A Sweet Risk
After William Faulkner won the Noble Prize, he began publishing more essays, partly as a kind of obligation to the attention he was then receiving. I read a bunch of these, and one remark in particular caught my attention, which was something to the effect that “these days,” (which were the 1950s) “being sentimental is the worst crime a writer could commit.” I use this observation as a place marker for when this attitude more or less took hold, because reading it in the beginning of the 21st Century it seemed to me that the position had if anything gotten stronger. Admittedly, I’m talking now about literary fiction. Not to disparage commercial fiction, but sentimentality is certainly not going to keep a book (or a movie, or a song) from selling—which is to say, if you know your book will be placed on the commercial fiction shelf, you probably aren’t overly concerned about it being perceived as sentimental.
And as well you shouldn’t. Then again, neither should literary writers. Sentimentality is exaggerated feeling, and as such is not going to be as effective as the real thing. But there is no crime in wanting your reader to feel something, and if in your efforts to do so, in a moment of insecurity you push the feeling past the truth—so be it. The goal was laudable. Perhaps you’ll do better next time.
I say this because I feel sometimes that many writers are so afraid of being “caught” that they hold themselves back, as if you can never be too cool but even an inch too hot is too much. The truest and the deepest feelings live right up against sentimentality. It is a line you must absolutely risk crossing.
I know sentimentality is disappointing: an artist tries so hard to show love that he winds up making it appear that love doesn’t actually exist. Yet it is a disappointment born of a yearning for the real thing. The answer is not to dump trying; this is simply admitting defeat. Instead, the artist should try again, trusting a little more, listening a little a closer, seeking those sweet notes audible to every ear, the notes to which we all must surrender to remain human.
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