What the heck is literature supposed to do anyway?

Should literature make us feel like babies in the light of God?

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?


  • Tiffany says:

    Should we always be writing for the same ends and for the same people? I would say embrace political when you feel it, and embrace sentiment when you feel it. You’re going to cross the line for somebody if you even lean in a direction. So it won’t be for everyone; done well, it will find an audience.

  • ce. says:

    “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?”

    Yes. And, probably some noes in there. And yes some more. And other possible things literature/art is supposed to do, and then someone comes along and does that thing in a way that sucks, so no. But then, yes. And other possible things it’s not supposed to do, but someone comes along and does it, and somehow manages to do it in a perfect way to become art. Yes.

    • JaimeRWood says:

      Bravo. You’ve provided the perfect answer to this unanswerable conversation.

      • ce. says:

        Ha. I hope my reply didn’t seem snarky or anything. Or at least that I’ve commented intelligently enough elsewhere that people know I wasn’t snarking.

        Your idea of the line between sentiment and sentimentality is interesting, how it’s only sentimentality if you don’t get the reader to come along with you, and of course, in that way it’s wholly subjective, but what isn’t, and of course, this question is wholly subjective.

        Even personally, my answers re: these questions fluctuate probably daily. I’d be a horrible politician due to my inconsistency.

        But even still, the overarching cultural responses to these questions change drastically over time. Think if Duchamp had released Fountain in 1817 instead of 1917. And what if he had today?

        And maybe you were posing the question in reference to our modern age? In which case, sometimes I get the feeling that our modern age thinks the answer to that question is to remain unanswerable. If that makes sense.

        • Jaime R. Wood says:

          Definitely not snarky, smart. I agree that there’s no answer. What I find interesting is that we’re so certain about what we don’t like, that is, until we like it. Certain styles and subjects get demonized until, like you said, someone does it well, and then they’re just the exception that proves the rule.

        • Jaime R. Wood says:

          Oh, and something I forgot. One of the reasons I wrote this post is because I think it’s a useful academic exercise to attempt to define the undefinable or locate that which is ephemeral, like our taste in literature at any given moment in time or why we like a particular piece of literature. I think that if we can start to attempt to articulate what we expect out of literature we may better understand ourselves as readers and writers of the stuff, the biases we hold on to and the values we champion. I’m not sure how useful the exercise is in a practical sense, but I tend to believe that forcing oneself to articulate a notion causes one to see it more clearly and therefore to act in a more thoughtful way, which is always a good thing, ain’t it? (god, did I just use oneself and ain’t together in a sentence?)

          • ce. says:

            I definitely agree. In college, my friends and I would sit around the Heorot drinking some beers and discussing this and other questions for hours, and it was great because we all had different answers to these questions. Not drastically different, but different enough that it kept things interesting, and we all learned a great deal about the possibilities of literature through these conversations.

  • Sam Ligon says:

    I don’t think there’s ever a problem with depth of emotion — I think that’s what we’re always looking for. Or significant lack thereof, indicating a kind of damage. “Sentimental” writing, to me, means trying to use shortcuts to get to the emotion or an approximation of the emotion. It’s cheap because it relies on pulling on heartstrings, leaning on cliches to provoke emotional response, rather than the emotional response rising directly from what’s rendered on the page. I don’t think any subject matter should be avoided. The problem is in the approach to the subject matter. Is the writer pushing buttons, trying to manipulate the reader? Or is the writer rendering something as clearly and truly as she can, so that the reader has an emotional response based on what’s rendered. Maybe this sounds like splitting hairs, but I think what I mean by sentimental writing is work that’s trying to provoke an approximate emotional response, perhaps based on something other than the material, an experience the reader’s had that’s close, sort of, to what’s rendered on the page, but that doesn’t arise from something deep in the material.

    • ce. says:

      I like the differentiation you make here, Sam.

      I think I make a similar distinction with a different question: “Does this writing seek to engage or replace a reader’s empathy?”

      Also, another thing I think deserves some attention is whether an author writes to engage a reader’s empathy or sympathy. This is very much an audience/authorial intent question I think. I think it’s much harder (and would say “nobler” perhaps) a task to engage a reader’s empathy rather than their sympathy, e.g. if you write a cancer story, and the only people who find it really moving are those affected by cancer in some way.

      *Note: In my head, I distinguish sympathy as compassion through prior experience, whereas empathy is compassion without. I don’t think that’s a true distinction between the two, just something of a personal definition to help me parse the question.

  • Michael says:

    Great post, Jaime. Many, many things to think about here…

    I always think of good writing as “engaging” not entertaining. Splitting hairs, perhaps, but entertainment strikes me as passive, while engagement is active. Writing that forces me to think and feel, but not necessarily – and here’s the trick – forces me to think or feel a specific thing.

    Mary Gaitskill wrote about this once. To paraphrase (badly): you aren’t supposed to feel anything; you feel what you feel. It is very easy for us to be didactic and manipulative with our stories and poems, but that’s the kind of line that we should toe. We create emotion for the reader, but we don’t manipulate emotion in the reader.

    And, some of us have to write about politics. We don’t want Hemingway, Orwell, Gordimer, and so many others, not to write about politics and war and the horrible things we do to each other.

    Finally, as writers, we must think about audience. As readers for EWU and Willow Springs, you’ve seen thousands of manuscripts from people who not only don’t understand what you publish, but what things in contemporary writing are derivative, cliches, overwrought, and so forth. It is really easy as a writer, a person who lives in her/his words, in solitude, to become self-absorbed. Thinking about audience is one of those tough leaps we all eventually need to make.

    • Jaime R. Wood says:

      Great points here, Michael. I especially like what Gaitskill says about what you’re supposed to feel. I totally agree. Our job, I think, as writers is to open the door for the possibility of an emotional response but definitely not to force a fixed response. How lame would that be?

      And as for the whole audience things, I think writers need to see themselves as their own audience to the extent that that’s possible. In other words, if you know it’s a cliche, if you’re not emotionally invested in it or intellectually stimulated by it, then why would anyone else be? That’s tricky though, because a lot of beginning writers, including me just a few years ago, feel like their writing is great on the first try even though it’s wrought with errors in logic, language, and structure. So again, the question has become impossible to answer, but I suppose that’s half the fun.

  • Anna says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this question of sentimentality over the last few months. My writing tends to fall on the sentimental side of the spectrum. In the past, I tried to keep myself from that impulse, but then my poems felt rather dry. I decided recently that I needed to change my thinking about the term “sentimental.” Sam, I like your definition of it, that it’s when the writer is trying to manipulate the reader into feeling something rather than letting the language create the emotion naturally. But what do we call a poem that wants to evoke an emotional response in the reader? I don’t know if I like the term, “muscular sentiment.” I would consider Mary Oliver’s poetry emotional and nearly sentimental, but I’m not sure I’d call it muscular.

    • Jaime R. Wood says:

      I suppose what you call the poem depends on the emotion it evokes. For instance, there’s a great Bob Hicok poem whose name I can’t remember that compares men in combat to serial killers. Now, hearing that you might think, well, that’s an obvious comparison, but the way he moves from fantasizing about what it must be like to drill through a human skull to the similarity of soldiers dropping bombs on people they can barely see is really quite thrilling. It makes the comparison seem brilliant, but having said that, it’s not really an emotional poem, although the subject matter is. Hicok’s tone in the poem saves it from being preachy/political or sentimental in the way Sam defines it, manipulating the reader’s emotions, but at the same time, I’ll never forget this poem. It moved me in a way that’s difficult to explain. It said something I already felt in a way I never could have imagined. That’s brilliant.

  • John Baker says:

    In my experience, writing that “clearly and truly” portrays an optimistic or pleasant sentiment is almost always considered corny…whereas pessimistic or even fatalistic sentiment is often considered literary, worthy. Or is it just me?

    • Jaime R. Wood says:

      You may be right about that. Literature tends not to have a happy ending. Maybe because one of the things we expect literature to do is teach us something about ourselves, and how better to do that than to show us other people making mistakes, screwing up their lives. I think that optimistic/pleasant writing can be successful as entertainment alone. In other words, it feels good to watch it, but does it teach us anything? I don’t know. Come to think of it, many of the memoirs I’ve read have relatively happy endings, although the beginnings and middles are usually bleak. And they’re considered literature. Hmm…I’ll have to think on this some more.

  • Marcus says:

    I think Sam makes excellent points about what sentimentality means; not everyone’s definition, I’m sure, but it works for me.

    Also, I think it would be shameful and stupid to avoid sentimental and political topics. I like when my feelings and opinions are challenged. Good pieces of writing make me rethink what I thought I knew. So when I say that political writing is distasteful, I don’t mean that poems/stories/essays/ about presidents and hate crimes and the like are inherently bad. What I mean is that I don’t read “literature” (see other recent bark posts about what that even means) to be informed about political happenings. I read the news and various websites, etc. So I’m not interested in writing that exists either only to inform me (though I do like learning from writing) or only to tell me to think a certain way (though I like to be challenged). That’s annoying, and it’s not just political subjects that this applies to. Any time a character or action is blatantly labeled or I’m instructed by the writing to view it a particular way, I lose interest quickly. (I think the most basic and crude way to illustrate the difference is to say that I’m not interested in a piece of writing that tells me murder is bad, but I am interested in a piece that tells me murder is bad but also reminds me that I’ve wished people dead before and isn’t that screwed up you should be ashamed of yourself but it’s also okay because it happens all the time to everybody but you’re still sort of disgusting I hope you take a closer look at yourself.) It just happens that this is more common (and easier to do) when talking about politics. And that is an aesthetic thing. Maybe other people do read literature to be told how to think about things. And that’s perfectly fine.

    For me, I would love to read your poems on Haiti and your cat if they’re going to reveal to me something I didn’t know about the world. Because that’s hard to do, as a writer, and I respect the effort. Politics, sentiment, old wagon wheels, whatever your subject is, just don’t patronize me, you know?

    • Jaime R. Wood says:

      I know what you mean, Marcus. Your comment made me think of the kind of dialog I hate, the kind that is obviously just there to inform the reader about what’s going on and doesn’t serve any real purpose for the characters actually doing the talking. My example is kind of different from what you’re talking about, but for me it seems relevant because it’s doing the same thing as bad political writing; it’s manipulating or instructing the reader about what they’re supposed to know or think about or feel. Bad writing, for sure.

      Oh, and I’m thinking about reading my Haiti poem at the MFA reading. I actually think it’s pretty good. the poem about my cat I’m not so sure about. It definitely comes pretty close to sentimentality. After all, it’s about putting my cat to sleep, but I hope it’s also about something else that redeems it.

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