Each week in Bookends, two writers take on questions about the world of books. Roland Barthes said, “It is no longer the sexual which is indecent, it is the sentimental.” This week, Zoë Heller and Leslie Jamison debate whether sentimentailty is a cardinal sin for writers.
By Zoë Heller
Sentimental fiction is a kind of pablum: Excessive amounts can spoil the appetite for reality, or at least for more fibrous forms of art.
From time to time, a writer rises up to chastise our modern squeamishness about sentimentality. In “A Lover’s Discourse,” Barthes claims we have grown so chilly and clever that we can no longer speak of love without putting the word in mocking quotation marks. Nabokov makes a similar point in his lecture on “Bleak House,” when he warns his students against sneering at Dickens’s descriptions of orphaned children: “I want to submit that people who denounce the sentimental are generally unaware of what sentiment is. . . . Dickens’s great art should not be mistaken for a cockney version of the seat of emotion — it is the real thing.”
Neither Barthes nor Nabokov is really defending sentimentality in the contemporary, pejorative sense of the word, however. Both men are invoking an earlier, 18th-century definition — the quality of having or appealing to tender feelings — and urging us not to let our contempt for soppy or cheap appeals to sentiment spill over onto the sentiments themselves. They are surely right: We ought not to become so preening and protective of our rational, modern selves that we end up snickering indiscriminately at any nonironic appeal to human emotion. But this is not to say we should cease to criticize the soppy, cheap stuff — the “cockney version” of sentiment — when we come across it.
As it happens, I think Nabokov is wrong about Dickens’s depictions of orphans in “Bleak House”: They are sentimental — not because they set out to inspire our pity, but because they insist on idealizing and prettifying what is to be pitied. The distinctive characteristic of sentimental art is not, as is sometimes claimed, that it “manipulates” (all art does this in some measure) but that it manipulates by knowingly simplifying, Photoshopping or otherwise distorting the human experience it purports to represent. It isn’t sentimental for Dickens to want us to feel compassion for Jo, the homeless street sweeper; it is sentimental for Dickens to try to secure that compassion by making Jo more virtuous, humble and forbearing than any boy who ever lived.
This sort of pandering to, or babying of, one’s audience may not be sinful, exactly. But it isn’t entirely without moral hazard either. Sentimental fiction is a kind of pablum: Excessive amounts can spoil the appetite for reality, or at least for more fibrous forms of art. One reason, surely, why readers throw down books when they don’t contain sufficiently “likable” characters is that their tolerance for any sort of moral challenge — for being asked, say, to sympathize with homeless little boys who are godless and truculent and a bit smelly — has been eroded by too many fairy tales masquerading as adult literature.
Fairy tales can be immensely pleasurable and affecting, of course. But the fact that they often succeed in making us cry or smile or sigh ought not to inhibit our criticism of their falsehoods. I always weep at the scene in “Bleak House” in which Jo the street sweeper dies, reciting the Lord’s Prayer. (I am also inclined to blub at “The Notebook,” “Steel Magnolias,” “Beaches” and most of the Carpenters’ songbook.) And in spite — or perhaps precisely because of — my lachrymal responses, I reserve the right to be conscious and critical of the ways in which these works achieve their effects. If I point out that their portrayals of love, friendship, marriage, sex and death traduce or euphemize everything I understand to be the truth about those phenomena, I am not being a hypocrite. I am merely confessing, with a certain sense of wonder, to having been sold a bill of goods.
Zoë Heller is the author of three novels: “Everything You Know”; “Notes on a Scandal,” which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and adapted for film; and “The Believers.” She has written feature articles and criticism for a wide range of publications, including The New Yorker, The New Republic and The New York Review of Books.
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By Leslie Jamison
I would argue that one of the deep unspoken fears beneath the sentimentality taboo is really the fear of commonality.
My first negative review came from my college counselor, who wasn’t sure about the essay I’d planned on submitting with my applications. It was an account of my relationship with the little girl I’d spent four years babysitting; she’d gotten cancer when she was 5 years old, while her mother was undergoing chemotherapy for a tumor of her own. The essay came across as a little melodramatic, my counselor warned, and I can’t remember if she used the word “sentimental” but that’s the word that comes to mind now — the best name for an admonition that would become, for me, a kind of running commentary from the peanut gallery, a constant specter of judgment.
I wrote about my relationship with that little girl for simple reasons: She was important to me and her illness had made me feel powerless. These weren’t unusual thoughts and feelings — the world isn’t fair; I can’t do anything about it — but they were powerful ones. Also, I couldn’t shake certain memories: the antiseptic tang of her hospital ward, the pale powder-white of her small bald head, the wrongness of an IV disappearing into the crook of her tiny arm.
But, my counselor told me, Harvard didn’t want sob stories that were too — too what? I was made to feel there was something unseemly and even opportunistic about what I’d done. This shame took root as an abiding paranoia that I would mishandle emotions in my writing by inflating or exploiting them — that I’d conscript them in service of my own authorial ego, my desire to produce writing that moved people.
The fear of being too sentimental — writing or even liking sentimental work — shadowed the next decade of my life. The fear was so ingrained in me it became difficult to tell where outside voices ended and internal ones began. But the whole time I wasn’t entirely sure what I was afraid of: What was the difference between a sentimental story and a courageously emotive one? We dismiss sentimentality so fully — so instinctively — that we no longer bother justifying the dismissal, or mapping its edges. But it’s a useful question: What kind of failure does sentimentality represent? How can it be judged?
Resisting sentimentality means resisting exaggeration and oversimplification; it means resisting flat tragedy and crude emotional manipulation — the cheapening of feeling, the pulling of heartstrings. But 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. Nabokov’s definition of philistinism gets at something similar: “Philistinism implies not only a collection of stock ideas but also the use of set phrases, clichés, banalities expressed in faded words.”
It’s worth remembering, of course, that we all have the same stories to tell, and that refusing our commonality is as dangerous as conforming to it too much. It’s a fitting irony that Madame Bovary, whose tragic selfishness offers a kind of cautionary tale about the dangers of excessive sentimentality, is also motivated by a fear of commonality. Her attachment to sentimental narratives is fueled by an obsessive desire to separate herself from her surroundings; and our resistance to sentimentality is also fueled by an obsessive attachment to distinction — to the notion that narratives must distinguish themselves through particularity and complication. It’s a way of adhering to Pound’s old modernist saw: Make it new. Sentimentality is taboo, in part, because it keeps it old. Keeps it trite. Keeps it banal.
But many sentimental narratives have been deeply moving to many people, and it’s worth thinking about the things that make them compelling: their emotional intensity, their sense of stakes and values and feeling and friction, their investment in primal truths and predicaments — yes, common; yes, shared. Sentimentality is simply emotion shying away from its own full implications. Behind every sentimental narrative there’s the possibility of another one — more richly realized, more faithful to the fine grain and contradictions of human experience.
Leslie Jamison is the author of an essay collection, “The Empathy Exams,” winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. Her first novel, “The Gin Closet,” was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction; and her essays and stories have been published in numerous publications, including Harper’s, The Oxford American, A Public Space and The Believer.