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Sentimentality is a lot like gluten. We all know it’s bad, even if we don’t know exactly why it’s bad or even what it is. Further, both gluten and sentimentality have created billion-dollar industries dedicated to helping people avoid them. Finally, both gluten and sentimentality kill coeliacs.
It’s generally used to mean ’emotional’ in some sense, but very few people would insist that emotionality and artistic quality are completely incompatible. Even if that is your feeling, Neil Gaiman had an answer to that one when he wrote a foreword to Will Eisner’s New York:
There is sentiment in here, true, for sentiment is part of being human, and it would be a foolish observer of humanity who would leave it out.
More accurately, then, sentimentality is cheap emotion. Oscar Wilde said it was “the luxury of an emotion without paying for it”. Art that pulls at the heart strings without requiring us to look closely, to understand, to acknowledge those awkward bits of the picture that might detract from the vicarious emotional thrill.
In a sentimental world, no one is ever anything but sad when someone they love dies. They’re never angry, or guilty, and certainly not relieved; those feelings might get in the way of us going awww. God forbid, they might even put us off our popcorn.
The more unapologetically sentimental the work, the more actively all ambiguity is cut out of the picture. Fairytales are absolutely sentimental, which is not to say that they’re nice; bad people do really gruesome bad things, and good people do equally gruesome things to bad people because they deserve it. How neat! No one has to feel bad, which is good, because children probably aren’t emotionally ready for a hardhitting version of Rapunzel where Rapunzel and the Prince’s relationship corrodes because Rapunzel can never quite forgive him for his role in the witch’s death even though she knows it isn’t fair and that the witch wasn’t her real mother, but she loved the witch anyway and feels like the witch actually loved her too in a fucked up way and while she knows that drinking isn’t a healthy means of coping with that fact she still feels like he shouldn’t criticise her for it as though it’s something she wants to do, as thought it’s fun when it clearly isn’t, you try cleaning vomit out of that much hair, because if he criticises her like that it feels like it’s actually a refusal on his part to acknowledge the fact that he is guilty or the fact that her pain is real and valid, and actually she’s been drinking more recently as a way of almost proving to herself that the pain is real, that there is a problem, even if he won’t face it.
The internet is fundamentally sentimental because it’s fast. Detail takes time. The more quickly communicable a story needs to be, the broader the strokes need to be. Clickbait makes it obvious, because every possible story can be cut down to something that you Won’t Believe or that Will Blow Your Mind.
Woman Gives Homeless Man Coffee And His Reaction Reminds Us That Homeless People Are People is pure internet sentimentality.
(So as not to oversimplify myself, I’ll add that the internet is also where people work out the average life expectancy of a dwarf in Lord of the Rings, or graph all the sex in Friends in soul-destroying detail. ‘Tis a silly place, full of cats and contradictions.)
Any time a poet loses perspective and insists that their feeling and their expression of their feeling takes precedence over any and all real world factors, sentimentality scores a point and arguments for cutting arts funding become slightly more reasonable.
Possibly this is because lots of people think of poetry as not just an expressive art, but a self-expressive art. Any time a poet loses perspective and insists that their feeling and their expression of their feeling takes precedence over any and all real world factors, sentimentality scores a point and arguments for cutting arts funding become slightly more reasonable.
There is a poet I know who is very nice but who has a break-up poem comparing the figurative/emotional fallout of her last breakup to the literal/nuclear fallout of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s not terribly written, but in order to take it seriously you have to accept that her breakup was comparable in scale to the agonising deaths of hundreds of thousands of Japanese people. Surprisingly I don’t accept that, not unless I missed the bit where her ex-boyfriend personally killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese people in order to spell out “I FEEL LIKE I NEED SOME TIME TO JUST BE YOUNG AND UNATTACHED YOU KNOW” with their corpses in fifty-foot letters visible from the helicopter he bought her a ride in as a blow-softener. I don’t think I missed that bit, so whenever I hear her perform it it makes me feel like I’m guilty of a hate-crime-by-proxy.
Smart People at this point may be picking apart the definition of sentimentality as cutting-parts-out-of-the-truth. “But Dylan,” they may be saying over their matcha latte, every piece of writing cuts pieces out of the truth. It’s impossible to write down everything about anything, or the writing down would never end. Every description is a miniature. Writing is a map, and it’s always smaller than the territory of which it is a map, pace Borges. Do you want my biscotto?
They’re as right as they’re annoying. Technically speaking every piece of writing shows a partial truth only and technically biscotto is the singular of biscotti.
So how’s this for a refined definition: Sentimentality is when you are required to ignore a more important truth in order to access the truth that the writer wants you to access.
Smart People may still have a problem with it. “But Dylan,” they may say, “it’s subjective. Who’s to say what truth is more important than any other? Death of the author,” they may say, or, “Post-modernism. Post-structuralism. Merriweather Post-Pavilion. Foucault. Derrida. Smegma.”
Again, they’re right. Of course it’s subjective. Poetry is subjective. Sentimentality is subjective. It’s good to acknowledge that, because being 100% definite about what is and isn’t sentimental would be sentimental.
Acknowledging the subjectivity of our judgement also helps us to catch out the sneakiest kind of sentimentality, the kind that pretends it isn’t. In poetry, I associate this with a false matter-of-factness, a poetic voice that speaks with a kind of detached authority.
Charles Bukowski’s The Laughing Heart is a really popular example of how this works:
you are marvelous the gods wait to delight in you.
Christopher Poindexter is another poet in this vein. Poindexter is a dude from the internet who has a blog called – seemingly without self-awareness – Remington Typewriter Poetry wherein he features the poetry that he writes on a – you guessed it – Remington Typewriter. Like this:
no matter what they tell you a person is a universe when truly loved and anything less is not love at all.
People love these poems. They’re so quotable! So full of clearcut, wry, wisdom. If you ask me, though, they are also as sentimental as fairytales, as sentimental as giving homeless men coffee on camera, as sentimental as thinking that your breakup is worse than war-crimes. Poindexter, in particular, makes me want to bite off my own arm. He makes me want to fly to New York, buy him a coffee in a trendy New York coffee shop and – as he goes to drink it – knock it out of his hand onto the floor.
Why? Because it’s disingenuous. It’s a partial image that actively tries to convince us that it’s complete, that this is The Way The World Is, when really it’s as contingent as any poem about how my ex-girlfriend made me sad. If it’s beautiful, it’s a type of beauty that depends on denying huge swathes of the human experience. Sometimes love is not wonderful because your loved ones are pricks, and sometimes the gods don’t delight in you because you’ve worn the same underwear five days running even though you have clean underwear.
So next time you sit down to write, ask yourself: is this bad thing really as bad as the Holocaust? Is this good thing really the best thing since the Equal Marriage Referendum? And if it isn’t, don’t say it is, and definitely don’t say biscotto. You’ll just look like a prat.