Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Landscape Lacking Weather

Saying a piece of writing lacks emotion is about as useful as saying that a landscape painting lacks weather. It doesn’t even sound like logical criticism, and it usually is not. “You need more emotion” seems to be a default comment when people aren’t connecting with the work. Fair enough, they are not connecting with the work. Yet I’ve become suspect that “playing the emotional card” is when a reader simply does not like a piece of writing. Or, this comment is trotted out when someone does not have anything useful to say, and yet feel they need to say something. Because it cannot be pinpointed to anything concrete in the piece, it is always a general idea about emotion. This is such a safe and broad comment as to be almost useless. Emotion is always what’s not there.

Emotion is often the quality, in lieu of other qualities, that a lot of readers want to latch onto. I would say, they only think they want to latch onto it; the other qualities probably are not apparent to them, or they don’t want to acknowledge the use of language, the characters, etc. Perhaps one person’s heat seeking emotional content is another’s insurmountable distaste for the story.

What actually may be meant by putting emotion into the work?

According to several professional writer websites, the way to get emotion into the writing encompasses everything from “put yourself into you character’s shoes,” to “proper word choice,” to “showing emotion rather than telling,” (whatever that means) and to “write about things you are emotionally invested in.”

But this diversity of opinion on emotion in writing, as well as the broad based explanations for how it can be arrived at is enough to suggest that, emotion in writing might just be like pornography: You’ll know it when you see it.

I suppose I’m a reader and writer who is less interested in emotional content, and more interested in other qualities that draw me into a story: expressive prose, interesting and dynamic characters, unusual, even disorienting narrative structure, and a story outside of my own experience. A reason I’m skeptical of this insistence on emotion is that I tend to find overt displays of emotionally toned material to be manipulative, and at their worst, sentimental. It helps to know where you stand in this regard, so that you don’t fret too much over readers who demand to be moved. I may be expressing an unpopular, even a reckless, opinion, when I say, if the writing is compelling, you won’t need to strain to infuse it with emotional toll taking. But emotional quotas should hardly make or beak a piece. Taste is wildly subjective.

Writers worth reading whose work isn’t usually considered emotional, offer something else.

I consider the ending of Cormac Mc Carthy’s The Road to be exemplary of emotional writing, mostly because the story--unique among McCarthy’s oeuvre--made me cry when I read it. Much of the criticism of The Road centered on the story’s bleak setting, or the stylized prose, or the utter incomprehensibility of the scenario of a father and child wandering the post-apocalyptic wastes of the earth. With this emphasis, I would suspect many might overlook the emotional quality in McCarthy’s work. McCarthy might err on the side of manipulation, but in this case, somehow it works for me.

I find David Foster Wallace to caricature his characters. It’s as if they are all minor characters in service of some broader point. Except in a few pieces, and in particular the story “Forever Overhead” which I would call emotionally effective, I’m not sure I could even say his work otherwise lacks emotion, though emotional connection is not what I think of when I read him. Wallace has so much else going on in his work usually emotional resonance isn’t high on the list of why I read him. According to D.T. Max, in Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, even Wallace, the once great ironist, wrote ”Forever Overhead” contrary to the manner of the fiction he was producing at the time, which was typically overflowing with irony. Wallace eventually dismissed this story as sentimental. Often, where others see emotion, I see sentiment, but not in this story. There might be a case to debate the fine line between sentiment and irony.

Finally, Joan Didion might be criticized for a lack of emotion. Yet I suspect the discerning reader might come away from The Year of Magical Thinking with a sense of awe at the narrative accomplishment. Surely this memoir should be chock full of the kind of emotional cards that are regularly requested so often, and yet her style is a kind of cold-hearted, sobering prose. And yet the emotional impact of the story is so overwhelming that it has the effect of a well-composed symphony striking all the right minor chords.

So, you are not Mc Carthy, Wallace or Didion. Maybe you want to play the emotional card after all. Of the previously mentioned prescriptions, the one that might be most useful is to write about what you are emotionally invested in. This brings up the idea of sympathetic characters, as in, if you care about your characters, your readers (probably) will also. No guarantees. In the case of Wallace’s “Forever Overhead”, you almost wonder if he was talking to his younger self in that story, so carefully guiding is the second person narrator.

There’s nothing wrong with emotion--it’s just that its absence should not always be a handy default buzzword for what’s wrong with a piece of fiction, or any writing, really. Not every piece of writing needs to have the emotional quotient. In the same way that a plot can be subtly residual when it isn’t over-determined, sometimes the emotion sneaks in; I’m not going to fight it.


  1. Lovely piece. Glad I just now found it.

    This problem's been nagging at me as I revise my novel for the umpteenth time. In fact, I've entitled this particular revision "This time with feeling!"

    Here's the theoretical question: Is fiction (or art of any kind, for that matter) supposed to portray emotion (Jack feels sad, Emily hurts, Suzy loves, etc.) or to produce it in the reader?

    I feel like you are implying the latter but sensing the need to conform to the predominant mode (the former). I tend to agree. Complexity, coherence, and beauty (now there's a concept people don't talk too much about anymore) are qualities that affect me qua reader.

    Do, in your writing, try to avoid the maudlin.

    Jim H.

  2. Jim,

    Thanks for your comment and appreciation.

    I think in general that "Jack feels sad" is the epitome of the telling vs. showing conundrum, though it may be useful. (If you want to say Jack feels sad, it's probably better to stretch into some detail a la, "Jack stared at the wilted flowers and his lip trembled as he spoke to Emily.")

    Whether that is emotional or not, I think at least it's more revealing.

    My main issue was when I receive the empty reply of "this lacks emotion" about a piece of fiction. I think the comment that "the piece lacks emotion," is an excuse for the reader to avoid having to think too deeply about what they are reading, or that they are unwilling to explore their own depths about it. Or they simply may not like the piece of writing. Fine. I guess I don't want to hear the default comment that the fault is mine (why they don't like it), and that because of this--some clearly insufficient capacity within their own being--my writing somehow "lacks emotion." And, I don't think emotion is the be all end all of fiction (as some imply).

    I may be rambling...

    Best, Robert

  3. Just re-read a remarkable novel by Per Petterson called "I Curse the River of Time" highlighting ONLY PP's use of emotive language. How does he convey the emotions of his protagonist?

    "I know well those night-time moments when you lie in bed staring into the dark with dry, aching eyes feeling life like ashes in your mouth, even though I have probably worried more about my own life than leaving my children fatherless." is the first occurrence (p.4, 2nd page of text)

    Next comes: "I was heading full speed for a divorce. It was my first: I thought it was the end of the world. There were days I could not move from the kitchen to the bathroom without falling to my knees at least once before I could pull myself together and walk on." (p.5) (end of 1st section)

    We get, in this first section, a general then a specific picture of this guy's emotional weather (to use your term). Fine.

    The book ends with this emotive passage: "The wind blew harder now and whipped the foam from the crest of one wave to another. It was really something. I shuttled back and sat down as before. I stared down at the sand. There was not much to look at. I am 37 years old, I thought. The Wall has fallen. And here I sit.

    "AFter what I hoped was fifteen minutes or more, I did the same thing again, rolled over and crawled on my elbows and knees to the edge of the mound and looked towards the beach. She [his dying mother] was on her knees now. It looked strange.

    "I lay like this for a few moments to see if she would stand up, but she didn't. I crawled back and leaned against the mound, squeezed my eyes shut and tried to concentrate. I was searching for something very important, a very special thing, but no matter how hard I tried, I could not find it. I pulled some straws from a cluster of marram grass and put them in my mouth and started chewing. They were hard and sharp and cut my tongue, and I took more, a fistful, and stuffed them in my mouth and chewed them while I sat there, waiting for my mother to stand up and come to me." FIN

    If you only took these two passages and tried to get a sense of the emotional arc of the protagonist, you might say he's a man who is emotionally dead waiting for his mother, who is really dying, to join him & comfort him. But we know she won't; she can't because she's dealing with her own shit.

    There's real artistry to this, no? Falling on knees, lying down, ashes in the mouth, sand, chewing marram grasses, staring at empty ceilings and sand. What's changed is that in the beginning he's hopeless while at the end he realizes he's searching for something—he knows not what. This, at least, is change.

    This was an instructive exercise for me as a writer. His book is wondrous bleak. Emotive language is peppered throughout (gauging by my highlights), but does by no means predominate. And it is often subtle.

    [sorry to carry on so. i may copy this comment thread and post on my own blog—with, of course, appropriate linkage. great forum you have here. write on.]

  4. Jim,

    I am not familiar with that book, but I'll definitely check it out.

    I think the difficulty for me is knowing when has the emotional quotient tipped into something overdone or maudlin, and when has the writing stated it all succinctly, enough to carry something like a feeling (but we could not say specifically what feeling, I think). The excerpts you have here are certainly evocative, and I do get a sense of an emotional struggle, and in that way it works to convey an emotion...

    But what if I'm not moved by this particular writer's "emotive language" ? Does that mean the writer in question is at fault? Shouldn't the emotional part be a response in the reader that I, as a writer, have no desire to manipulate--nor really, any control over, hopefully--but would rather compel through my writing? If one is not moved by MY SUBJECT matter, that's another thing entirely, and should not result in the criticism of "it lacks emotion."

    Something I was getting at in my piece, and perhaps not articulating fully, is: how does one know when the writing is "emotional" in the general sense the phrase of "it lacks emotion," implies, if this is often (maybe even ALWAYS) a quality that is subjective? Wouldn't then the writing itself have to contain that subjective response to specific emotional stimuli, and thus, not every reader's emotion (or every writer's) is going to be your or my emotion?

    I fear I'm being redundant.

    Maybe I'm being too specific, or too picky. But what does it mean exactly when someone says, "Make it more emotional"? Is it just a matter of evocative prose? If I'm criticized for that in my fiction, I know I do not lack for the evocative. So I'm flummoxed. And this becomes just my response to criticism, which is maybe all that it is.

    I look forward to reading.

    Again, thanks for your thoughts.

  5. I'm afraid some of my work has been tagged with that same beef. 'But...but...but...,' I cry, 'I'm trying to portray (show don't tell) a character who's alienated from his feelings, numb of emotion, empty. That's a complex character whose journey to experience maybe a genuine emotion is worthy of novelistic treatment. etc.'

    Won't work. Won't sell. Won't buy it. Can't sell it.

    My response to most criticism is to listen for the nub of discomfort. Often it's not in the specifics, but the general feeling of the critique. When it comes—especially in the form of 'lacking emotion'—I recall one of my first lessons in fiction writing: it's not the what, it's the how. Not whether 'emotion' is portrayed, but 'how' and 'how well'.

    I believe there's nothing off limits to us. However, there must be craft. Artistry.

    When my readers complain, I listen. But I don't necessarily listen to their re-visions. I look to see if I can do what I intend any more effectively.

    If I hear 'lack of emotion' so many times, it has to resonate. To cure, I look to exemplars. I found Petterson (pretty much universally critically acclaimed) and looked to his 'how'.

    He may not be to your taste, so find your own masterclass. Look at Coetzee, Beckett, Salter. Whoever. (btw: I had the same reaction to "The Road". It was beautiful, especially the ending. I had not been so moved by an ending since "Love in the Time of Cholera," which was symphonic. Do what I did with "The Road" or, even better, "Blood Meridian") But drill down on this one issue. Analyze, appropriate, and apply. Work it.

    Then, of course, you'll have to work on the next issue that arises in your writing. Lord knows, mine never feels finished. Problems proliferate.

    Hey, but who the f... am I? Where's my published masterpiece? Nowhere. That's where.

    This is how I've approached what seems to be a mutual issue.

    One further thought. Here's a proposed, hypothetical (meaning, 'too broad and general') answer to your question: Enough (as opposed to too much or too little) emotion is just the level of emotionality that the Point of View character requires in order to be truly present to him/herself (and those in relationship with/to him) in each given instance where an authentic emotional response is called for by the story. Implied: the writer needs to get his/her own emotionality (or lack thereof) out of the way and let the POV live through the words on the page.

    Great dialogue!