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Sentimentality in fiction, or why I can’t finish A Discovery of Witches

By May 1, 20115 Comments
Literary Blog Hop

This week’s literary blog hop from The Blue Bookcase asks folks to discuss their views on sentimentality in literature. It’s kind of like an essay prompt for a graduate English seminar, which is cool. But potentially time consuming, so I was going to skip it. I’ve written about sentimentality in fiction before, specifically in reference to why I don’t feel A Thousand Splendid Suns is really great fiction. In that post, I talked about James Baldwin’s essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” in which he really says everything there is to say about sentimentality in fiction.

So, I was going to skip it, but then I got to p. 209 of A Discovery of Witches. Let me say that this post is not a review of A Discovery of Witches, because I’m not going to finish the novel. This post is an explanation of why I won’t, and how it connects to sentimentality.

Drawing on Baldwin’s interpretation of sentimentality, I find something sentimental not when there are a lot of emotions involved, or intense emotions, or passion, or anything like that. Something veers into sentimentality when the emotions are no longer really believable. Usually that’s because the emotions become one dimensional. In Richard Wright’s Native Son, Bigger Thomas is angry, and really only ever angry. His anger is not complex or contradictory in the way that human anger is. Therefore, Native Son becomes sentimental. In say, Catcher in the Rye, there’s a lot of emotion. Holden Caufield feels a lot of stuff…anger, sadness, loneliness, fatigue, disgust. What keeps Catcher in the Rye from being sentimental is that his emotions are complex and believable. Holden behaves erratically. Why is he obsessed with that stupid song, and the hunting cap? But we recognize some of our own humanity there in its complexity. It’s not about the amount of emotion. It’s about the quality and complexity of the emotion being depicted.

I was really zipping through A Discovery of Witches. I liked the alchemy stuff very much. I like vampires and witches, so I was grooving on that. It was all good. In the 20 or so pages leading up to p. 209, I had begun to think, “You know, I’m kind of getting tired of hearing about how Diana feels about Matthew. Can we get back to the alchemy or genetics or something?” And we did not. And did not. And did not.

And then p. 209, which led me to actually write (in pencil, very lightly) in a library book, which, I know, is very, very wrong. But I wanted to mark the point where the novel basically jumped the shark for me (which is maybe not a perfect use of that phrase, but I like it anyway). Here’s the passage:

“In my rooms I reached toward Matthew, while in my mind’s eye my mother’s hand reached for my father across a chalk-inscribed circle. The lingering childhood desolation of their death collided with a new, adult empathy for my mother’s desperate attempt to touch my father. Abruptly pulling from Matthew’s arms, I lifted my knees to my chest in a tight, protective ball.

Matthew wanted to help–I could see that–but he was unsure of me, and the shadow of my own conflicted emotions fell over his face.”

To provide some context, all of Chapter 17, and much of the chapter before, appear to be just Diana in bed, dealing with shit. Moving towards Matthew, moving away from Matthew, falling asleep.  Waking up, moving towards Matthew, moving away from Matthew.  You get the idea.  So I was weary of her in bed, moving around, curling into balls, falling into Matthew. Whatever. But that last line was just the straw that broke this camel’s back. Has “the shadow of your conflicted emotions” ever fallen over your significant other’s face?

It was at this moment I realized I was reading a slightly spruced up version of Twilight. Which was just so disappointing. Harkness had gone to great lengths at the beginning of the novel to set Diana up as a strong and powerful woman. Yet, here she is falling to pieces and being taken care of by, a dark, brooding, dangerous vampire. That seems vaguely familiar. Not long before p. 209, we find Diana being held against her will by Matthew, which is somehow all for her own good. Also familiar. I’m trying to be objective and removed here, but what I really want to say is, “Give me a freaking break. This would never happen in Buffy.”

Why is Diana acting this way? Are her emotions complex and believable in the way that human emotions are? As Ingrid says at The Blue Bookcase, why is strong, independent Diana allowing herself to be vaguely assaulted by someone she just met? Do we believe that Diana would do this, or are we just meant to believe that Diana is now in love and that’s it? For me, though Harkness goes to great lengths to explain to me the particular set of emotional baggage that leads Diana to act this way, I ain’t buying it. Folks, we now find ourselves in the territory of sentimentality. Which to me equals romance novel. And there’s nothing wrong with a romance novel. They’re quite enjoyable, my mother loves them. But this is not what I thought A Discovery of Witches was about. Please, can we get back to the alchemy?

I got about 3 pages past p. 209, and then turned to my significant other and said, “I can’t finish this.” The shadow of my only vaguely conflicted emotions fell over his face. Not so much. It is hard for me not to finish a book, and so I was very slightly conflicted there. But there’s a lot more of this book to finish, and unlike my friend who skipped all these romance novel parts, I’m not very good at that. It looked like she was going to be in bed with Matthew for at least the rest of the chapter, and they weren’t even going to be having sex.  And certainly no alchemy.

So, emotion is what in fact makes great fiction great, because emotions are part of our human experience. But emotions are complicated things, and we need to believe in them. They need to be carefully set up and developed and felt. This is what makes great writers. I feel what the character is feeling because it resonates with my own experience of emotions. If it doesn’t, the characters are just like little puppets, doing some interesting things, but not in a way that really moves you much.

That’s my take on sentimentality. What do you think? Can there be too much emotion, and how should emotion be used?

Look later this week for a post about a book which has great potential to veer into sentimentality, but never does, in addition to being a beautiful meditation on living in nature, Rachel Peden’s Rural Free. Yes, I’ve written about this book before, but it’s worth writing about again.


  • I haven't read the book you are talking about here, but I do know that feeling when a book begins to tell an emotional lie-things are just too easy, or too predictable. Example: The Bridges of Madison County. So egregiously sentimental.

  • Robyn says:

    bibliophiliac, yes, The Bridges of Madison County would fit there. I think what really bugs me about A Discovery of Witches is that I got fooled into thinking it was going to be something else. Also, everyone else seems to be reading it and liking it, which leads me to wonder, what's the matter with me?

  • Kari says:

    I'm listening to it now. Wasn't sure what to expect going in, so I'm not sure if I'll be disappointed. I'm liking it so far.

  • Brenda says:

    I read Witches all the way through.. A reviewer at NPR said pretty much what you have, but she was already vested so she finished. I knew what to expect so I read it for the entertainment and sense of being lost (as reading can do when you want to escape).. (found you via she writes, what did you blog today)


  • Robyn says:

    Kari, it's always so hard to tell how much of your reaction to a book is the book itself, or your expectations, or the particular mood you happen to be in. Glad you're liking it. Maybe I'll try again someday, skipping the ick parts.

    Brenda, well, that's somewhat comforting that the NPR reviewer had the same experience. I was very much caught up in the book and lost for the first 200 pages or so. I love SheWrites. What a great community. Thanks for stopping by.

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