Monday, November 07, 2005

Sentimentality and Originality

I've been pondering what makes writing sentimental; i.e., where does the pursuit of sentiment (emotion) slip across the line and become maudlin, cloying, and sappy? At what point do readers go from wiping their eyes to rolling them?

The key component of sentimental writing is the use of stock, emotionally laden elements. Justin Cronin calls such an element a "dead puppy": an iconic symbol that can be counted on to get an automatic reaction without working for it. Dead puppies are sad; it matters not what has gone before in the story, or what follows. One would have to work pretty hard to write a story about dead puppies that elicited some other response, and which did not sink to the level of dead baby jokes. (Remember them? How do you unload a truckload of dead babies? With a pitchfork.) I cringe to think about the dead puppies in my own writing. Not to mention dead babies. Yeesh.

We normally think of sentimental writing as sad, or treacly sweet (awww-inspiring). But it's really anything that relies on such overused, predefined imagery. And it really is a hallmark of bad amateur writing. Any editor will recognize the plethora of miscarriages, abortions, dead [puppies, mothers, children, boyfriends, etc.], cancer victims, wife-beaters, self-mutilators, and sexual deviants in bad amateur fiction submitted for publication. The authors of these pieces think they are writing "serious" fiction because the subject matter is "serious", i.e., somber. (I know this to be true because I have wallowed in this mudhole, both as writer and editor, at length.)

Serious fiction need not be somber, but it must be fresh, composed of elements not seen before, or at least capable of carrying original meaning, meaning created by the story. And by "meaning," what I really am talking about is emotion. True sentiment, dug out of the dirt of originality, letter by letter, word by word, detail by stinking detail.