We have a new piece appearing in The New Republic today. In a number of recent book reviews, literary critics and novelists arrive at the consensus that to be a great writer, one must avoid being “sentimental.” One famous novelist describes it as a “cardinal sin” of writing. But is it actually true? Using a computer science method called “sentiment analysis,” we tested this claim on a large corpus of novels from the early twentieth century to the present, and found the opposite. Writers who win book prizes and get reviewed in the New York Times are not any less sentimental than novelists who write popular fiction, such as romances or bestsellers. The only group for whom this was not true were the 50 most canonical novels ever written since about 1950. Our analysis tells us that if you want to write one of the most important books of the next half century, then you should tone down the sentiment. But if you want to be reviewed in a major newspaper, sell books, or win prizes, go ahead and emote away.

But the larger point for us is the way our cultural taste-makers are often wrong or extremely biased in their assumptions about what matters. We found that a computer, ironically, can paint a more nuanced picture of what makes great literature.

Here is a an excerpt:

If you want to be a great writer, should you withhold your sentimental tendencies? The answer for most critics and writers seems to be yes. Sentimentality is often seen as a useful way of distinguishing between serious literature and the not-so-serious, probably best-selling kind. “Sentimentality,” James Baldwin wrote, is “the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion…the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel.” While sentimentality is false, grandiose, manipulative, and over-boiled, high literature is subtle, nuanced, cool, and true. As Roland Barthes, the dean of high cultural criticism, once remarked: “It is no longer the sexual which is indecent, it is the sentimental.” This sentiment (yes sentiment) has been around since at least the early twentieth century and is still a subject of debate in the review pagesof numerous media outlets today. But is it true? Whether you are for subtlety or against sentimentality, is this a good way to think about writing your next novel?

Read more here.

2 comments

  1. It’s true that advice given to authors by “literary” authors tends to be advice on how to write in order to get published in The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly, which is nearly always the opposite of how one should write in order to be popular. It’s true that most readers like sentimentality; the dictums against sentimentality were made by modernists who were disgusted by the popular literature and poetry of the 19th century. Seriously, “Annabel Lee”. But they reacted against it because it was popular, not because people didn’t like it.

    But to really test this, you should’ve looked at 18th and 19th century English literature. Even then, though, I suppose you’d get similar results. Dickens and Walter Scott each sold a lot more novels than Jane Austen or Henry James. Austen was almost unheard of until 1870, and wasn’t popular until 1890. Henry James wasn’t, I think, popular until after his death. The “classics” are often novelists whose work was unpopular, but after their death was forced onto college students until some of them started liking them.

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  2. Hey this is a great suggestion! We found the 19C to be so high in sentiment that it looked very different from the present. But I wonder if there are really strong differences within the 19C. Would be good to test — are canonical works (v. popular works) less sentimental? Good question!

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