Friday, April 29, 2011
Literary Blog Hop: How Mushy is Too Mushy?
Discuss your thoughts on sentimentality in literature. When is emotion in literature effective and when is it superfluous? Use examples.
Well, other than it feels slightly like a test question from some literature class I may have taken in college, this is an interesting question. First, I feel a need to question a basic premise inherent in the questions-namely, that emotion and sentimentality are synonymous.
The Free Dictionary defines sentimentality as "The quality or condition of being excessively or affectedly sentimental.". Apparently it is now OK to define a word using the word...at any rate, they go on to define sentimental as "Affectedly or extravagantly emotional.". Therefore, while emotion is a component of sentimentality, all emotion is not sentimental. My understanding of the word is as something rather sappy, perhaps manipulative.
Now, I can't think of any readers of fiction that I know personally who want to read books that do not elicit some emotion in the reader. Most of us want to be swept away in a the lives of the characters, want to learn something about what it means to be human through experiencing the made-up world the author has created. It follows then that emotion in literature is not only a good thing, but an expected, integral thing. If literature is meant to mirror and examine the human experience, then it would be impossible to divorce it from emotion.
To me the most important word in the definition of sentimental is "affectedly". That one word rather sums up my feelings on sentimentality versus emotion in literature. By nature an affectation is not entirely sincere, and that is how most sentimentality in literature, or anything else, feels to me-insincere and unauthentic. Strangely enough I can't think of a literary example for the moment, but I can think of some pop culture examples-Lifetime movies and Extreme Makeover Home Edition.
Now, I should say up front that I am a crier. I love to cry at books or movies. It doesn't have to be sad or tragic either-I'm an equal opportunity sobber. I cry happy tears or sad tears or angry tears just as easily for fictional characters as I do for myself. So the term tearjerker does not hold any negative connotations for me. But I want that emotion to come from the strength of the story-not from artificial conditions created by a producer (I'm looking at you Ty Pennington!), or director, or author. I want the emotion to come from someone speaking their truth, whether real or fictional. I can just imagine the conversations around the table when a new Lifetime movie is being planned-especially if it happens to be around Christmas time. It's like they have developed a formula for maximum tear potential. Take one spunky woman down on her luck, give he a few kids to support, add hunky yet gentle guy who helps her love again, stir, and cry. There are variations on this theme, but generally none of them feel authentic to me. Then there is Extreme Makeover, Poor-Down-on-Their-Luck Family Edition. I believe that everyone on that show probably does feel like they are saving the world one sad, miserable family at a time, but I'd rather they took their fake sentimentality and all of the money that show makes and donated it to Habitat for Humanity.
Maybe the reason that I can't think of a literary example is that I tend to shy away from books that appear to have that Lifetime movie quality. I can think of plenty of examples of books that I love and admire that have strong emotion-The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg, The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, to name a few. But other than On Strike for Christmas, a book I was forced to read by may book club which led to one of my most sarcastic posts ever, I can't think of any real counter-examples. And that's the way I like it.