Much has been written about the sin of sentimentality in fiction. But is it really so bad?
What is sentimental writing?
It has to be more than simply writing that inspires emotion, a sensation of tenderness. Writing is supposed to move the reader. Sentimentality, as apposed to sentiment, is something shallow that cheapens or simplifies that emotion in order to tug at the reader’s heartstrings.
If it makes you go “aww” it’s probably an example of sentimentality.
If a story contains these stock themes, it’s likely to involve sentimentality (though these themes do also occur in deeper fiction):
- A child’s tears
- A sick pet
- The forgiving father
- The individual who stands up for right
- The kind and wise grandparent
- A triumph over adversity
Is it elitist to abhor sentimentality?
There was an interesting debate on sentimentality in the New York Times between authors Zoë Heller and Leslie Jamison. Heller argued that “Sentimental fiction is a kind of pablum: Excessive amounts can spoil the appetite for reality, or at least for more fibrous forms of art.” Jamison responded that “I would argue that one of the deep unspoken fears beneath the sentimentality taboo is really the fear of commonality, the fear of being just like everyone else or telling a story just like everyone else’s.”
Jamison’s point about elitism is interesting. “We all have the same stories to tell,” she writes. And it’s true that the accusation of sentimentality tends to be levelled by intellectuals at writers of pulp fiction. Perhaps they’re just sneering at emotions they disagree with.
John Irving, writing in the New York Times, points out the hypocrisy of context. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is among the best-loved works in English. Yet its theme of redemption is arguably sentimental, as is the tear-jerking ending where Tiny Tim says “God bless us, every one”. And yet the indulgence we afford tales of kindness at Christmas time doesn’t extend to other seasons. Critical fire greeted Dickens late grafting of a happy ending onto Great Expectations. And I’d probably agree with the critics.
Some say the sin of sentimentality is that the author manipulates the reader into feeling certain emotions. But I think that’s true of all writing. The events on the page of a story don’t really exist—the writer simulates them to create an effect.
The reader’s collusion with sentimentality
Maybe the most useful definition of sentimentality is Oscar Wilde’s aphorism that it affords “the luxury of having an emotion without paying for it”. This definition emphasises the cheapness of the effect. But, interestingly, it also makes the consumer share responsibility for the sin with the producer.
So perhaps the issue is less to do with the emotion evoked than with what we’re enabled to do afterwards. Tropes and clichés are poor art because they confirm stereotypes rather than challenging them. In the same way, perhaps sentimentality is poor art because it denies us an understanding of how to cope with real loss or engage generously with others. If the writing doesn’t surprise and elucidate in some way, can it be good?
Jamison, in another essay, makes a similar point. She argues that sentimentalism strokes our ego by titillating our capacity to feel while simultaneously denying us genuine emotion.
I guess I’m arguing in favour of the pleasure of complexity and against the pleasure of simple intensity. Sentimentality irons out ambiguity. Whether you enjoy complexity or intensity may be no more than a matter of preferences.
What do you think? Is sentimentality a writing sin? Or is this just an elitist prejudice?
4 thoughts on “109. Complexity or intensity: is sentimentality bad fiction?”
Thank you for the interesting essay, Neil.
There’s no doubt that sentimental writing sells books and magazines. Is that a bad thing? I suppose it may be. In the same way that too much sugar in your diet causes physical ill-health, perhaps too much sentimentality causes spiritual ill-health. But surely a little is permissible?
That said, I want everything I read and write to say something interesting about people, and life, and death.
Even so, many people are comforted by ideas that might be said to be sentimental or cliché, and I wouldn’t want to take that away from them.
Perhaps a sin, then, but not a mortal one!
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Interesting and generous take on the question, Penny
What an interesting topic. I believe a sentimental (I prefer the adjective “touching”) passage in fiction of any kind can help release emotions that are better out than in. Therefore it’s healthy medicine for the mind. I also think its a rite of passage for children in reading and viewing. A child who is weeping over a chapter in a book or a scene in a film shows developing emotional intelligence which I find reassuring. I also think there is a bit of snobbishness around sentimentality (as there is snobbishness in a lot of aspects of fiction) but when it’s handled well even the harshest critic will instinctively acknowledge its value. From a creative angle, I think we need to make ourselves laugh and cry as we write, however rough the draft, if that is the reaction we seek from our audience. P.S. I never believed Pip would be happy with the twisted sister form that Dickens named Estella.
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Thanks, Jilly. Sentiment and sentimentality, of course. are not the same thing