Among the best pieces in Joyce Carol Oates‘ latest collection of essays, In Rough Country, is a wide-ranging overview of the novels of Cormac McCarthy. Discussing McCarthy’s “Border Trilogy” of novels, she makes an interesting digression:
[T]he closely linked novels of the Border Trilogy are a tribute, in their warmly sympathetic depiction of the lives of young ranch hands in Texas and New Mexico in the 1950s, to such traditional values as friendship, loyalty, compassion, courage, physical endurance and (male) stoicism; though suffused with nostalgia for a way of life rapidly coming to an end in the Southwest in the decade following the end of World War II, for the most part the novels avoid sentimentality. (Why “sentimentality” need be avoided in serious literature, as it’s rarely avoided by serious people in actual life, is another issue.)
As a reviewer who’s dinged plenty of novels for “sentimentality”—emotional string-pulling, florid observations, cliched tributes to love, family, fellow-feeling, etc—that parenthetical is a little hard for me to get my head around. That’s especially true considering that Oates’ fiction (at least her “serious literature”) is marked by a steely avoidance of sentiment, even when she’s working through plots about family tragedies. (Her 1981 story collection, A Sentimental Education, its title snitched from Flaubert, doesn’t appear to be sentimental at all. Oates is also featured in a book about contemporary Irish-American women writers titled Too Smart to Be Sentimental.)
Lacking a definition from Oates about “sentimentality,” it’s hard to say much about her perception of it. But I suspect she may be suggesting that readers are less willing to submit to a high emotional pitch in fiction, at least not the way they do with movies, which can be heavily sentimental and still earn high praise. (The first example I can think of is Charlie Chaplin‘s City Lights, a film I always sniffle at the end of, though of course high-art weepers didn’t die in the 1930s.) Serious fiction, Oates implies, is less willing to let us indulge feelings of nostalgia—its goal is to make us question those feelings, which may be why we have so few (any?) novels about happy childhoods.
I’m still hard-pressed to think of fiction I admired because it was “sentimental,” which may be a function of what I’m reading or how I’m reading it. But I’m open to recommendations of books that successfully pulled it off.