Monthly Archives: October 2011

Sugary Residue

“Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence.” –C.S. Lewis

Over the past few months, I have had the opportunity to read plenty of books, most of them being books that I should have read back when I was in high school. One of these books, oddly enough, was Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Montgomery. This was a very reluctant read for me because, after seeing the films based on the novels, I quickly dismissed them as nothing more than sugary, sentimental “chick flicks” with nothing likable or redeeming about them as a whole, though they had their brief (and I do mean brief) moments. So it came as a surprise to me that I completely enjoyed the book and two of its sequels.

Maybe I’ll get around to reading the rest of them one day.

Books are a fascinating media to delve into. Unlike the mass media of film and television that are created by a committee for the masses, a book is a rare treat to sit with the author and let her speak to you one-on-one. Lucy Montgomery taught me a few things about writing through her books. One thing was that no matter the story, setting or moral, characters should always come first. Another thing was that sentimentality, though it can easily be abused, is not necessarily a bad thing.

It has been said that the only thing keeping Mrs. Montgomery’s work from becoming mindless sentimental fluff is her sense of humor, but I heartily disagree. Instead, what keeps her work adrift is a sense of humanity. Inhabiting each of her characters are bold, defining traits. Anne has her undying optimism, Matthew his shyness and Marilla her sternness, yet their humanity keeps them from becoming simple stereotypes. Anne’s lows are as intense as her highs, Matthew carries a flame of boldness underneath the shyness and Marilla’s sternness is deep-rooted in seeing Anne as a younger version of herself. Not only are her characters not perfect, but they are well-rounded and multi-faceted. They react to the world around them, not as if they are characters in a book, but as if they were real. And to a point, they are real because we have met people like them in real life. We find humor in her stories not because they’re funny, but because they’re true.

Because of this, the stories and characters’ paths and choices never become truly idyllic. The characters make mistakes and have flaws, and these mistakes and flaws factor into the final outcome. More often than not, not everything turns out like either the readers or the characters want them, but this isn’t what the stories are about. They’re about making do with what life dishes out in the here and now, putting away the regrets of the past, and building a future on a solid foundation. All the naysayers out there who view this attitude as flighty have yet to realize that this is survival, rather than fantasy.

Perhaps they would rather wallow in self-loathing and fatalism. I say: let them.

And in the end, there are so many other works of fiction that prize their dark, gritty, violent, disturbing, jarring imagery and themes as adult, mature and artistic. Isn’t it nice every once in a while to see the other side for once? Isn’t it nice to see things work out in the end, not because the author wanted them to, but because the characters were resilient and hopeful? Is wanting a little hope such a bad thing? Critics call this little shred of hope in a sea of doubt “sentimentality”, but this term underplays a very important theme that needs to be accentuated and is sorely missing from today’s literature. Even Dickens, in the bleak and disturbing visions he created from his own gritty surroundings, offered hope amidst the impossible odds.

To hear critics spit out the word “sentimental” like a three-week-old wad of gum, one would think that it takes away from the seriousness and realism of the piece. One would even think that it prohibits character development, exploration, and emotional impact of a classic work of literature for all it is avoided like a flu pandemic. On the other hand, how does purposely trying to kill characters with the deepest, darkest evils of life just to see who survives in the end add realism and emotion to a book? Who actually sees the world like this? Who thinks that this is how one writes grown-up literature?

Probably the same people who decided to strand twenty people on an island with a camera crew and film them playing ridiculous games and acting like vindictive school children to win a cash prize… and the people who watched it…

but that’s another article for another time.

In reality, happiness and contentment must be earned, not given. We all strive for it, whether we admit we do or not. Why would we play a game with no odds of winning unless we’re a stubborn, compulsive gambler? What motivation does a character have to work through the problems of life except for a happy ending? A character may choose foolishly and rob himself of such an ending, but this is his prerogative, not the author’s, and this reveals more of the character rather than the author’s sadistic nature to kill him. A character pulling through a problem and being rewarded while retaining even the slightest shred of optimism is not a fairy-tale. That character has earned the privilege to a happy ending. He has worked hard and been through harsh trials to get where he is, and the optimism he carries with him to the end of the story is what drove him to there to begin with.

I don’t know about you, but I would rather live in this world, and I believe that it exists, despite the cynic’s need to explain it all away.

Does anybody remember the film, It’s A Wonderful Life? Of course you do. It’s a federal law that it must be played nonstop from November to January. Critics of this film cite an unrealistic premise and blatant saccharine sentimentality driving it, and reduce it to nothing more than mere holiday family movie status. Coming from someone who has suffered from George Bailey Syndrome, I couldn’t disagree more. Many times, we get to a place where we feel that we are completely alone, and then something comes along that shows us otherwise. In the case of George Bailey, that something is a more extreme example, but it visually drives the point home clearly. I would go as far as to say I could relate to the film, and was surprised at the critical negativity toward it.

In all, sentimentality is merely a pencil in an artist’s toolkit. Used incorrectly, the work becomes a fantastic fairy tale that lacks all credibility and seriousness the subject matter deserves. When used well, however, sentimentality reminds us to focus on the characters and thus helps to create a more realistic and believable world for the readers to explore. Sentimentality, like sugar, is neither good nor bad. On one hand, the body needs certain types and amounts of sugar to survive, and a little sugar can brighten up a bland recipe.

On the other hand, too much sugar can lead to heart problems, tooth decay, and a diabetic coma.
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