeling in the reader doesn’t mean that it isn’t capable of also engendering feelings and impressions that extend beyond the individual. That reading fiction can help build empathy has been well documented, and I would argue that the empathy derived from fiction is possible by virtue of our ability to connect emotionally to stories of which we are not the centre. As a 14 year old reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, there was undoubtedly some part of me that was crying for myself, but I was crying for Francie Nolan, too.

There may not always be a language for the way that books make us feel, but there is a language for the reality of that feeling. Emotions are a big part of the reading experience, and to deride the emotional life of literature is to deride a critical part of the way in which we relate to works of art. I, for one, don’t know how to read books without looking for an emotional experience, and I don’t want to talk about books without recognizing the power they can have over my emotions, the power they have to push me further into and beyond myself.


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