Literary critique, Stories, writing technique

Briefly Sentimental


A couple of years back, giving an author feedback on a story I had rejected for the Book a Break anthology, one of the reasons I gave was that ‘it veered into sentimentality at the end.’ I wasn’t alone in this appraisal: Sherry Morris, the competition judge, said, ‘it all goes sentimental syrupy at the end. Indigestible.’ The author, whilst accepting my other remarks, wrote back to say that she actually quite liked sentimental stories.

This got me thinking. Were we talking about the same thing? We couldn’t be, I decided, but since I didn’t pursue the exchange, I can’t be totally sure. What I did instead was a little research, and found this excellent article, which gives a thorough analysis of sentimentality, and how the meaning of the word has changed over the years. It’s a long one, so if you’re in a hurry, I’ll summarise it as: it’s a lot more complex than we think.

My own conclusion is that (as with everything else) it all depends how it’s done. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with sentimentality. Decades ago I read Love Story, which was widely panned by critics as formulaic and manipulative, pulling just the right strings to get the hankies out. William Styron called it ‘a banal book which simply doesn’t qualify as literature.’ A snootiness which did nothing, I’m sure, to dent Erich Segal’s spirits – Love Story was in the New York Times bestseller list for 41 weeks. Though I know a mass readership doesn’t equate to quality, I always feel that anyone who sells that number has to be doing something right.

So why did Sherry and I react negatively to what we perceived as sentimentality? The difference between Love Story and the story I rejected was that Segal took the time to put all the pieces in place, get us cheering for the two main characters, before demolishing our hopes with Jenny’s  death. In the face of a disapproving father, the love of a young couple ends in tragedy. Not a bad pitch, is it? Shakespeare’s log-lines haven’t survived but it’s widely thought he used it for Romeo and Juliet.

To get sentimentality right in a short story is hard. Crucial to its success is getting the reader’s emotions in the right place as early as possible. And I realise now that the keyword in my feedback to the author was not sentimentality but veered. In a story which up till then was mysterious, even scary, there was a sudden switch to two people trying to cope with the loss of a loved one. Edgar Allen Poe would have been appalled – it goes against the ‘unity of effect’ he insisted a short story must achieve: decide on what emotional response you want to elicit, stick to just one, and make sure that everything contributes to that end.

Poe’s strictures are seen these days as rigid. There are many successful short stories that don’t follow them. All the same, as a rule of thumb, the unity of effect isn’t a bad one. Where a novel can play with many different emotions, a short story is best dealing with just one. And there’s nothing at all wrong if that one is sentimental – just make sure you nail it right from the start.


30 thoughts on “Briefly Sentimental

    • The matter had been nagging me a while, Jeannie. Turns out that it’s not sentimentality as such that’s the problem. But I think that even when the unity of effect is respected, to elicit a strong response – get the reader all choked up – takes more time than the short story form can offer.

      Liked by 3 people

  1. Christy Moceri says:

    Excellent article. I think what you’re speaking to is cohesiveness of theme. If the story ended with themes of loss, they could be woven more effectively into the rest of the narrative. Every part of a story should strive for thematic resonance.

    Liked by 6 people

      • Devil’s advocate speaking.  Consider *La Parure* by Guy de Maupassant, which is long enough that I probably would have gotten bored and bailed out early, had it not been required in a French class long ago.  Details have long since been forgotten, but the twist at the end is unforgettable.  On the surface, such an ending may look like veering off into a different theme.  Deeper down, it’s more like an unmasking of something that was there in disguise all along.

        Liked by 5 people

  2. John Frederick Nims’ book Western Wind makes a distinction between sentimentality, which focuses on the writer’s reactions to the subject of the poem (oh, look at me, I’m such a sensitive soul to be so moved) and genuine sentiment, which focuses on the subject itself. I’ve always found it a very helpful distinction.

    Liked by 6 people

  3. Jeannie Abbott says:

    Thanks for all your responses – it helps. It is very difficult to know your readers, they will be very different in their likes. I am not experienced enough to know. I stumble !

    Liked by 5 people

  4. victoracquista says:

    I am grateful for this forum and learn quite a bit from the posts and commentary. I found the article on sentimentality to be a mishmash of conjecture and notions and hardly scientific at all. I take some umbrage at attempts to objectify inherently subjective matters into something objective and “scientific”. If I watch a bee pollinate a flower and this brings a tear of wonderment to my eyes, or gaze tearfully at a picture of a grandfather reverently holding a grandchild, or two lovers stare googly eyed at each other, or watch a sappy movie on Lifetime Network, the last thing I want is for someone to try and analyse my reaction. I can look at all of these examples tomorrow and not need a tissue to dry my eyes. So, it isn’t the content. It’s me at that particular moment with all my past life and my experiences, and the complexity of where I stand at that moment in the river of time (the same river that you can never step into twice), the gestalt of too many variables. Attempting to scientifically dissect this troubles me. It troubled me yesterday and it troubles me again today. Tomorrow it might not trouble me at all. Can science explain this? Do we want science to explain this?

    Still, as a writer and as a reader I can appreciate how content can pull at the heart strings, evoke longing, fan aching desire, poignantly grab hold of some deep emotional response that causes tears to flow and throats to tighten. I firmly believe that parsing this into some scientific distillation undermines and destroys what it fundamentally is. The thinking mind wants to make sense of the world, but the moment you begin to reflect, analyse, and think about a beautiful sunset, you distance yourself from the grandeur of the experience.

    This concludes my mini diatribe. I now return you to your regular programming.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Great topic for a blog post, Curtis! I don’t believe we’ve ever discussed sentimentality qua sentimentality on this site before.

      Some thoughts re: these sentences:


      To get sentimentality right in a short story is hard. Crucial to its success is getting the reader’s emotions in the right place as early as possible.


      I read that first line as you arguing “to get [honestly earned reader emotion] into a short story is hard.” Sentimentality is always the wrong choice for an artist because it smacks of the ersatz, the maudlin, the artificially forced, the irreal. Sentimentality is the precious metal of authentic emotion adulterated with bits of attitudinal kitsch and cliched posturing. It turns vibrant writing into hackwork: character become caricature; bold proclamations muzzled into sheepish meeps; hard-won truths transmogrified into dogma and cant; story vectors of emerged truth and ofttimes painful wisdom directed down blind alleys of paint-by-numbers bullshit due to authorial tentativeness and speechifying: this is what the reader ought to think; this what the reader ought to feel.

      Dr. Simons makes some interesting points regarding this topic.

      She references the fact that sentimental art attempts to “bully” us into an emotion through cliché. Or as she puts it: “Maybe one definition of sentimental art is that it simplifies the experience that inspires emotion, as well as what emotions are composed of.”

      A final thought: George Orwell once wrote a sentence that pierced me to the core. I have recited it since to many, many people who have responded with a shrug—they don’t get it. If they did get it the venality, lack of empathy, and casual cruelty of the masses (co-workers, family members, lovers, and friends) would stand revealed for what it is: evasion of guilt and the rejection of shame via the expiation of crocodile tears and the narcotizing recitation of dogma and cant.

      Orwell’s sentence is: “Sentimentality is the obverse of the coin of cruelty.” It’s the nazi concentration camp guard weeping over Wagner; the staid, middle class family attending church after committing their gay son to an institution that practices “forced aversion” therapy; the rapist and bully at your 25-year school reunion having the nerve to (a) show his face in public again, and (b) become overwrought with emotion at “all the old faces” and “the old school songs”.

      Sentimentality is the obverse of the coin of cruelty, indeed! Orwell had it exactly right.

      PS. I’ve been lured back in—heh! I vowed never to babble on this site again unless I have something heartfelt and substantive to contribute to a discussion. I felt moved to write today.

      Liked by 4 people

    • @Victor: I understand your fear and resentment re: someone judging your authentic emotional response to divers heart-pricking stimuli and labeling it dismissively as sentiment. Confession: There are days I find tears in my eyes when viewing anything remotely sad or troubling on television; I chalk this up to encroaching senescence and the maudlin, melodramatic state-of-mind old men are prone to when lamenting their lost youth. I do turn the TV off, however, when I find myself getting choked up about a particular beer, snack food, or brand of car!

      Liked by 5 people

    • I had pretty much the same reaction to the article that you did–although my reaction was more dismissive. (Oh, just go away and quit blathering on about something you know nothing about. You can’t quantify an epiphany.)

      Liked by 3 people

  5. victoracquista says:

    Carl, I share your “encroaching senescence and the maudlin, melodramatic state-of-mind old men are prone to when lamenting their lost youth” frame of reference; although, my issue is more about the objectification of the subjective experience, about using science to explain experience. I am a man of science; I understand science as a tool. I am also a man of letters. I don’t want or need the “gospel-truth” of science to figure this out for me. A strict materialist might be satisfied with the entire universe being explained through a set of mathematical formulas. I get more satisfaction from a blade of grass, a songbird, or a fine German beer (I’m thinking Spaten Optimator at the moment). The very thought makes me salivate like a Pavlovian dog and brings tears to my eyes. I must be getting sentimental in my old age. 😉

    Liked by 4 people

  6. @Victor: Lol! Grumblish [sic] solidarity and mellow fellow-feelings to the “creakers”; heh!

    As to your comment re: “my issue is more about the objectification of the subjective experience, about using science to explain experience.”

    I don’t have a problem with this, per se. Nor do you, I suspect. (see Richard Dawkins: Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, & the Appetite for Wonder; or Carl Sagan: The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle In the Darkness. Neither writer saw “objectifying” science as the enemy of art, but rather as a tool of understanding, that–properly used–could enrich and enhance subjective understanding of primary sensations and thoughts and their attendant epiphenomenon.)

    I think that what you are communicating here (and which I wholeheartedly agree with, BTW!) is the fact that an objective pronouncement on a subjective experience can never be the final word on any given state of experiential consciousness. For example, consider color: Burns’ “red, red rose”; Homer’s “wine-dark sea”; Yeats’ “golden apples of the sun”. We can refine our definition of qualia as precisely as we like and yet never capture the entirety of the subjective truth of the experience of color. Or as any college professor of psychology admonishes first-year students: “Labeling a person does not tell the entire truth about their consciousness and condition.”

    It’s always a pleasure to interact with you, Victor! Glad you’re still hanging around and contributing to the site.

    Liked by 4 people

    • victoracquista says:

      Yes, in complete agreement. Thanks for making an important distinction. Art and science are not in opposing camps and science can indeed help us to understand not just art but the interior realm. It is when scientific explanations attempt to be the definitive approach to the exclusion of alternatives that I begin to bristle.

      In a four-quadrant analysis using integral theory, an effort to use the methodology of one quadrant at the expense/disqualification of the other three quadrants is more than a simplification. It’s a denial of the values inherent in the perspective of other three quadrants. I have heard this referred to as quadrant usurpism, but I don’t think you will find that terminology widely used. I’m a big fan of integral theory as a tool for understanding things so I have an admitted bias.

      For what it’s worth, the pleasure is mutual.

      Liked by 3 people

      • @Victor: I must confess that I am entirely ignorant of four-quadrant analysis utilizing integral theory (or rather, was–I’ve since familiarized myself with Ken Wilbur’s theorizing on holons and the AQAL: a four-quadrant grid constructed along “interior-exterior” and “individual-collective” axes) but thank you for educating me; it’s one of the delights of this blog–intelligent conversation with other omnivorously curious, questing minds! From your description it sounds somewhat akin to Stephen Jay Gould’s theory of NOMA (WIKI:) “Non-overlapping magisteria: the view that science and religion each represent different areas of inquiry, fact vs. values, so there is a difference between the “nets”[1] over which they have “a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority,” and the two domains do not overlap.[2] He suggests, with examples, that “NOMA enjoys strong and fully explicit support, even from the primary cultural stereotypes of hard-line traditionalism” and that it is “a sound position of general consensus, established by long struggle among people of goodwill in both magisteria.”[1] Some have criticized the idea or suggested limitations to it, and there continues to be disagreement over where the boundaries between the two magisteria should be.[3]”

        Footnote: (& casting no aspersions or side-eye here on 4QAUIT, to be sure!) I read Stephen Jay Gould’s book on the subject of NOMA over a decade ago. It struck me as a rather professorial and gentlemanly way of practicing intellectual sophistry; a high-toned, well-intentioned, but ultimately-unsatisfying-to-both-camps (religionist and non-religionist) pedagogic method of saying: “I won’t think in your church, if you don’t pray in my school.”

        Or is this off the mark? Is 4QAUIT akin to a mathematically-more-refined-and rigorous version of Dissoi Logoi, or dialexeis: the philosophical practice of considering both sides of an argument in order to arrive at objective truth?

        PS. Apologies, Curtis, if we’ve wandered far afield from the originating topic here! As GD has ofttimes mentioned, the Writers Co-op serves as a kind of on-line, open-air French cafe where artists of divers temperaments and interests can sit down around a table for free-wheeling conversation and dialogue. As the hour grows late and wine glasses empty . . .

        Liked by 6 people

        • No apologies needed, Carl! The Writers Co-op is fulfilling the purpose GD describes, and so much the better. I’m delighted you’ve been lured back in, and very pleased that my post, in however small a way, may have contributed to that.
          But to the matter in hand. Victor, I agree that the article is a bit of a mishmash, but it’s a piece of journalism that quotes many sources and makes no pretence at being scientific itself. As I understand it, your gripe in any case is less with the article than with the scientists themselves, those who seek to objectify our experience. But I would contend that (nearly) all topics are worthy of scientific investigation, and emotions certainly are. Also, I’m sure that only the most reductionist of scientists would claim that all subjective experiences can be explained through experimentation. And even if they are, that’s all it would be – an explanation, not an equivalence with what was felt, which remains unique to the feeler. In language production, we can distinguish the realm of ideas from the mental grammar, which in turn in not the same as the neurons at the activation coal face. A similar distinction of levels applies to emotions, which can of course be reduced to the neurological level, but instructive as that is, few scientists would consider it ‘the definitive approach to the exclusion of alternatives.’
          Carl, whether ‘sentimentality is always the wrong choice for an artist’ is questionable. Yes, if it means the lazy adoption of a few well-worn tricks dressed up in a different costume. Think of a young couple in love, finally reunited after enduring terrible hardship, when each one thought the other dead. A typical ‘sentimental’ story likely to boost the sales of Kleenex. But that same story can also be done with an honest, probing portrayal of the emotions involved, and such a treatment would still have the reader crying. The 19th Century did that well – few writers dissect emotions as thoroughly and finely as George Eliot. Of course, today we wouldn’t call that sentimental because the word is nearly always negative now, occupying a semantic space from which the more positive aspects have been expelled. The shift in meaning is unfortunate, as we don’t really have a word now to describe the more subtle approach.
          Enough rambling anyway. I would gladly join you and Victor for a chat over a glass of wine, but (a) the time difference means I’d be asleep before the bottle was even opened and (b) I fear you would quickly lose me with your discussion of 4QAUITs, AQALs and various other NOMAs. But I’ll open a glass now and say ‘à votre santé!

          Liked by 6 people

          • victoracquista says:

            @curtis, thank you for your thoughtful comments and, once again, for getting things started through your post and article. I agree that any experience (including how we experience emotions) is worthy of scientific investigation. Such investigation can assist us in understanding and provide an explanation to help us better understand the experience. As you correctly point out, the trap that I want to avoid is one of equivalency. If we reduce a thought, a feeling, an experience to nothing more than a scientifically cataloged neuronal network, we have lost something. Study sentimentality and probe using the tools in your toolbox (social, psychological, biological, etc.) but don’t try to take the information that is derived scientifically and claim a full understanding. “Salud!”

            Liked by 6 people

  7. @Curtis: Re: “I fear you would quickly lose me with your discussion of 4QAUITs, AQALs and various other NOMAs.” — LOL! Acronym hell, indeed!

    But thank you, sir, for introducing a most stimulating and important topic of interest to writers and readers alike: this question of “sentimentality” in fiction. (Or as I believe a certain medieval Danish teacher of writing and rhetoric once agonized before his class: “To cliche; or not to cliche–that is the question.”)

    Let’s hear from others! C’mon, folks; I know you’re just dying to jump into the fray. . . .

    Liked by 5 people


      @Victor: “. . . we have lost something”, indeed! If that’s all we do: embalm and present in dry, clinically precise, objective language the richness of experience. One can read, “the rapid pleasurable release of neuromuscular tensions at the height of sexual arousal that is usually accompanied by . . .” Or one can have an orgasm.

      Ideally, I would argue a fully realized life needs must [sic] make space for both kinds of experiences: the Apollonian and the Dionysian; that is to say: the analytical/intellectual and the ecstatic/experiential.

      As Richard Dawkins has noted: “The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite.”

      Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder

      I would also like to cite here the comment oft-hurled my way in the 80s by Bill Karlen, Cpl., US Marines:

      ― “You’re over-intellectualizing again. Embrace dog consciousness: breath in, breath out.”

      Liked by 6 people

  8. mimispeike says:

    I don’t know what to say here. 4-Quadrant analysis? Yikes!

    I don’t write short stories. My thinking sprawls. It defies being packaged into a thousand words. I don’t (often) read short stories. I do read plenty of sentimental slop, the stock-in-trade of many if not most of the Victorian authors. I read for style, and endure the storylines. It’s style more than anything that pulls me along.

    Ten-fifteen years ago I read something (can’t recall what) by Hugh Walpole and loved it. It must have been an adventure story, lots of action. (My theory, until I find that book and take another look.) I have pulled out of my stacks of books his Fortitude. A dud, for my money. Plenty sentimental there, but cardboard sentimental. I don’t recognize any of these characters as human, with emotions I can believe in. I’m laughing more than anything. They don’t respond to difficulties in any realistic fashion. I don’t care that it’s set a hundred-plus years ago. People are people, Victorian reticence or not. I’ve continued to read because I’ve found amusing bits to stuff into Sly’s mouth regarding a young boy’s ambitions in the world.

    I don’t analyze sentiment. I read through it, if I find other things that are useful to me.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi, Mimi! The money quote for me in your posting here is: “Plenty sentimental there, but cardboard sentimental. I don’t recognize any of these characters as human, with emotions I can believe in.”

      You have provided us with a good working definition of sentimentalism in fiction: a non-load bearing style of writing that results in cheaply manufactured stock incidents and one-dimensional characters exhibiting false-note and/or affected emotions.

      Liked by 5 people

      • mimispeike says:

        You guys are having fun with this, and I enjoy your comments, but it isn’t that complicated. Sentimental works for some, not for others. But for it to work, it has to work. It has to make sense. Not just tug on the emotions.

        Liked by 2 people

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