“Sentimentality” in Literature

What’s Wrong With Sentimentality? | Katy Waldman | Slate Magazine

A very interesting, and solid, article by Katy Waldman about reader/viewer response to “sentimentality” from Slate Magazine on 16 July 2014.

I started to get really in depth into responding to what I read here, when suddenly it felt too overwhelming.  Instead I’m going to share my overall impressions of this article and the subject at hand.

1. It’s a really well developed and written article.

2. “Sentimentality” is a key factor in novels/popular fiction since the time of Jane Austen and earlier.  Hawthorne got real fed up with the women who wrote (and sold) sentimental fiction, but that didn’t stop people like Louisa May Alcott from writing them.

3. Teens and Young Adults like black-and-white stories because their emotions and hormones are such a mess and they don’t know how to handle it.  According to neuroscientists a person’s limbic system doesn’t finish forming until the mid-twenties, meaning people under the age of 25 are more guided by their emotions than by rational thought.  Because their an emotional mess, a simple story is going to be appealing.  It’s easy, it’s straightforward (unlike the world).  Adults, starting in the their late-twenties, are more rational and can see the murkiness, messiness, complexity of real life and, as implied by Waldman, want their literature to be as murky and complex, too.

4. Enjoying YA Fiction is shameful for Adults because of point #3.  Adults shouldn’t be thinking like a teen anymore, is the implication, you should be thinking like an adult.  “When I was a child I thought like a child…”, etc.  She seems to be implying (not necessarily Waldman, but those who condemn sentimentality in literature) that to enjoy YA Fiction shows a lack of maturity.

5. “Why,” she asks, “in this age of irony and antiheroes, do we assume the “truer” choice is always the more ambiguous one?”  Why, indeed?  Adults are obsessed with not offending anyone (some, anyhow).  There are multiple rights and wrongs, goods and bads.   Morality is sometimes immoral, and you should “do what’s right for you”.  Life is ambiguous.  A book, being a representation of life, ought to follow suit.

Maybe it’s my interpretation, but a lot of that sounds like someone being afraid to take a stand, made a declarative statement.  A book can be about something.  It can make a moral judgement.  I’m also not sure I understand this point entirely, because I can’t think of a single book that doesn’t make a declarative statement whether it’s this guy is the murderer, or those cops are corrupt, or love conquers all, or Harry is the Chosen One, or Alice was dreaming.

6. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with “sentimentality” in literature.  Most readers want to connect with the characters in the books they’re reading.  Otherwise, who cares?  If we can’t empathize with the plight of the hostages AND the rebels in Bel Canto by Ann Patchett we’re not going to get anything out of it.  If we don’t put ourselves in the shoes of Neil Gaiman’s protagonist in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, we won’t understand why he visits with Lettie’s grandmother*.  Having an emotional response to literature cannot be a bad thing, can it?  People love the emotional roller coaster of movies and TV shows.  Our heartbeats quicken as the music swells; tears fall from our eyes when the universally beloved character kicks it, or the guy finally gets the girl; we shout out when we see an injustice played out on the screen (ask me sometime about when I saw He’s Just Not That Into You).  If this is the case, why can’t we have sentimentality in our novels?

7. Waldman speaks to many psychologists studying how people respond to sentimentality in books and programs.  Which sorts of people react more viscerally than others and why.  The one thing I think we can draw from all their research and, based on what they told Waldman and what she shared with her readers, is that each readers brings their own, unique life experience to each work.  No one is going to have exactly the same reaction as another reader, but you can probably hypothesize that an individual will have the same reaction to the same type of work, for the most part.

This entire conversation is silly.  It’s silly, because everyone has their own interests and experiences that affect their reading.  I have a sister who will never read Harry Potter (unless her kid reads them one day), but she’ll devour a book on the history of cod.  I have another sister who would find the fish book supremely boring, and has seen Harry and the Potters perform the weekend of an HP book release.  I love Jane Austen; a friend of mine, who has a lot in common with myself, once described Austen novels as “a really long walk”; she has no interest in these novels, because they always seem to be taking long walks and nothing happens.

I like Waldman’s article.  I like her presentation of the material.  I like that she talked to literature and psychology professors from across the country.  I like the subtle snarkiness that leads me to believe she doesn’t disapprove of sentimentality in literature.  I like that she, instead of approaching the conversation with outrage, tried to explain why people enjoy this sort of literature.  It is very informative and interesting.

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*I chose both the Patchett and the Gaiman novels because I cried when I read them… as an adult.

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The Books I Considered While Making the Previous List of YA Fiction

“Contemporary” (1950-present)

  • Holes
  • Harry Potter Series
  • To Kill A Mockingbird
  • The Giver
  • His Dark Materials (The Golden Compass; The Subtle Knife; The Amber Spyglass)
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower
  • An Abundance of Katherines
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
  • Tuck Everlasting
  • The House on Mango Street
  • A Wrinkle in Time
  • The Phantom Tollbooth
  • Coraline
  • The Westing Game
  • The Graveyard Book
  • The Witch of Blackbird Pond
  • Harriet the Spy
  • Freaky Friday
  • The Fault in our Stars
  • The Hunger Games Trilogy
  • Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series
  • Stargirl

“Classics” (Time Immemorial-1950)

  • Little Women
  • The Hobbit
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • The Chronicles of Narnia
  • Anne of Green Gables
  • Treasure Island
  • The Secret Garden
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
  • Peter Pan
  • Little House on the Prairie
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
  • Through the Looking-Glass

Annoying Childhood Books

My niece is reading the last chapter of a book I read when I was her age (and loved) out loud and it is super annoying.  I remember my oldest sister being somewhat annoyed when I read those books (out loud) but I didn’t understand why.  I loved them… until I didn’t.  A fast reader I sped through the series probably a lot faster than the author or publishers ever intended.  I would be finished with a book in a day or two and move on to the next one.  That one done in the next day or two, I’d be on to the next.  I read so many of those damn fucking books in such quick succession that I started to hate the protagonist.  She was such a pushy know it all, I couldn’t figure out why she was such the darling.  Why were those other kids friends with her?  Why did all those adults put so much trust in her?  Why was that boy so devoted to her when she treated him like crap and flirted with other, wealthier boys?

Reading that series was like reading the soap opera of Christian tween mysteries.  The series would be as if Encyclopedia Brown and Sally Kimball were dating, but Sally was seeing Bugs Meany on the side; however they all put their differences aside once a week at Sunday School.  That was this book series.  And if that were the premise of the Encyclopedia Brown stories, they would be just as tedious as the other (with the female protagonist – lest anyone accuse me of finding her tiresome because she was a girl).

All that aside, it’s amazing to me that I read and enjoyed over thirty of those books when I was eleven and twelve.  They were my favorites, I wanted them for Christmas and birthdays; when I finished the ones I had I cried out for “More!  More!” and was forced to wait until either I could buy more for myself or the next gift giving holiday rolled around.  But now, seventeen years later, I listen to another eleven year old reading the stories aloud and I am amazed these books were so enjoyed.  Meant for young readers, yes, sure, they are, but, come on, so was Little Women and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and those are books that can be enjoyed as much by adults as they can by children.  The writing in those books and stories are interesting and funny and the writing is easy for young people, but doesn’t belittle their comprehension, like many intended for young readers.

The mystery book series about the twelve year old girl who is smarter than everyone around her in 1900 North Carolina IS written for young readers, and it, clearly, is engaging (I read over 30 of them!), and they should remain in one’s youth.  Right there alongside the American Girl books, The Baby-Sitter’s Club, and, yes, Encyclopedia Brown.  Some books intended for young readers transfer well into adulthood (Phillip Pullman, Suzanne Collins, Madeleine L’Engle), but some do not.  This is what I have learned while visiting with my niece this week.

Reading Life

I haven’t really been reading lately — it’s just so hard sometimes when you work at a camp — but I’ve been wanting to.  I did read a pretty generic murder mystery a few weeks ago that had more to do with race relations in the south in the 50s and 80s than it did crime solving.  But I’ve been wanting some solid reading time.  I figured I’d have plenty of time to read on my 6 hour flight to Portland last week, so I picked up A Game of Thrones.  Figured I’d find out what all the fuss has been about.

I can’t seem to get into it.

I’ve read the Prologue; and I know your supposed to give a book twenty pages before you give up on it, but I’m just not there yet.  I’m going to keep reading, but it’s just so hard.  It’s so much easier, and, so far, more enjoyable to watch episodes of Dead Like Me instead.

I’ll go back to it.  I’ve got some hardcore reading withdrawals going on.  But I don’t know yet how I feel about this book.