Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Sentimentality in literature

The case for

A misunderstanding of Victorians (Dickens included) is blamed for the over-reaction against sentimentality, leading to the warnings that budding writers receive about the dangers of sentimentality. True, it might be mere tear-jerking, but all emotion and feeling evoked by literature is to some extent manufactured or induced. It's not all misery porn. Fickle fashion dictates what an acceptable level of inducement is, and how obvious the artifice should be.

  • In his book "In Defense of Sentimentality", Robert Solomon aims to rehabilitate the concept of sentimentality both in life and in literature
  • In In Defense of Sentimentality, John Irving writes that "as a writer it is cowardly to so fear sentimentality that one avoids it altogether"
  • George Santayana thought that people who objected to sentimentality "probably have only notions of what things and people are; they accept them conventionally, at their diplomatic value". Amit Majmudar in A Note on Sentimentality makes a similar point - "mushy-gushy moments are an actual part of real lived life".

The case against

The arguments against take various forms -

  • Some think that sentimentality results from a potentially dangerous failure of observation - sentimentality, Mary Midgley argues, centers around the "flight from and contempt for, real people".
  • Pragmatically it might not be a good strategy to use, especially if readers are experienced and/or cynical, and if the work seems auto-biographical
    • Readers might feel that the piece is more therapy than art.
    • Readers might be inhibited from saying what they think - critical response is blunted.
    • Readers might worry that the poet has revealed things about others that they shouldn't have.
    • People nowadays seem not to feel they've experienced something unless they take a photograph. Some poets do a similar thing - writing up emotional events from duty rather than necessity. This isn't an issue that should concern readers generally, but with from-the-heart poems, such impressions matter more.
    • Using one's own memory hoard may lead to running out of material.
    • If the reader's jolted out of the poem by an unusual or difficult line, the spell's broken.
    • When the poems depend on delivering an emotional payload, the rest of the poem might appear as mere set-up. Once doubt is sown in the reader's mind by one poem, other poems become vulnerable.
    Use of understatement is recommended because it makes the writer seem in control of their material, though too much understatement may lead to the author/persona getting the treatment Meursault received in L'√Čtranger.
  • There are also aesthetic arguments which are often variations on the "show not tell" adage. In practise, sentimentality is usually associated with non-sophisticated techniques that attract criticism. Maybe simple poetry is more likely to be interpreted as deep and strong rather than bland and unambitious only if the poet's already famous. Some academics prefer works that they can spend pages analysing and decoding - it makes them feel useful. Some writers know this, and write accordingly. Of course there are many, more acceptable reasons for telling it slant. Centuries ago, Demetrius wrote "ambiguity may often add strength. An idea suggested is more weighty: simplicity of statement excites contempt". Perhaps simplicity's underestimated - "The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity" - Wittgenstein.

Poetry or prose?

When people fall in love they sometimes start writing poetry as if they're the first people to feel that way. However genuine the expression, however simple and strong the words are, the texts will have questionable value to readers unless the content or the method offers something different.

Death is less frequent than love, but more reliable; no-one's exempt. People affected by death talk about it. Some write about it, perhaps making it their first public work - a eulogy perhaps. Eulogies needn't be original - so much is performative - but even there, some characterising anecdotes help. At wakes, some of the best anecdotes are exchanged, honed by retelling. In such situations there are even people (not just those touched by Lady Di's death) who write poetry.

Part of the technique of writing about strong subjects might be to let the content show through. In this respect poetry has disadvantages as a vehicle. It can be viewed nowadays as pretentious, contrived. The shape of the text raises expectations that encourage inauthentic readings. The clutter of meter, rhyme and line-breaks compromise word choices and risks distracting readers. Is it possible to offer an opinion on the poetry without taking the content into account? I'd hope so - after all, if the author's classifying the work as poetry, they're buying into the brand. Risks abound, especially when poems don't quite work. Prose is less risky.

In poetry there might be "syntactic curry" - features (like broken syntax) added to disguise the quality of the ingredients. Perhaps the realisation of this is why poets tend to write more simply as they age (though there are numerous exceptions - Blake, for example). Auden never again wrote anything as baffling as "The Orators". Kathleen Jamie's poetry is growing in simplicity. It seems to me that Jorie Graham and Denise Riley write most simply when writing about something that strongly affected them emotionally. Brenda Shaughnessy's "My Andromeda", about her son brain-damaged at birth, has a more transparent style than her earlier books. It's still marketed as poetry, perhaps because even though "poetry doesn't sell", it sells better than flashes of creative non-fiction - anecdotes, mini-essays and journal entries.

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