I’m a sentimental guy. I’m not ashamed to admit it.
In fiction I think sentiment, like a laugh, has to be earned. You have to feel it.
Years ago George Lucas said it was easy to make a movie audience cry; show them a puppy, then kill the puppy.
But as you move away from killing puppies sentiment gets a lot tougher, as George certainly knows.
Last week there was an article in the National Post newspaper in Canada by Robert Fulford about this kind of thing. He was complaining that Up in the Air is getting too much praise (I haven’t seen the movie).
Fulford said that Up in the Air was a “concensus movie” like Terms of Endearment, Dances With Wolves and Titanic and that these kinds of movies, “stand as monuments to the cinema of reassurance, glib and complacent, so heart-warming that they choke off every possibility of authentic feeling... that has always been a major source of Hollywood success.”
Fulford also mentions the book, Up in the Air, by Walter Kirn and points out the different professions of the main character in the book and the movie. In the book he’s a business coach doing “Brand Reconstruction,” trying to rescue a chain of Mexican restaurants that’s been wrecked by an E. Coli outbreak in its spiced meat, but that’s too pro-business for Hollywood. The giant multi-nationals that make Hollywood movies only ever make anti-business movies (glib, complacent, reassuring, heart-warming anti-business movies) .
But Fulford offers one line from the book that made me go online and buy it. The female lead is described in the book as having reached the age, “when working women first taste success and realize they’ve been conned.”
That line rings true to me and the people I know and it’s an uncomfortable truth, not reassuring or heart-warming at all.
The opposite of what Fulford says Up in the Air the movie does: “The movie congratulates all of us on the superior emotional wisdom we presumably brought to the theatre, then sends us home thinking exactly what we thought when we arrived.”
When I was younger people talked about writing as something that would, “make people think,” and I don’t think they meant, “make people think what they already thought was right,” but that does seem to be most writing. Well, it’s hard to write anything, let alone anything that might be uncomfortable.
These days every kind of superior emotional wisdom is being reassured from the most cynical to the most pollyanna. You think people are greedy and selfish beyond all repair and the human race is doomed? There’s a whole section over here. You think you’re different from everyone else, if only they’d see that? We got ‘em right here. It’s all the terrorists fault, here you go, no wait, it’s because the west destroyed their lives – whatever you want, we got it.
I’m old enough to remember when All in the Family first aired and people freaked out – often because they really did have some Archie Bunker in them. Or maybe because they had a little more Meathead in them and it suddenly looked silly (looking back on it now I can see where Meathead had more in common with Archie than he wanted to admit and I’m not surprised at the current state of my boomer generation).
Bob Dylan has been mentioned on this blog a few times and there’s another guy who wrote some uncomfortable truths, some lines that weren’t very reassuring and didn’t congratulate us on our superior emotional wisdom. In the middle of the peace and love and everyone is beautiful era people were singing along with the words, “You got a lotta nerve/To say you got a helping hand to lend/You just want to be on/The side that's winning,” and “When you know as well as me/You'd rather see me paralyzed.”
Wow, paralyzed. Not, “never see me again,” no, “see me paralyzed.”
So, maybe this is why I’ve always been drawn to the pulps and the stuff on the margins, the stuff not trying to be “concensus.” I like the stories that show me characters and doesn’t try to manipulate me into liking them too much, stories that earn the sentimentality.
A good example of what I mean are the stories in the Wal-Mart I Love You flash fiction challenge. Those stories were filled with sentiment and were heartfelt but they didn’t go for easy morals, no “puppy killing.” When the challenge was first announced with the website The People of Wal-Mart as an inspiration I probably wasn’t alone worrying that the tsories would be making fun of the weirdos in those pictures.
I shouldn’t have been worried. If there’s one genre in the writing world these days that earns its sentiment it’s crime fiction.
On the other hand, I do worry about the future of books sometimes. As usual, The Onion nails it:
Adults Go Wild Over Latest In Children's Picture Book Series