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.