When we talk about sentimentality in literature, we talk about the “contemporary, pejorative sense of the word,” Zoe Heller writes for the New York Times. A word defined by Merriam-Webster as “the quality or state of being sentimental especially to excess or in affectation.” A word with synonyms such as gooeyness, lovey-doveyness, mawkishness, saccharinity, and sappiness. A word with which most writers don’t want to be associated. A word often summed up with a quote by Oscar Wilde: “A sentimentalist is simply one who wants to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.”
In an article for Poets & Writers, Nate Pritts writes, “Our present situation is such that sentimentality is inherently seen as a weakness.” He adds, “Critics use the term ‘sentimentality’ recursively, to indict writing that presents unwarranted sentiment, passages of unmoored or unjustified feeling.” It isn’t only critics; the characters of Harry Potter use sentimental as an insult almost as much as they cast curses—Snape snidely asks, “feeling sentimental?” and Dumbledore says to forgive his mawkishness.
Leslie Jamison notes that there is a “kind of collective shame that we feel about sentimentality,” a shame that “manifests as an accusation—accusing a film of a piece of art of manipulating our emotions.” Pritts writes that his “primary worry” is “that in this crusade to root out sentimentality, people have begun to eradicate sentiment as well.”
Which brings us to the heart of the issue, a question posed by Pritts: “how to navigate the use of sentiment without falling to sentimentality?”