Interrogating Sentimentality with Leslie Jamison
In Conversation with the Author of The Empathy Exams
In “In Defense of Saccharin(e),” an essay from her 2014 collection The Empathy Exams that explores the too much-ness and unearned quality of both artificial sweetener and sentimentality, Leslie Jamison asks, “At what volume does feeling become sentimental? How obliquely does feeling need to be rendered so it can be saved from itself? How do we distinguish between pathos and melodrama? Too often, I think, there is a sense that we just know. Well I don’t.”
In the margins of my copy of The Empathy Exams, I scrawled “qs must ask as writers” next to this passage. I first read “In Defense of Saccharin(e)” and the rest of the collection as a student in the Columbia MFA program, and I valued how these essays dig underneath sets of cultural assumptions—about the volume of sentimental feeling, what it means to truly empathize with another person, and the performance of pain—to wrestle more deeply with what we’re really talking about when we talk about sentimentality, or empathy, or pain. Indeed, in The Empathy Exams, Jamison embodies James Baldwin’s statement that “the purpose of art is to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers.”
During my first read of this book, I was especially attuned to how Jamison was able to lay bare questions about herself and incorporate aspects of the deeply personal, from her abortion to her former eating disorder, into her broader inquiries. While pursuing my nonfiction MFA, I have been acutely aware of the charges leveled against writing that engages with the personal: not just that it can be sentimental, but that it’s solipsistic, uncrafted, bleeding on the page. Beyond the MFA v. NYC debate is the debate about creative nonfiction and the MFA, and, more particularly, being a young person in an MFA program writing the personal. Even Mary Karr, in her recent book The Art of Memoir, has suggested that one has to be a of certain age to successfully write about oneself (“Most of us are still soft as clay before thirty-five,” she writes).
Which is why I was so glad when Jamison, with her approach of questioning the answers to what makes good literature, started teaching in the Columbia MFA program last year. I have been her student twice—first, last spring in a four-session master class called “Confession and Shame,” and this past semester in a seminar called “Emotion and Sentimentality.” As a professor, Jamison turns her probing, essayistic mind outward, asking us to pick apart what might seem to be givens in discussions of literature: why are confession and sentimentality taboo? What’s behind the charge that confession is bleeding onto the page, or that sentimentality is both an overflow of and a shortcut to feeling? Are professions of emotion on the page solipsistic, or can they be ties to the world at large?
As we wrapped up our “Emotion and Sentimentality” class, Jamison and I sat down to talk about how she engages with the questions of our course in her own work. We also spoke about the connections between writing, emotion, and finding solitude in a noisy world in anticipation of the first iteration of Michele Filgate’s new quarterly series, Red Ink.
Kristen Martin: Across The Empathy Exams, you grapple with themes of emotion, feeling, pain, and sentimentality. In the writing of these essays, which all include aspects of the deeply personal, how conscious were you of the taboos of confession and sentimentality in literature, and how did you or didn’t you work to subvert expectations?
Leslie Jamison: Very conscious! I think that brings up the issue of what kinds of self-consciousness become paralyzing and what kinds of self-consciousness become generative. Some kinds of self-consciousness for me make everything feel fertile, because I’m having some sort of feeling of shame or fear, and then that feels like this avenue into wondering, “why do I feel shame about this?” or “why do I feel fear about this?” Certainly “In Defense of Saccharin(e),” the first essay that I wrote in the collection—I wrote the first draft in 2006—was very much coming out of a sense of aesthetic shame and fear when I was getting my MFA.
I was in my MFA program when I wrote the first draft of that piece. The fact that it was an essay, which wasn’t the primary genre that I was working within (because I was in the fiction program) gave me enough of a feeling of stepping outside the world that I had been in, and the workshop conversations that I had been in, that I could start to think about some of what was happening in those workshops, especially around why were all so afraid of sentimentality?—and the second and even stronger question—why do we all assume that we’re talking about the same thing when we say the word sentimentality? It was almost such a given that it was bad that we didn’t have to figure out what it was.
In a way, the thrust of that essay was not to say that there were no evocations of emotion that are too simple or misunderstood something—because it’s not that I think every literary expression of emotion is equally valid or equally telling—but just that I hated this sort of smug assumption that we all knew what was bad. I also felt that so much got dismissed in a fear-driven writing that was so afraid of sentimentality it didn’t know how to touch emotion. That piece really rose out of this internalized shame that I felt.
The title essay was less engaged with aesthetics and more engaged with experience. Many of the early drafts of that piece were really crippled by a sense of fear and shame around writing personal experience in a particular way. Certainly most of the early drafts of that essay didn’t include very much personal experience—or the personal experience they included was the personal experience of working as a medical actor, but I really didn’t want to write my personal experience as a medical patient. I think a lot of not wanting to write it was that I was afraid of being seen as a “wound dweller.” I was deeply afraid of being seen as someone who was making too much out of a personal experience that actually wasn’t that hard.
Writing my experience in the form of actual medical acting scripts introduced this idea of play that made it easier for me to access the personal, and it also just really sharpened into focus this idea of using personal experience to examine larger questions rather than narrating personal experience for its own sake, which has always been an operating principle for me. But I think something about putting my experience into script form really gave me a structural way to understand experience as deployed rather than intrinsically a great story, or intrinsically an exceptional story. I just really dispute the premise that to write your story is to claim that it’s exceptional, or worse than, or more interesting than anybody else’s story—it’s just what you’ve lived. It’s one thing to have that intellectual belief that it’s not arrogant to write your experience—it’s just using what you have. You can believe that intellectually but still encounter all those same resistances when it actually comes to writing the thing.
I was deeply afraid of being seen as someone who was making too much out of a personal experience that actually wasn’t that hard.
KM: Towards the end of “In Defense of Saccharin(e),” you write “I believe in an interrogated sentimentality that doesn’t allow its distortions to be inherited so easily. I want to make a case for the value of that moment when we feel sentimentality punctured—when we feel its flatness revealed, that sense of a vista splitting open or opening out. Something useful happens in that moment of breakage.” What might that interrogated sentimentality look like? And then, thinking about the upcoming Red Ink event, how might this sense of interrogated sentimentality help us find solitude in a noisy word?
LJ: When I think about interrogated sentimentality, part of what I’m thinking about is this general process of self-interrogation, which for me is so central to writing any narrative but certainly personal narrative. There are so many different stories about myself and my life that I’ve told myself over the years and that have become these comfortable grooves that I’ve lived inside of. So much of getting at the kind of emotional complexity that I think makes personal narrative feel rewarding and rich and complicated, and feel like it’s not participating in the kind of sentimentality of telling an overly easy story, has to do with questioning those narratives that have become comfortable for me about my life. Like, “This is why this relationship ended” or “I’m afraid of intimacy so I break up with all men after a certain amount of time”—these sort of self-mythologies. So much of writing for me is about breaking through or peeling away those self-mythologies.
I find myself often returning to a kind of figurative language around vistas splitting open or something rupturing or there being some kind of seam, and you open up the seam. I think it always comes back to that idea that we tell ourselves stories, and with each story you realize, here’s where this story is smoothing over a surface that’s actually quite rough, or making something simple where it was actually messy, and you probe deeper. But it’s so process-based, which is why I like the idea of interrogating sentimentality because this idea that you’re either being sentimental or you’re not doesn’t feel accurate to me as a writer, or a speaker, or an experiencer of emotions. I’m constantly narrating my life to myself and then having to question what was too simple, or too easy, about the story I found myself telling or found myself believing. It really feels like this unfolding process rather than some either-or.
You know, it’s interesting to think about that in relation to finding solitude in a noisy world. I crave a certain kind of solitude or stillness, and can feel that there are moments where my creative life is hampered by being too much in the world, or doing too much talking about writing and not enough actual writing, or too much of just performing the role of writer, or being some kind of spokesman for a certain kind of aesthetic brand—all of those things feel distracting to me.
But also, I don’t think of my art essentially as trying to find solitude in a noisy world. I think about my work as deeply informed by the noise of the world. And when I look at The Empathy Exams, I see so much noise in them, but it’s noise that got curated and metabolized and processed. There are relics of contingency and happenstance—I happened to be reading Madame Bovary when I started working on the essay about artificial sweeteners, so this idea of secretly eating sugar found its way into the essay. And it wouldn’t have found its way in if there wasn’t a genuine resonance. So it’s not just about taking a soil sample of your life at any given moment. But I do think there’s this element of chance and arbitrariness to how our intellectual existences work.
KM: You were just talking about how lived experience can filter its way into the writing, and I feel like a lot of your writing has filtered its way into the classes that you’re teaching. It seems to me that a lot of the ideas that we’ve been grappling with in our “Emotion and Sentimentality” seminar this semester, and also in the master class you taught last spring on “Confession and Shame,” grew out of some of the ideas that you were grappling with across The Empathy Exams. Why did you feel that these were topics that we needed to engage with in the MFA program?
LJ: It is an exciting part of my life as a teacher to feel the ways that what I teach can grow out of what I’ve been wrestling with in my writing life. I think that feeling really comes from a lived experience of ongoingness in relation to certain questions. Even things I’ve written a whole essay about, or more than one essay about, I rarely feel like I’m done with them—it’s more like I wrote those essays because I was tapping into this thing that was going to be a live question for me probably my whole life. When the topics that I teach that are really related to what I’ve written, I want them ideally to dwell in this sweet spot where I’ve been thinking about them long enough that hopefully I have something to say that’s useful, but it’s not like I’m decided in what I think either. It hopefully lives in some intersection between having some reckoning under my belt and having a period at the end of a sentence.
In “Confession and Shame,” I wanted to think about the connection between confession and shame in two distinct but related senses. One had to do with how some of the most heated or urgent personal writing can come out of experiences to which some kind of shame has been attached, and the second was the way that the label of confessional now has this intense aura of shame around it, and what that shame is about. From my own experience in an MFA program, and my own experience as a sometimes-personal essayist moving through the world, I just felt like there was so much uninterrogated critique and so many assumptions about what was or wasn’t indulgent writing, or what was or wasn’t lazy writing, and it felt so useful to put some of those nebulous, free-floating, environmental anxieties at the center of a table and say, “what are these about?”
So much of the “Emotion and Sentimentality” course was driven by a similar feeling around the taboo of sentimentality, although I think that there are really important linkages between those two taboos. Again, I felt like, there are all these pieces of language that circulate in a lot of workshops that have to do with whether or not a feeling has been earned, whether or not a piece is sentimental. I wanted to, among other things, create a space where those wouldn’t be taken as givens at all, but would be objects of discussion.
KM: We read Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and were talking about how feeling can be formed by and in response to social problems. In Rankine, the problems are myriad—she’s writing post 9/11, she’s writing about the War in Iraq and about some police brutality issues. How are you dealing in emotion that doesn’t shut out social reality but engages with it?
LJ: The kind of nonfiction writing I’m interested in is about situating certain moments of my own lived experience in relation to lots of things in the world. Some understanding of the social is part of every piece of nonfiction that I’ve written, whether that looks like me on a reporting trip interviewing people—which is a really literal manifestation of bringing myself into acts of encounter—or whether it looks more like a kind of critical practice, reading James Agee, reading Joan Didion, watching documentaries about the West Memphis Three in which my own emotional experience is part of the act of criticism that I’m engaging in. All of those feel like ways in which emotional experience is a conduit for social engagement rather than an alternative to social engagement.
In putting together the “Emotion and Sentimentality” course, one of the things that I imagined that might be a kind of taboo that would attach to writing emotion is this sense of emotion as indulgent or private or sunk deeply into the self. So I really wanted craft a syllabus that would bring up this question of emotion as a channel outward, or a connective tissue, rather than emotion as a private, sequestered experience, which is never my experience of how emotion works or what it is.
Emotional experience is a conduit for social engagement rather than an alternative to social engagement.
Which maybe connects back to the idea of solitude in a noisy world, where emotion to me isn’t something that can often be examined best in solitude. It’s something that lives in the noise of the world, or in how one is engaging with the noise of the world.
KM: Something that came up all across the course of this past semester is the trope of the failures of language in encapsulating human experience and emotion. We saw it everywhere from Jack Gilbert’s poetry to Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts to William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. I’m interested in why this trope came up so much in the readings in this course, how they were engaging with emotion, and how that kind of engagement with the failure of language can be seen as a pushback against sentimentality.
LJ: Some of why it can be comforting, or humanizing, or generative to me to see articulations of the failures of language, or the difficult fit between language and experience, is that it really connects to the part of writing that involves writing into what you don’t understand yet, or don’t yet know quite how to say. I found over and over again that my best writing comes from some experience of leaning into uncertainty. It’s such a necessary and enabling part of that process to think about the ways in which so many other voices have been confronted with what they couldn’t quite figure out how to say. I’m really interested in understanding that as part of the process rather than necessarily fetishizing the unsayable or concluding with some assertion of the unsayable. There can be a kind of alibi in the assertion of the unsayable. I’m interested in unsayability as a kind of gauntlet that gets thrown down, rather than as an excuse that gets given.
But then I also think unsayability really can attach to the fear of sentimentality. I think that a certain elliptical mode can come out of this sense that you can’t ever really say it right, or you can’t say it fully—certain kinds of emotion just can’t ever exist in language, so I’ll seek the white space, where we can fill in the blank of some kind of complexity there. I’m really interested in trying to reckon with what can be said imperfectly rather than taking the difficulty, or the fear, of saying it wrong, or the fear of saying it too simply, as a crutch.
I’m interested in unsayability as a kind of gauntlet that gets thrown down, rather than as an excuse that gets given.
KM: The class has been framed with Mary Gaitskill, in a way—we started off pretty early on talking about her story collection Bad Behavior, and we’ve just closed out the course with her new novel The Mare. One of the things we were talking about in class today is how Bad Behavior has so many more elliptical moments of space where the reader can enter into those moments of complexity between characters, whereas The Mare feels more claustrophobic in that it’s so engaged with the interiority of the characters. Today you were talking about writing about The Mare last fall for Bookforum, and how your experience of grappling with the book and its position in Gaitskill’s body of work felt deeply intertwined with the questions that you wanted to raise in this course.
LJ: I read Bad Behavior before I read anything else by Gaitskill, which I think is true for a lot of people, and there was something that felt perfectly realized about Bad Behavior for me. It felt pitch-perfect; there was this unquestionable authority to how it was doing what it was doing. And The Mare felt much messier to me, much more questing. In a way I felt like Bad Behavior was the perfect realization of a more limited goal, and The Mare was a messier manifestation of a bigger goal. I guess how I would distinguish between those goals is that Bad Behavior felt like mapping varieties of disconnection and The Mare was more interested in pursuing what happen when something does connect, or some kind of intimacy is felt.
I think in my own work, over the course of the past decade, I have felt a kind of shift. I feel like my early work was much more committed to disconnection and disfunctionality and pain, and that my current work is still focused on those things—it will probably always be focused on those things—but it is also really interested in what connection looks like, and what recovery looks like in all kinds of senses.
KM: In your current project, The Recovering, you’re writing about addiction, and so much of the writing about addiction is about the recovery narrative, which feels cliché because it so often traffics in clichés. How does your project either subvert or engage with cliché, the sentimental, and the easy when it comes to these recovery narratives?
LJ: My hope is that the structure of my book refuses a certain kind of resolution because there are so many different stories at play in the book. My own story is one, but there’s also a series of engagements with authors whose recovery shaped their work in different ways, and a series of engagements with the stories of ordinary people and how recovery changed their lives. By virtue of multiplicity, all of those stories turn out very different ways. Berryman and Wallace commit suicide, Carver gets ten years sober, Charles Jackson never gets sober, I’m sober, but I’m still alive and I guess, who knows where I’ll be next year.
The structure of the book also reckons very explicitly with ongoingness. At one point I look at recovery memoirs or addiction memoirs that have a prologue that also recounts some kind of relapse that happened after the first edition was published. It’s a very poignant feature of addiction memoirs to me because it really speaks to this sense that telling a story doesn’t give the story a happy ending, and it doesn’t mean that the story has an ending at all. I look at specific sites like that formal feature in addiction memoirs where you can find ongoingness dramatized in some way that seems interesting to me.
I guess a huge part of how the book works, or how I want it to work, is to be both invested in narrative and the potential of narrative and how narrative can function in, I think, these very saving and powerful and connecting ways, but also really wanting to challenge an overly easy story about narrative, in which narrative always redeems, or narrative necessarily redeems forever. And, in a way, I want to honor what narrative can do by not making a false promise that it always does everything or saves everything. I think about it as a complicated homage to what recovery can be and the role that narrative can play in recovery. Part of my hope for the intense juggling act of all the stories that are at work, which has felt really kind of insane-making from a craft standpoint, is that it can permit a complicated, prismatic view of how recovery works.