Heroes Never Rust #91: Sentimentality

Heroes Never Rust #91 by Sean Ironman

Watchmen: Sentimentality

Watchmen presents a bleak world. Superheroes are no the superheroes many people are familiar with. The world, or at least a great deal of the world, seems to hate the vigilantes. But, there is one real moment of, not happiness, but positivity. At the end of the ninth issue, Silk Spectre convinces Doctor Manhattan to return to Earth. He feels that humanity is no different than anything else in the universe—a collection of atoms. By the end, though, he sees that life is special:

In each human coupling, a thousand mission sperm vie for a single egg. Multiply those odds by countless generations, against the odds of your ancestors being alive; meeting; siring this precise son; that exact daughter…until your mother loves a man she has every reason to hate, and of that union, of the thousand million children competing for fertilization, it was you, only you, that emerged. To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air to gold…that is the crowning unlikelihood. The thermodynamic miracle.


In my Forms of Illustrated Narrative course a few weeks ago, as we discussed the second half of Watchmen, one student remarked that the ending to the ninth issue is a bit sentimental. I don’t view it that way, but I can see the student’s point, especially because it seems that when a work presents a bleak view, emotion is okay, but when there is some happiness or positivity involved, the work becomes sentimental. Sentimentality is looked down upon in literary writing. Many writers, especially those at the beginning of their careers, are so afraid of their work being labeled sentimental that the emotion is stripped from the story. The stories become bland and do not affect the reader. The stories die on the page. But, what is sentimentality, and how can a writer produce a work that feels alive that has emotion in it without the work being labeled sentimental?

First, sentimentality does not just relate to positive emotions. Sentimentality, at least in its current use, appeals to shallow, unsophisticated emotions with no regard for reason or logic. In This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “I’m not sentimental—I’m as romantic as you are. The idea, you know, is that the sentimental person thinks things will last—the romantic person has a desperate confidence that they won’t.” Sentimentality takes the reality out of the story and presents a simplistic view in an effort to get the reader to feel what the writer wants the reader to feel.

That’s a problem for a number of reasons. Instead of focusing on the characters and the story, the writer is trying to manipulate the reader into feeling a certain way. No one likes to be sold something. Present the story and let the reader feel what they will feel. Another problem is with the simplistic view. James Baldwin once remarked, “Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty…the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mark of cruelty.” In sentimental work, emotion is contrived, dishonest. We, literary writers, are out to explore humanity. Honestly. We search for the Truth, for meaning. But, sentimental work is about controlling the reader, not exploring the story and the subject matter. Life is complicated. Situations are complicated. Emotions are complicated. That complication needs to be shown in the work.


In a work, like Watchmen, a writer must balance emotions. Watchmen is dark, not overly so, but it is about a world on the brink of nuclear war and deals with many superheroes who do nothing about the situation. Until recently, sentiment used to be the standard word for feelings. Now, it has been twisted to mean describe empty, meaningless emotion. That’s the issue with sentiment, really. It affects adult readers in the opposite way, making the reader not feel. Sentimental work is broad and deals with unearned emotion. Emotions are sloppy. Highly emotional situations are not overly sad, or overly happy, but a combination of emotions that leave a person not knowing how to feel. It’s not so much emotion that should be avoided, but expected emotion. In Watchmen, the end of issue nine works because it is one ray of positivity in the twelve-issue comic. The positivity interacts and counterbalances with the negativity, creating a story that the reader has to think about. The work becomes intellectual, not just emotional.

There are such things as simple emotions and complex emotions. This is supported by psychologists, by the way, not just my own rambling. Simple emotions are fear, happiness, anger, sadness, etc. Complex emotions, such as shame, pride, guilt, require us to know about the character’s situation and values. Simple emotions are basically like an animal reflex, according to Keith Oatley, a professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto. In order to understand complex emotions, one must think, analyze, and interpret events—events that are complicated because there are multiple contradictory emotional triggers. Sentimental works try to get the reader swept up in emotion, controlling the heart instead of the head, but this doesn’t work well with adult readers. I do not mean to look down on YA works or younger readers, but biologically speaking, younger people have more difficulty regulating emotions, causing them to be more impulse and driven by emotions rather than logic and reason. Emotional reactivity grabs younger readers easier than adult readers, which is why there are many YA books that are sentimental, and that work even though they are sentimental. It’s all about audience.


But, adult readers need messier, more complex situations. Adult readers need to be challenged emotionally. At the end of the day, avoiding sentimentality in one’s writing is the same solution as just writing in an age that so much narrative is competing for readers—give the reader something new.

Make your writing as emotional as you want. But, make your writing complex. Don’t give the reader something that he or she already knows. Aim for an emotional ambiguity. It allows you as a literary fiction (or nonfiction) writer to explore the subject matter fully and create complex characters, and it avoids the sentimental.

I have told this my undergraduate nonfiction workshop many times—If you write an essay about a dead grandparent, don’t write about how sad you are that the grandparent is dead. That would be writing into readers’ expectations. Give readers something new. Write about how happy you are that the old hag is dead. Or don’t write about death at all. Remember, sentiment is socialized. Sentiment is expected, simplistic emotion. Sentiment is pre-conceived. Sentiment is controlling your reader and treating them like an animal, only allowing the reader instinctive, reflexive emotional responses. Allow the reader to think. Send your readers into the deep end and see if they can figure their way out. Emotion and sentiment are separate from one another. Emotion can be present in your work (positive or negative), but just make it complex enough that you are not telling the reader how to feel.

Ambiguity is a good thing.


Photo by John King
Photo by John King

Sean Ironman (Episode 102) earned his MFA at the University of Central Florida. Currently, he teaches creative nonfiction and digital media at the University of Central Arkansas as a visiting professor. His work can be read in The Writer’s ChronicleRedivider, and Breakers: A Comics Anthology, among others.

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The Drunken Odyssey is a forum to discuss all aspects of the writing process, in a variety of genres, in order to foster a greater community among writers.


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