Gonna Take a Sentimental Journey–NOT!

I was just reading a fabulous post on the AboutAWord Web site. Keyed in to it by a friend, I’ve just discovered a treasure trove of intelligent writing on writing. One of the most recent posts, by Kevin Prufer, discusses sentimentality.

The kiss of death, we know it when we read it. Print bleeding past lavender and into violet. I learned to think about it as unearned emotion, but I now believe that’s too simplistic.

Prufer argues  that sentimental prose reduces “an emotionally complex situation into an emotionally simple one,” a text that is blind to any shade of gray. He also insists that complex situations and complex emotions should maintain their complexity, and that “strong emotion should not be reduced to a single channel.”

My interpretation of these statements? Fiction should NOT be written like a story that appeals for funds to save starving children. Although suited to its altruistic purpose, as literature, it’s a train on narrow gauge tracks pushing a strong, simple emotion.

Instead, fiction should take the widest possible gauge.  Let’s say we’ve got well-intentioned do-gooders who end up killing the people who are stealing the rice meant for starving children. But what if the thieves are starving, too? Questions arise. When is murder morally acceptable? What if siblings and spouses are killing each other in pursuit of food? What situations may bend family ties to the point of breaking? And can those ties be mended afterward? Fiction should be a rich environment that invites readers into a forest of questions.

Life and emotions are complex. And that means we should have a story filled with shading, questions that evolve naturally from the text, and a host of potential interpretations that can only be provided by the reader—not the author. It’s the author’s job to raise the questions and create characters that explore the range of the possible.

And that, I hope, will keep you on the right track. :o)


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