Saturday, February 4, 2012

Understanding and dealing with sentimentality

Symptoms and diagnosis:

The editor complains that  "the story ought to be gripping but it's so sentimental  I want to puke."

The agent says, "I've been trying to sell it, every editor says it's way too sentimental, and I kind of wonder about my own taste because I like it so much."

Readers of all sorts, professional ones and supportive friends, say, "I was really into it till it turned all sentimental."

One way or another, every outsider reader slings that dreadful word sentimental at the work. And the writer says, "But how can it be sentimental when it's exactly what I feel?  Am I supposed to write stories without feeling it at all? Or just be so cool that I bore myself?  Why am I not reaching people with what I think is the most important thing in the story?"

When anyone tells you your work is sentimental, they are likely (but not certain) to be right.  Many readers have excellent radar for sentimentality, in my experience.  The trick is to understand what it is, nail its exact cause in this case,  and see why it's presenting the way it is.  Once you do that the fixes are obvious to the eye (but may be miserable to the glandular system).


In ordinary-plain-old-regular-reader talk, sentimentality often is used to mean too much emotion in general,  or the kind of failed, overwrought stuff more usually called bathos.  This creates a great deal of confusion in many writers in the almost-there stage, because after all, isn't a work supposed to arouse some feelings? Who reads to be bored? Or apathetic? Or feel nothing? The whole tradition of Western narrative arts is about evoking feelings, so if you're trying to work in any of the forms of narration that originate with, or were first created to appeal to, those underpigmented descendants of the inhabitants of the upper left corner of Eurasia, you are trying to evoke feeling, arouse emotions, and in general work over the adrenal glands of the audience.  

There are people who have trouble with deep or strong emotions in their reading, and some of them hang out on the web or internet and may say displeasing things about your work, but little can be done for or with such people.  Some have much too thoroughly internalized the currently fashionable snarkishness, and prefer a position of permanent ineffective superiority to any other social connection; these are the people who want to talk about the concert but won't buy a ticket, the classic eunuch criticizing technique at the orgy.  Some have one of the varieties of neurological condition that make it difficult for them to discern their own emotions, or those of others.  And some have some version of the "triggering" problem where particular emotional content simply becomes too personal too strongly, not unlike people who can't bear to hear a particular song on the radio because it wakes up the wrong memories, and therefore don't listen to stations where it might be played.  In general you should ignore them, or give up on the idea of fiction.

But for most of the rest of us, sentimentality lies close to the reasons for reading or writing fiction in the first place, and the trick is not to avoid the pit of sentimentality but to dance on the edge of the pit, gaining energy and concentration from the danger.

Sentimentality was once a term of praise; originally it meant the capacity to feel the appropriate feeling at the appropriate time.  Back about the time that the modern version of the  English novel was getting invented (Tom Jones and all that),  the English-speaking world was just beginning to look for ways to be at least marginally less brutal.*  The idea that a man might be a better man because he expressed an appropriate tenderness at the trust of a child or affection from a woman was called sentiment; a man who would say that he felt the right things was "a man of sentiment."  

Within a generation, in The School for Scandal, Sheridan was satirizing the people who could always say exactly the right thing because they didn't actually feel it, and pointing out that always expressing the right feeling verbally is in fact the chief skill of a good liar.  (He also created one of the very best comedy villains ever, Joseph Surface, to expound the idea).

It went downhill from there for sentiment.   Goldsmith kicked sentiment in comedy in the most brutal way a comedy writer can kick: in his essay on comedy, he divided comedy into "laughing" (i.e. funny) and "sentimental" (by implication, not funny).  Among the early Romantic poets and critics, Schiller split poetry of feeling into "naïve" (Romantic and good) and "sentimental" (stodgy old Enlightenment suckfest, though he didn't phrase it that way).  

The Victorians retained a fondness for sentiment in mass entertainment (which included brilliant writers like Dickens and Thackeray, and better-than-we-give-them-credit-for  names in the literary history textbooks as well), but they were already groaning about when it was overdone, and by the time Henry James came along, the idea of sentiment as a positive thing was thoroughly over. 

But Western people, anyway, and maybe everyone,  still like stories centered on feelings and emotions.  And in general we like to judge our characters (some fairly simple-minded readers do little else), and the sentiments of a character are part of what we judge.  (Consider Camus's The Stranger in which a man commits a pointless murder without apparent remorse, but is effectively tried and convicted for not acting sad enough at his mother's funeral; though few people would call that a "sentimental" work, it's fundamentally about sentiment). 

There are many different definitions of sentimentality.  I don't see much use in the ones that boil down to "feeling a lot."   Of the definitions that try to sort sentimentality out from other kinds of excess feeling, and thus stay true to its roots, I think the most useful is the one that my old teacher William Kittredge used to quote**:

Sentimentality is the demand by the implied author for the implied reader to experience an emotion that the story to that point is inadequate to justify.

Breaking down the terms a bit, 

the implied author*** is the "who does this sound like," the implied person who has the "voice" that editors and critics are always on about.  It may be so much like the real life author (as with Harlan Ellison, Hal Clement,  or James Crumley) that they're virtually indistinguishable, or it may be in effect a continuing character that appears in all the author's books (various people have suggested this about Robert E. Howard, Robert Heinlein, Hunter Thompson,  Tom Wolfe, and Mark Twain).  The implied author might be you or might not, but you need to decide who it is and take control of it.  It's a useful idea here because you need to remember that your story is one encounter, and might be the only encounter, between the implied author that has your name, and 

the implied reader, that person you're talking to, or imagining you're talking to.**** One of these days I'll do a whole piece about that, because many otherwise good writers make their implied reader far too narrow ("must have my taste in everything, and know exactly the same works of art and literature that I do exactly as well.")   The important thing here is that you are always showing, by your choices of what you think the implied reader will respond to, what the implied author thinks of and believes about him/her.  Most real readers will not take it as a compliment if you demonstrate that you think the implied reader is a blithering ninny who is just waiting to sob over dead children, cackle with glee at wise old poops, and get all warm and runny about fluffy bunnies; think of  implied reader as the role/character you have written for the real reader, and ask if they are going to want to play it. (When you were a child, did you ever play make believe games with a bossy child who cast him/herself as the hero or princess and everyone else as servants and villains? Did you like that child? And do you like being cast as the sentimental admirer of the sensitive young man, the plain ol' but slightly dim country gal who loves her some of that romance, or the possibly inadequate older man dreaming of being a studly young fighter?  Often the reason sentimentality grates on us is that it casts us, via the implied reader, as drooling cretins, unconscious twitches,  or simple-minded motif-gluttons.)

the story to that point just means that if there's something awesome later, the reader probably doesn't know it, and if they sense it coming, they just want to go there now, so you only get the points for the rounds you've already played.

demanding that the implied reader experience an emotion.  Aha.  There's the crux.  One, two, three, everybody be sad.  Come on, do it.  No, I mean be really sad.  Really sad.  Hurry up.  Now be relieved.  Now be scared.  

Not working, is it?  I've given you no reason to be any of those things.  The story thus far (actually I've given you no story) is inadequate to justify feeling those emotions – or in short, what you have been told, perhaps due to intrinsic content, or clumsy performance, or peculiarity of viewpoint, or many other things, simply isn't going to make you feel that way.

But suppose I bring you to love a character …. and then something awful happens to that character.

Maybe that's legit.  Unless you suspect that I'm a rotten bastard who made you love a character just so you would be sad.  Or just so you'd root for his partner to solve the crime and catch the guy who shot him down.  Or just so you'd want her child and her boyfriend to find a way to each other's hearts.  

The sentimentality is in the just sos, because "in order to make the implied reader feel that way" is always inadequate by itself.  

For example: If you read Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with the Circus as a kid (spoiler for those who only know the Disney movie) – skip to next para – when Mr. Stubbs the chimpanzee is killed, a lot of kids cry their hearts out.  Now, there are utilitarian purposes in it: the book was supposed to make running away from home fantasies unattractive and  teach lessons about moral restraint*****, and showing the kid a bad time at that point is therefore useful according to the social purpose of the book.  There are also esthetic purposes: it's late in the book, it's time for Toby to realize that bad as life with his uncle is, it's nothing compared to the cruelty at the circus, and something needs to motivate his decision to return like the prodigal son; besides, many people, including children, like a book that offers them a good heartfelt cry.  If those just sos, those purely functional reasons, were the entire reason Mr. Stubbs died, the book would be forgotten, and the prominence of those reasons is certainly why many critics will call it sentimental.  But there are also a whole complex of reasons why Mr. Stubbs is doomed – what he represents symbolically in the book, his connection to Toby's immature and delusional thinking, his long-established bad behavior that is tolerable within the circus but not in the larger world.  It feels like that chimp was doomed because of who/what/where he was, by his world and the story he was part of, and therefore although by modern standards we feel like the dead ape is being milked for all he's worth, we don't feel that he's there just so he can be milked.

Similarly, the "my name is Inigo Montoya" subplot in The Princess Bride is certainly presented sentimentally, but I, at least, don't have the feeling that it exists just so the audience's emotional chain can be yanked.

Sentimental material is both what many readers are going to remember, and what will cause some readers to accuse you of being manipulative, playing to the yahoos, or general cynical low-browism.  

There are some lessons from all this:

  1. You want to be accused of sentimentality; no matter how subtle you are with the wheels, gears, and wires of your fiction, someone will see them and accuse you of using them just so people will feel overblown feelings.  No matter how complex and interesting your actual purposes, some clown will be sure that you just put that in to get all those sentimental fools excited and sell more books.  There is no avoiding the accusation except by producing extraordinarily dull and lifeless fiction.
  2. Nonetheless, while you can't make the accusation impossible, you can make it unjust, and that is the goal you should set yourself.
  3. Referring to Kittredge's definition again, to make the accusation unjust, you need to make sure that the story – and only the story -- to that point justifies the emotion your work asks your intended reader to feel.  By only the story I mean only the things that are intrinsic elements of it; if you pull it out and it's the same story, it's not intrinsic.  That means – important caveat here – intrinsic is a matter of judgment and taste.  


This one is more art than science; the steps could really be done in any order, any old way you can, and all of them probably should carry the additional phrases "but not too much" and "just till you're done."

•Identify where the sentimentality happens.  Sometimes it's the whole book, sometimes two lousy paragraphs that ring false.  If there are large areas of not-broke, don't put effort into fixing them.

•What did you want to happen in those sentimental zones?  What was the feeling or effect that would have happened if you'd done exactly what you wanted?

This can be, but luckily rarely is, the hardest of all these cures for sentimentality.  Sometimes you have to face up to the terrible truth that your purpose was  illegitimate to you,  i.e. you find yourself looking at the purpose of a sentence, paragraph, scene, or work and saying that it is unworthy of you, or the writer you want to be.  You may find that you detest the implied author you're implying.  You may find that you don't respect the implied reader and you're trying to "give the poor dumb bitches what they want" or thinking "this ought to hold the little bastards for a while" or deciding to "stroke their squatty little egos" with the whole story. As a result, you're demanding an emotional response from them but you're not interested in what they need to have it—rather like some creepy Don Juan types who like seduction more than consummation.

That's the point where you just shitcan the thing and move on.  If it's the whole story, some of the other ideas can find their way into other stories; if it's a smaller unit, discard and replace.  (Or discard with intent to replace if you don't have an idea just this moment).  Highlight it, hit that delete key, send it to bit heaven; crumple it and give it to the cat to play with; pound a stake of holly through its heart.  But if your purpose was sentimental, i.e. to extort the feeling from the implied reader specifically without communicating or sharing anything that hangs your emotional ass into the game, that kind of sentimental is story cancer,  and all you can do is cut every bit out that you can see and spray the rest with everything you can think of to keep it from growing back.

Such scrape-and-pitch situations are blessedly rare, unless you're really a Jekyll and Hyde type in which Mr. Hyde does all the rough drafts.  More usually you had, in fact, some reasonably legitimate (again, to you) reason for trying to achieve an effect, and something went wrong, but what you were aiming for was not wrong.  Those lesser, fixable problems can be split into sentimental strategy and sentimental  tactics, for analytic purposes, but in fact almost every chunk of prose that pursues an emotionally legitimate purpose with a sentimental strategy will also have made use of sentimental tactics, and vice versa.  The reason for treating them separately is only to make sure that you treat both of them.

•A sentimental strategy is one where you have written up to a place where an effect needs to happen,  and shied away from getting it by legitimate fictional means.  Sometimes this is a problem of emotional difficulty or shyness: you need the main character to be altered by the death of his grandmother, and you're not really over your own grandmother's death, or you find the feelings you had about it embarrassing, or you have no experience with it and you're afraid of getting it wrong.  

•One solution for sentimental strategy is simple and painful: write moment to moment, and let the difficult thing happen in the interstices.  Say, for example, that Sergeant Emma Empathy, of the Bucolic County Sheriff's Department, has to find the corpse of a small child (to pick an really loaded sentimental situation, but one that could well come up in fiction).   You grit your teeth if necessary, and write straightforward moment by moment narration to the point where she sees something that makes her go look.  You avoid the temptation to have her speculate or react; now she goes and looks.  Now she sees.  ("It was Aura Jesperson.") Emma does what she would do, as a cop who deals with children – rushes to the body, confirms that Aura is dead or summons the ambulance if she has any doubt.  You put in a detail or two that may be obvious – the weight of Aura's body in Emma's arms,  the mud caked around the mouth and nostrils, the chilly slackness of the arm muscles – and you let it go at that.  The story will take it all the way it needs to go.  (Some of you right now are tearing up, and it is my judgment that you are people of good sentiment).  

•But let us suppose Emma needs to feel something non-conventional.  Maybe poor little Aura was the third one this month, Chief Irwin Insensitive is insisting that they are all accidents and his plan is that "You talk to their folks, Emma, you're good at that, and then this spring we'll have you give a talk at the school about safety and being careful."  So Emma is sorry for Aura and for the Jespersens but she's also furious and determined.  This brings up another anti-sentimental strategy: let your character be aware of or ashamed of inappropriate feelings.  "She made herself look Tom and Bobbie Jespersen in the eyes when she told them, and when she took Tom in to identify the body, she rested a hand on his shoulder and let him sit and compose himself before he had to tell Bobbie it was true.  She made herself do every small gesture of sympathy, and watched herself do it.  But she felt like a hypocrite, because inside she was  cold and furious: she would make the Chief see that these were murders.  She would find the monster who put her in this situation where she couldn't even give her full attention to a weeping father."

•A third solution for sentimental strategy is to pull back a little bit out of viewpoint,  perhaps because the shock has numbed the character, or perhaps just because you have been varying closeness of viewpoint in the book (I'll talk at some future time about why that can be desirable).  Then after the scene is over, let the affected person react  in a way that makes the reader guess (correctly) how deep the feelings must run.  The vomiting policeman in Fritz Lang's M is one example; for our hypothetical case here,  maybe we describe Emma being gentle with the Jespersens and correct with the paperwork, and then when Chief Insensitive leans in her door and says, "They're gonna be okay, right, after they get over the shock?" she throws heavy objects, or grabs him by the lapels and slaps him, or leans back and howls and weeps inconsolably, or doesn't answer, waits till he leaves, and says very quietly, "Asking that question means you are an idiot, and I am going to make sure that everyone knows you are."

Recap: sentimental strategy is presenting the emotionally loaded piece as if you were trying to cash in emotion chips, i.e. making it serve your emotion-button-hitting needs rather than your story-telling needs.  The solutions are, 1) just present it if the emotions are obvious and appropriate; 2) present the awkwardness if there is an awkward gap between the sentiment (appropriate emotion) and the real emotion; or 3) present the loaded part blandly and then report the objective reaction to it.  

•Sentimental tactics are almost always a result of self-consciousness: you know it's not working emotionally, so you try to add some emotion booster.  In general if you fix the sentimental intent or the sentimental strategy, you won't feel the need for these, and you'll just drop them, so I'm not making much in the way of notes about how to get rid of them; it's too much like
"Doctor, it hurts when I do this."
"Well, don't do that."
 These include:

Exaggeration – overstating the feeling because you're afraid the reader will miss it.  "Aura was dead, and Emma stared into an aching nihilistic void of meaninglessness that extended through the whole universe."

Metaphor (conventional ) – if you are using a  metaphor, (or simile or other trope – metaphor is the overarching name for all of the tropes of similarity), the scene is at risk of or suspected of sentimentality, and you have ever seen that metaphor in print before, cross it out.  "Aura was dead. Emma felt socked in the gut."

Metaphor  (distressingly original) – some writers think it's the clichéd nature of the metaphor that makes the sentimentalism obvious, and unfortunately compose their own.   "Aura was dead.  Emma swallowed hard, a sensation like forcing down a frozen-solid garden slug."

Melodrama – melodrama was called that originally from "melo-" meaning "music."  Cuing up background music doesn't even work well in the movies.  Let's give poor old Aura a rest and let Emma have a romantic scene with Hansom McNewphella (who is of course the guy Chief Insensitive suspects of the child murders).  Sitting out by the lake listening to the radio, well, all right (though it borders on glurge).  But if there's a playlist and it includes "Can't Help Falling In Love With You,"  "Wonderful World," and "The Way You Look Tonight," then you're trying to borrow significance from the music (and unless your audience is senior citizens, the wrong music at that).

Glurge --  Most of you have heard this internet slang, I'm sure, for "things to which everyone is supposed to enjoy having a reaction."  These are the pictures of kittehs and bun-buns going nom nom nom, the heartwarming stories of wise old grandpas saying just the right thing, the brave officer (or doggeh) saving the toddler, and so on.  If such an element naturally occurs in your story at the point where you suspect sentimentality and you can't remove it, at least downplay it.  If you have added it to help people get the point, take it out and help people keep their lunch.

Name-that-feeling (sometimes combined with Fanthorpism) – you can't make a reader feel an emotion by naming it*******, or credibly characterize anyone with a list of abstract adjectives.  But some writers try, and the results are usually somewhere between flat and unintentionally comic.  "Another dead child.  Emma couldn't seem to get away from them, they were inescapable, unavoidable, ubiquitous, everywhere.  It made her sad, depressed, mournful, despairing, somber, lachrymose …"

Sentimental tactics are usually best solved by just omitting; you won't fix an appalling metaphor with a better one, or glurge by substituting a kindly old uncle for a bunny.  (Even if he goes nom nom nom).  More often than not, you can just dispense with them at the same time you clean up the sentimental strategies, or if the strategy wasn't sentimental, just leave the sentimental tactics out entirely.

In a sense, sentimentality is a "heart disease" of fiction: you can't ignore it, and you can't just cut that out and throw it away and figure the patient will get along without it.  You have to truly fix sentimentality or completely replace it,  and then you have to work on getting the repaired piece into the best shape it can be, because it keeps everything else going.  The good news is, if you really fix sentimentality, and the story is otherwise strong, you can very suddenly find you have one of your best stories.  


* Given what followed in the centuries since, we had a very long way to go, and a good ways to go yet, but one place the change started was in prose fiction.

** he may have been quoting himself, since I haven't been able to find a source that says it quite this way.

*** much more about implied authors and implied readers can be found in Wayne Booth's Rhetoric of Fiction.  Again, as I often warn , please don't pretend you know all about it (let alone decide you can urge other people to dismiss it) based on a couple of sentences here.  Human up and learn it if you want to talk about it at any depth.

**** So we now have this imaginary relationship between who you're pretending to be and who you're pretending to talk to.  You can see where something could go wrong here, ne?

***** and, I guess, not to be a chimp

****** except maybe impatience.  I might be able to make you feel impatience – if impatience is a feeling, and impatience is something you feel – by mentioning, though not necessarily in an impatient way, but in a way that refers to impatience – impatience, if the impatience you felt had anything to do with the impatience the story intended.  Otherwise not.