What’s Wrong With Sentimentality?

While critics sneer, scientists try to make sense of our love of weepy books and movies.

Fault in Our Stars.
Pleasure and guilt flick through the words we use for movies like The Fault in Our Stars: tearjerker, melodrama, sob story.

Photo by James Bridges/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

What is sentimentality? Is it a manipulation tactic, a type of emotion—the desire to be overwhelmed mixed with self-regard—or an overwrought response to a trigger? What factors predispose you to it: youth or age, a gene, a gender, a mood, an IQ score? Is sentimentality useless or precious? James Baldwin called it the “ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion,” but Orhan Pamuk declared it “one of life’s greatest consolations.”

Don’t read YA fiction—it’s too sentimental. Stay away from The Fault in Our Stars movie (but if you go and don’t cry ceaselessly, you’re the worst). Did you like The Goldfinch, that sentimental romance by Donna Tartt? You have excellent taste. I mean, you have terrible taste! (It is practically children’s literature.) Why does weeping in the darkness of the theater feel so lovely? Why does clicking on an Upworthy link feel so wrong?

The word sentimentality (at least as it is used today) is intellectually hollow, a way of “sneering at emotion you don’t agree with,” says Keith Oatley, a professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto. Sentiment, he points out, used to be the standard term for feelings, sympathies, or passions, beginning with Adam Smith’s 1759 tome The Theory of Moral Sentiments and continuing through Flaubert’s 1869 novel Sentimental Education. Only recently has it twisted into subjective meaninglessness: “indulging one’s emotions in an inappropriate way.”

But Amelia Aldao, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University, thinks a definition might be salvaged from the ripening field of emotional regulation. Sentimentalists are sometimes accused of getting swept up in passion, allowing the heart to shout down the head—which may explain why weepy flicks like The Fault in Our Stars prove so popular with teenagers. Studies show that older adults are as aware as younger ones of the emotions they experience (and can actually parse their discrete shades with more clarity), but they act on them less impulsively

Yet making sentimentality a question of emotional regulation almost implies that dewy-eyed adolescents are choosing to lose their way among the sap springs. (Perhaps that taint of self-indulgence, of stagy transport, helps explain the word’s bad rap?) Emotional reactivity—both how strong a stimulus must be in order to provoke a feeling and the intensity of the feeling provoked—is a factor that seems less susceptible to conscious control, varying according to a complicated mesh of genetic and environmental inputs. If sentimentality describes a kind of unwilled affective excess—a hyperbolic suggestibility to the tiniest goad—then people with high reactivity may be a good place to look for it.

Who has high reactivity? Often those suffering from mental illness, especially anxiety and depression. Shown lachrymose movie clips, volunteers with diagnosed affective disorders reported more sadness than healthy volunteers. Perhaps less intuitively, they also claimed to feel cheerier than did the control group after viewing uplifting films and reading funny stories. There’s evidence, too, that age enhances reactivity: People in their golden years say that small things give them more pleasure. In another study, older volunteers evinced greater sorrow after watching the scene from The Champ in which 9-year-old Ricky Schroder sobs next to the fallen body of his father.* Gender could play a role as well: Women demonstrate higher reactivity than men regardless of the emotion being measured. Yet women are also conditioned to notice and express their feelings in ways that men are not. 

What’s more, sentimentality waxes and wanes with context. Sometimes a line of refrigerator magnet verse leaves you cold (or groaning); sometimes it makes you weep. “We are really inconsistent,” says Aldao. “Our moods have a huge impact, and they can lead us to read different emotional meanings into the same things.” These reactions prove tough to predict: If you are already verklempt, the sight of fawnlike Hazel Grace with her oxygen tank may move you further, or annoy you—or not even register, so enveloped are you by your original sentiment. “After great pain,” begins a poem by Emily Dickinson, “a formal feeling comes.” Depending on the person, that feeling could be a sudden, reactive sympathy for the star-crossed duo in Twilight or a serious impatience with anything so silly.

Using reactivity as a proxy pushes our definition of sentimentality toward “emotional excess” or “lack of restraint.” It’s a simple enough story: Sentimental people feel more than the context dictates, and sentimental stories appeal to sentimental people by cramming in as much provocation as possible. Maybe the snooty allure of condemning daytime soaps and Hallmark cards trickles from this sense of surfeit. It’s “too much,” detractors suggest, overwhelming the delicate machinery of emotional response. While a sensitive, sophisticated palate requires only a taste of feeling, coarse people feed at the trough of sentimentality. “So much of our culture has already been ceded to the grubby hands and blunted tastes of teenagers,” wrote Natasha Vargas-Cooper, explaining why she never fell under the spell of The Fault in Our Stars.

But sentimentality is not just too much feeling—those disparaging the cancer kitsch of Before I Die would probably defend the sublime raptures of Keats, who once said that “poetry should surprise by a fine excess.” Instead, the word captures a kind of broadness or unqualifiedness—an unfineness—of response. “The emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction,” wrote Ruth Graham in her Slate takedown of the genre. Kiddie endings are “far too simple.”

Psychologists also distinguish between simple and complex emotions. There are the basic ones—fear, happiness, anger, sadness—which can mingle to produce subtler compounds. The higher order feelings, such as shame, guilt, or pride, require content: To understand them, you need to know something about the person’s circumstances or values. While a simple emotion almost amounts to an animal reflex, Oatley explains, a complex one is plaited through with thoughts and interpretations of events. A kitten riding a rainbow may uncork the first kind of feeling; a show like Dexter may produce the second by yanking multiple contradictory triggers simultaneously.

In her lab, Aldao has found that certain research participants are more acutely attuned to the differences between related sentiments. Shown a scary movie clip, they can better weigh their competing levels of apprehension, fear, trepidation, and anxiety. Given a funny story to read, they more swiftly separate out the threads of happiness, surprise, and euphoria. This ability, emotional discrimination, factors into emotional intelligence. Aldao suspects that it may strengthen with age, contributing to the sense that older readers have a superior grasp of their own shifting internal weather. “If you can’t distinguish between similar emotions,” Aldao says, “you see the world in black and white. You’re in a rabbit hole of easy highs and lows. It’s a teenage-y, simplistic place to be.”*

It’s also an exhilarating place to be. “My intuition is that there’s a tradeoff between complexity and intensity,” Aldao continues. “Less ability to differentiate or reflect probably means you’re getting carried away in the moment.”

The difference between the social scientists and the critics is that only the second group automatically privileges complex over simple emotions. “Twilight is the equivalent of a scoop of chocolate ice cream,” Aldao tells me. “You know exactly what you’re going to get, and it’s sweet and great. House of Cards draws you into a world that is messier. It’s like vanilla ice cream with a hint of lavender and honey—you have to take your time to eat it.” The moral of the simile: Both stories, as emotional delivery systems, are delicious ice cream.

Graham, in contrast, argues that YA fiction sacrifices the moral ambiguity of real life, making sentimentality a kind of falsification. Paris Review editor Lorin Stein has the same beef with The Goldfinch: I want fiction to deal in the truth,” he told Vanity Fair, as if the pure and indiscriminate feelings of adolescence were a lie. But primary emotions are not necessarily less appropriate to reality than their more complicated offshoots. Sometimes an innocent dies. A last chance evaporates. Untrammeled grief might represent the right response. Why, in this age of irony and antiheroes, do we assume the “truer” choice is always the more ambiguous one?

Something else about sentimentality gets under our skin, and it may have to do with Aldao’s ice cream analogy. Pleasure and guilt flick through the words we use for movies like The Fault in Our Stars: tearjerker, melodrama, sob story. We like how it feels to lose ourselves in feeling, even when the feeling itself carries a negative valence. But we don’t trust it, this positively tinged mood that blooms in the shadow of others’ suffering, a hair’s breadth away from sadism or schadenfreude. It seems narcissistic, exploitative. In her essay on the sentimental, Leslie Jamison asks whether the problem with saccharine literature is that “it strokes the ego of our sentimental selves” by “[illuminating] our capacity to feel” and “that this satisfaction replaces genuine emotional response.” “We cry one tear for the children playing on the grass, and then we cry another tear for our ability to cry at the children playing on the grass,” she observes, quoting Milan Kundera. For her, sentimentality is not just an easy upwelling of emotional slop—it’s what happens when we stop engaging with a story in order to bask in our own exquisite receptiveness.

Does The Fault in Our Stars encourage this? According to Harvard’s Todd Carmody, wooing and flattery are baked into the DNA of sentimental literature. The genre began in Britain, with the late 18th-century “novel of seduction.” Narratives about girls cast into lives of destitution by unscrupulous men swirled into anxieties about the enchanting power of fiction itself. When the genre migrated to the New World, it was adopted by social justice movements—abolitionists, feminists, and the “vanishing Indian” poets—as a tool of persuasion. “Sentimental literature sought pathos through formulae. Readers knew it was trying to script their responses,” Carmody explains, echoing the modern complaint about Upworthy—that it tells you how to feel about its videos before you’ve watched them. Sexism tarnished the genre’s reputation further: As women crowded the 19th-century market for popular literature, “serious” authors like Melville, Hawthorne, and Pope grumbled to one another about the scourge of sentimental drivel. “There was a sense that these texts weren’t appealing to man’s rational faculties, but trying to coerce and manipulate,” Carmody says.

Melvillian misogyny aside, narrative coercion is not something that a lot of social scientists study. But Melanie C. Green, a professor of psychology at UNC–Chapel Hill, has spent years unraveling the phenomenon of transportation, or how stories take hold of you and wrench you into another world. “Sometimes, when we watch, listen to, or receive a narrative we become fully engaged in it,” she says, “and it comes to seem very real to us. With transportation there is often vivid mental imagery, intense emotional involvement, and physiological changes.” To chart these effects, Green has logged untold hours observing people while they read short stories in a lab and analyzing the surveys they fill out afterward. She has discovered that more transporting texts tend to have a lofty or important theme (ahem, love and cancer), fine detail (ahem, His Dark Materials), and a familiar plot (ahem, Divergent, you unholy mash-up of Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, The Giver, and high school).

What’s more, Green has noticed that while transportability—the capacity to step into a text—varies from person to person, teenagers are generally more likely than adults to become absorbed in fictional worlds. In adolescence, she suggests, our identities feel more porous, and we find it easier to slip into the skins of the characters we read about. (Also, teenage reading is more intense because teenage everything is more intense—the newness of your life at 15 lines the most prosaic afternoon at the library with fire.)

I asked Green the million-dollar question: Is there any evidence that genre fiction—including YA—transports people more or less or differently than “literary” fiction?

“We’ve seen that literary texts more often evoke certain types of change and self-reflection,” she replied hesitantly. “There’s a type of book that provides almost pre-programmed entertainment. It’s like riding on a rollercoaster. And then there are books with a certain depth of writing that push the audience to think about things in more complex ways.”

Sure. But as many have pointed out (with fluctuating degrees of rage), there are plenty of “rollercoaster” novels for adults and challenging, thought-provoking books for teens. 

Not only that, Green agrees, but “if you talk to people who are real fans of Twilight, the experience they’re having is not a cheap imitation of feeling. They are very passionate, doing a lot of imagining and investing and thinking. On one hand, different texts lead to different outcomes, but a text is also what you bring to it.”

This is wise. Sentimentality is at once everywhere and elusive, a spy you can’t apprehend in action. We say it names feelings that are too much or too grand for the context, that seem simplistic, false, ego stroking, or easy—and the people who have them and the art that inflames them. But who decides when a response is appropriate? Who declares a sentiment “earned” or “cheap”? Perhaps our mistrust of the sentimental flows from the way we idealize originality: A writer reaching for time-tested sap spigots doesn’t care to “make it new.” Perhaps we just prize work and difficulty. But whether or not the idea of sentimentality has meaning or purpose, it can’t be confined to a demographic or even a type of fiction. Emotional response varies too widely and, as Green suggests, even the dampest and mooniest of romantic tales will contain whatever you project inside. Read it and weep.

Correction, July 16, 2014: This article originally misspelled the last name of actor Ricky Schroder. (Return.) 

Correction, July 22, 2014This article originally misstated that researcher Amelia Aldao found that older subjects have better emotional discrimination than younger ones. Though Aldao, who is planning a study on age and emotional discrimination, predicts that this will be the case, her lab has not yet produced hard results. (Return.)