:: Article

On Sentimentality

By Robert Albazi.

Last year, my sister went to see Angel Olsen on her ‘Phases’ tour. Aside from the backroom of the Tote being so crammed and hot that someone fainted—I remember the windows perspiring during a similarly packed Big Freedia show—when someone requested the song, ‘Creator, Destroyer’, apparently Olsen refused to play it, saying she didn’t like it. My memory of the story is Olsen said she hated the song, but speaking to my sister again recently, she couldn’t remember anything aside from the fact that the song wasn’t played. No musician has an obligation to play certain songs—that’s not what I’m interested in here— rather, I’m curious about why Olsen (if we follow this story or rumour, even for the sake of this essay) said she disliked it. Among all of the possible reasons that I will never know, I wonder if Olsen’s issue with the song was due to its sentimentality.

The closer to her first EP Strange Cacti (2010), ‘Creator, Destroyer’ is a break up-song—incredible at times for its subtlety, and worse at times for its directness, notably, in lines such as ‘I’m out of my mind / to be in love with you’ and at the end of the song when Olsen sings ‘fuck you’ to her subject.[1] There is one line in the song which I think is brilliant. It arrives at the beginning of a verse, like the beginning of a phone call with an ex-lover. Olsen sings, ‘My darling, how are you / How have you been lately?’. In these unadorned, simple lines, Olsen captures the abrupt switch from the intimate to the banal that takes place following a break-up. When once, such a question would encourage an intimate spilling of daily grievances and thoughts, after a break-up it produces a pause, followed by an impersonal ‘I’m going well’ or ‘things are good’—phrases normally reserved for overbearing strangers. The line is a request too, a question asked, while knowing that an answer (the long answers of last year, last month) will never come. Olsen follows the question with ‘I only seem to speak to you of superficial things’. It’s an unnecessary addition—the explanation of an idea already expressed and understood by the listener.

To be sentimental, do we pour out emotion, without worry as to how it sounds or how it will be received? At first, I imagined being sentimental required what Thomas Bernhard’s character Konrad in The Lime Works cannot do, that is to turn ‘his head over, suddenly, from one moment to the next’ and ‘drop everything inside his head onto the paper’. [2] A few years ago, inspired by Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, I wrote a very sentimental piece for an exhibition. At the time, I thought I had rightly turned my head, and boldly poured its contents into the writing. Today, thinking back on this piece which I now avoid looking at, I am certain that any sentimentality was actually the product of overwrought thinking—with emphasis on the ‘façade and the decorative touches’ Bohumil Hrabal avoided in his own unadorned, realist style of writing.[3] From memory, my writing lacked tension, referring to love in a plain, hopeful way. Perhaps, it is the directness which causes the piece, like Olsen’s unnecessarily direct lines, to be overly sentimental, to lose its edge.

It might help, to look briefly at the OED definitions of ‘sentimental’. The Australian Concise defines it as ‘showing or affected by emotion rather than reason’, while the Shorter OED (Third Edition) defines it as an ‘indulgence in superficial emotion’ or, in regard to literature, ‘expressive of the tender emotions, especially those of love’.[4] To be sentimental then, we might say is to be emotional. Emo became a genre of derision for its unrelenting, teenage-like emotion. Philadelphia emcee and producer Has-Lo even felt it necessary to put a disclaimer in his 2011 record ‘In Case I Don’t Make It’, towards those who might make fun of it for its emotional qualities (‘anyone who labels this “emo” or some other two-dimensional label…’).[5] To be sentimental is perhaps, to do two unpopular things—be earnest, and talk openly about love.

At the Mildura Writer’s Festival in 2019, on a panel with Craig Sherborne and Moreno Giovannoni, Helen Garner spoke about Raymond Carver’s unedited stories. She hated them for all of their sentimental scenes—ones that would be removed by Carver’s editor Gordon Lish for What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Lish took a knife to the cushy scenes and Carver became a master of the spare and cutting. When we arrived home from the festival, my partner and I compared the un-edited stories in Beginners with their edited counter-parts in What we Talk About. For a long time, I had preferred the un-edited versions, yet it had been at least six years since I last read through the stories. We sat on the couch, looking for differences, reading them aloud and deciding which version was better. Garner was right—in What We Talk About large sections of emotive description are gone and, when characters are presented under a harsh light, their crudest actions can leave the reader with sharper impressions of their personality.

When reading the Lish-edited version of the story ‘Gazebo’, for example, it is notable how much more self-centered the protagonist Duane appears. Instead of enjoying watching the mouth of his mistress, the Mexican maid, ‘when she laughed’, Duane, in a single ominous sentence recounts, ‘I used to watch her mouth’.[6] Instantly, the nice Duane, who is happy to see another person enjoying themselves, turns into a pervert hotel owner with a fixation on a maid’s mouth. Holly, Duane’s partner, is stronger in Lish’s edit. In Carver’s version, Holly tells Duane, ‘fix me another drink, son of a bitch’, followed a little later by the reminder, ‘Well, fix me another drink and put some scotch in it this time’.[7] Lish’s Holly doesn’t hold her tongue, or use tame hesitations like, ‘Well’. She says, ‘Fix me another pop, you son of a bitch’ and then orders, ‘Fix me another, you son of a bitch!’.[8] Lish frames Duane as a romantic—an idiot, selfish romantic who thinks of Holly as someone he owns—his ‘own true love’—rather than, in Carver’s softer version, simply his ‘true love’.[9]

The passage that struck me when first reading Beginners was Holly’s reflection of how once, when sitting under a gazebo with Duane, she looked at his legs and imagined the longevity of their relationship; Duane’s legs, that she’ll ‘love even when they’re old and thin and the hair on them has turned white’.[10] In the un-edited story, Holly is positioned as a character who believes, or once believed, in happy endings enough to even recount them during the destructive end of a relationship. She holds onto the sentimental and throws at Duane as if to tell him, ‘See what I imagined—see what I once believed in’. By contrast, Lish’s Holly is too strong and proud to bring up such a dead seed of optimism when the end is near—the entire reflection is left out. The elderly couple, who in Beginners, represented the strength of love are described as ‘old but dignified’.[11] In What We Talk About…they are described in a one-word sentence as ‘Dignified’—the adjective’s meaning turning from wholesomeness to conservatism and naivety, being stuck.[12] There is a belief in romantic longevity in Carver’s un-edited ‘Gazebo’. Or rather, a belief that is articulated, and it is the belief said aloud that I think causes the story to veer towards sentimentality.

Where do all of these examples lead us? To be sentimental, it seems, is to describe tender emotions with earnestness—to show ‘emotions rather than reason’. I can imagine Carver getting carried away while writing, lending a romantic hope to his characters even when it didn’t suit them. Lish swooped in with editor’s reason. In ‘Creator, Destroyer’, it is Olsen’s blatant declarations of love and sorrow that cause the song to be sentimental. In its strongest moment, the lyrics are at their most subtle, an entire scene—recollections of sad phone calls and break-ups—created through an everyday question. In most conversations I have, people don’t talk of love openly or find it a squeamish subject. If I do talk about it, it’s with friends or family members who I know share similarly romantic sentiments. To be sentimental, is perhaps to sing, write, speak, in earnestness, those romantic feelings so often associated with naiveite and in turn, hopefulness and vulnerability.

[1] Olsen, Angel, ‘Creator, Destroyer’ from Strange Cacti, Bathetic, 2010
[2] Bernhard, Thomas, The Lime Works, trans. Sophie Wilkins, Vintage International, 2010, p241
[3] Hrabal, Bohumil, ‘Translator’s Afterword’ in Mr Kafka and Other Tales from the Time of the Cult, trans. Paul Wilson, New Directions Publishing, New York, 2015, p139
[4] ‘Sentimental’ in The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary, Second Edition, ed. Hughes, J.M., Michell, P.A. and Ramson, W.S., Oxford, 1992, p1049 and ‘Sentimental’ in The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Third Edition, ed. Onions, C.T., Oxford, 1956, p1843
[5] Has-Lo, Liner notes in In Case I Don’t Make It, Mello Music Group, 2010, MMGCD016
[6] Carver, Raymond, ‘Gazebo’ in Beginners, Jonathan Cape, London, 2009, p23 and Carver, Raymond, ‘Gazebo’ in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Vintage, London, 2009, p20
[7] Carver, Raymond, ‘Gazebo’ in Beginners, p25
[8] Carver, Raymond, ‘Gazebo’ in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, p21
[9] Carver, Raymond, ‘Gazebo’ in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, p22 and ‘Gazebo’ in Beginners, p25
[10] Carver, Raymond, ‘Gazebo’ in Beginners, p30
[11] Ibid. p30
[12] Carver, Raymond, ‘Gazebo’ in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, p24

Robert Albazi is a Melbourne writer whose work includes essays and short fiction. His writing has appeared in Diane Incorporated, un Extended, Photodust, Art + Climate = Change and other publications. His writing can be found at www.robertalbazi.com.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, March 30th, 2020.