Over the past couple weeks I’ve gone to AWP and many of the events at our local GetLit! Festival. I’ve witnessed writers reading work that is funny or thoughtful or emotionally moving or political…the list goes on. Really, anything from sexy poetry to ironic prose was being labeled literature in these forums. And why not, right? It all counts, right? Or does it? My last post mentioned one of the sessions I went to at AWP being about writing poetry in the age of Obama. This sparked a discussion about why we love to hate political writing. It also evoked this question: What does it mean to be political? One commenter noted that he hates to be preached to, implying that political writing is preaching, and he’s at least partially right. Some of it surely is, especially if your definition of political is confined to writing with a specific social/political agenda. But is that what political has to mean? How do you define it when you’re using the term to describe creative writing? If writing is edgy, is it political? If it makes readers uncomfortable, is it then? (Could you label Lolita or Miller’s Tropic of Cancer as being political?) I suppose what I’m mostly curious about is the fact that we shy away from some pretty big tendencies in our writing. Being political is one of them; being sentimental is another. Maybe these aren’t tendencies for everyone. I’m not even sure if they’re tendencies for me. But since they are so adamantly opposed by much of the literary community, I assume there’s a reason, besides just aesthetic. Maybe we’re afraid of turning readers off, knowing that when we come across didactic or overly emotional writing we collectively roll our literary eyes and stamp the thing no good.
One of the panels I went to at AWP was called “Hot/Not: A Panel on Sentiment,” and the panelists coined a term to describe writing that is successfully sentimental: muscular sentiment. Muscular sentiment is the opposite of mushy, wet sentiment according to the panel. It is emotion that feels true. They were, of course, advocates of muscular sentiment, and I think I am too. It gives us a way of intellectualizing and differentiating between good emotional and bad emotional. But the line between the two is still iffy. One of the panelists, Jenny Brown, noted that sometimes sentiment is defined as certain subjects that shouldn’t be written about, and sometimes those subjects are disproportionately female subjects: children, domesticity, sexual subjugation, etc. This is a subtle way for the academy to keep women in their place, I suppose. Sometimes writers get around this problem by writing ironically about these subjects so to avoid sentimentality, another panelist said. She questioned what makes sentimentality weak and concluded that “whatever it is, is what comes closest to what we want to control the most.” So maybe sentimentality is a problem because it makes us feel raw. I’m not sure I agree with that, but maybe that’s just because I define sentimental writing as that which conveys deep emotion between the writer and her/his subject but not also with the reader. If the reader also feels it, in my opinion, it stops being sentimental. Because then we readers are in on it. The emotional experience becomes ours to take with us.
So…to the question at hand: What is literature suppose to do? Some of us agree that it’s supposed to entertain, but like everything else, that has to be carefully defined. I don’t think we all need to be writing knock-knock jokes, but it is our jobs to pull people in, however that’s achieved. To me, that’s entertainment. If we get readers in and keep them interested, we’re entertaining them. But what else? Once they’re with us, what is our writing supposed to do then? If we’re really supposed to avoid political and sentimental topics (For instance, I just wrote a poem about Haiti that I talked about in my last post, and I also just wrote a poem about recently having to put my cat to sleep. Political and sentimental, respectively. Should I be banned from writing forever? Judge me if you will.), then what are we to write about? And what do we hope for the outcome of that writing to be? Are we really going to live the rest of our cognizant lives being ironic, avoiding political issues (whatever you see those as being) and emotionally charged topics?
I know we’re not supposed to think of an audience while we’re writing. I surely don’t or else I’d never write anything. But after I’ve written something, and I feel like it’s ready to be seen by other eyes, I sometimes have a hope for what the work will do to the reader. Sometimes I have a specific emotional or intellectual response I’d like for readers to have. This is dangerous and impossible to be successful at, I know, but still, I think it says something important about what we contemporary writers deem worthwhile and acceptable. What are we supposed to be doing? Should our writing be memorable? Life-changing? Temporal but evocative? Should we move readers to act? If so, on what? Their own lives? Should we hope that they go out into the world and spread the word about this epiphany they had because of what they just read? Should reading literature make us feel more human? If so, how do you do that without being sentimental? (I know, I know, you have to risk sentimentality, but keep your toes on this side of the line, right?)
I’m pretty sure the answers to these questions will be varied and complicated, but I want to know what your take is on this dilemma. What should we be writing about, and how, and for whom, and to what end?