What's Wrong With Sentimentality?

A conversation with Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams
Leslie Jamison, defender of deep feelings (Colleen Kinder)

What does it mean to be a tourist inside someone else’s suffering? Sometimes, it means taking a bus ride through Los Angeles’s gang-ridden neighborhoods, or watching a former addict bleed and sweat and grow blisters as he tries to run a hundred miles, or visiting a man in jail.

Leslie Jamison has done all that, and more.

But how does another person’s suffering affect one’s own emotional intelligence? What are you supposed to do with someone else’s pain?

Jamison does not know the answer. But she searches for it by writing about episodes of attempted empathy in her own life—for example, the time she became “obsessed” with her brother’s bout of Bell’s palsy: “I spent large portions of each day imagining how I would feel if my face was paralyzed too. I stole my brother’s trauma and projected it onto myself like a magic-lantern pattern of light.” Was that empathy, Jamison wonders, or was it a kind of emotional theft?

These questions about how humans see one another and how they treat one another, and why, are explored to great lengths in Jamison’s debut essay collection, The Empathy Exams.

The title essay, which appeared in The Believer in February, weaves together painful personal experience and incrementally detached observations about what empathy is and whether it can be taught. It’s here that Jamison’s motivations are stated plainly: “I used to believe that hurting would make you more alive to the hurting of others. I used to believe in feeling bad because somebody else did. Now I’m not so sure of either.”

Since its release on April 1, The Empathy Exams has garnered Jamison, who is also the author of the novel The Gin Closet, applause from critics and admiration from peers. Before she appeared in the New York Times Sunday Book Review and on The New Yorker's list of Books to Watch Out For, she spoke with me about ethics and emotional expression. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


Let’s talk about crying in movie theaters. In a review of the film Short Term 12 for the LA Review of Books, you call out the sort of satisfaction that people experience when they cry at the movies—and you deconstruct that satisfaction.

It’s funny, I was just speaking on a panel a couple weeks ago and that particular piece came up. Someone was asking about the intersection between being a critic and a creative writer, and how we felt about writing criticism about genres that we didn’t make ourselves. That was the first piece of writing that came to mind. I don’t make films, and because I don’t make films, I’m not an expert in the craft of bringing a film into the world, how you put its various pieces together. But where I feel like I’m an expert is my own feelings in response to a film. And so with that review of Short Term 12, I felt like, “Wow, something has happened in this afternoon in which I watched this film and I went through all of these emotions, so, let me just look at that process and those tiers as a kind of artifact in their own right and scrutinize that instead.”

What I’ve seen before is the critic accusing the filmmaker of emotional manipulation—saying, “Well, they did this, that’s how they got me to feel this way.” But instead you took all the responsibility for your own feelings, turning the review into an essay on the ethics of how we respond to art.

I think that’s right. Part of what I’m interested in interrogating is this kind of collective shame that we feel about sentimentality, and I think sometimes that shame manifests as accusation—accusing a film or a piece of art of manipulating our emotions. And sometimes it can show up as self-recrimination. Things we describe as “guilty pleasure” reads [are] things that bring us to these cheap flowings of sentiment that aren’t really “earned” or aren’t rigorous in some way.

I wanted to be analytic about the way feelings are happening in a film but also not entirely dismissive of it. I did think it was a very incredible movie. I didn’t want to just level the statement that I had cried as a fact that would relegate the movie as something lesser or limited.

You mention Oscar Wilde’s definition of sentimentality—“the luxury of having an emotion without paying for it”—here and also in one of your essays in The Empathy Exams, “In Defense of Saccharine.” Though you defend sentimentality, do you agree with Wilde’s definition?

Part of what I’m doing in that essay is trying to define what other people mean when they use that word as an accusation. So in that sense I think the definition that I’m invoking of sentimentality is, when the word sentimentality is used, it is being used as a critique of work that is overly emotional in some kind of cheap way.

But, I think the understanding of how sentimental affect can be working in art that I want to defend or make a case for, is: [When] art makes us feel deeply, often in ways we can’t explain, there can be a sort of second stage to that feeling where we reflect on why those feelings happen and how they might guide us going forth. It’s in that second stage or second layer that I want to offer something to what sentimentality can be or how it can play out.

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