Many years ago, I read an article that John Irving wrote for the New York Times Book Review. In it, he defended the novelist’s use of sentimental passages if they were intrinsic to the story and not contrived purely to generate an emotional response from the reader. His argument, if I’m remembering it correctly, was that these events do in fact come up in our real lives. Therefore, a writer should be able to reflect this reality on the page. Sentimental experiences can tell us as much about ourselves as tragic experiences, traumatic experiences, or disillusioning experiences. They are therefore no less “literary,” as long as the writer employs them honestly.
I found this piece extremely liberating. For years, I had gravitated toward novelists whose work had a certain heart-on-the-sleeve element. Someone like Pat Conroy, who can range from brutal to deeply sentimental in a matter of paragraphs. Or Barbara Kingsolver, whose characters so often express such deep care for each other. Or Luanne Rice, whose novels often teem with sentiment without ever becoming mawkish. Having been raised by proper literary mentors, I felt a certain amount of guilt over enjoying these writers so much. Real novels were supposed to be darker, their lessons more sobering. John Irving freed me from this thinking, and I am deeply appreciative of this.
For the longest time, the Irving article only influenced me as a reader. Then I decided that I wanted to write fiction. Fiction about relationships. Fiction where people had an effect on each other. That meant I needed to make a decision. I could write an emotion-driven story influenced by the writers that most inspired me. Or I could write an intellectually driven story influenced by the still-prevalent conventions about what made a novel relevant. I chose the former and set out to do everything I could to make the sentiment in my work feel real.
I did not make this easy on myself. For example, in my novel When You Went Away, I wanted to write about fatherhood and about the redemptive qualities of love. So, I set up a situation that threw these themes into relief – in a way that could easily be interpreted as maudlin. I made my protagonist a man in his early forties whose wife had died only two months after giving birth to their second child. I had the first child – a teenager – run away from home, unaware of her mother’s fate. I had a woman come into my protagonist’s life in the midst of his grief and confusion. I did all of these things because they allowed me to write about issues that meant a great deal to me. But I realized that I was always one sentence away from descending into melodrama.
To address this, I strove to make every situation as honest as I possibly could (while understanding that there are some inherent contradictions between fiction and honesty). I wanted the reader to accept the sentimental passages in the novel (and there are many) because they felt natural to the characters and the situation. I wanted to live up to the standard that John Irving set in my mind when he put that article out into the world.
Did I succeed? Only readers can say. But I embraced the challenge so much that it became my model for writing fiction from that point on.