Cotton Candy Craft

Friday, March 14, 2014

Probably one of the weirdest parts of getting married is marveling over how your soul mate could have come from parents who have practically nothing in common with you. Like my father-in-law. Every time we sit down to a conversation, it’s a rare moment indeed when we discover something on which we agree (so far I’ve found The Lord of the Rings and the indispensability of chocolate). Otherwise, we don’t have much in common. He listens to Rush Limbaugh; I like The Daily Show. He likes Jimmy Stewart; I like Leonardo DiCaprio. He’s a meat-and-potatoes Midwesterner; I prefer tofu on quinoa. And when it comes to poetry—something I truly adore—we cannot find one single poet on whom to hang our mutual admiration.

“How can you not have heard of that poem?” we both recently asked one another. I wondered how he could have gotten through school without ever reading Walt Whitman’s “When I heard the learn’d astronomer.” He could not fathom how I’d graduated with an English degree without ever having read the poem that contained the line “Only God can make a tree.”

“It’s really famous; it’s by a famous poet!” he insisted. So, as anyone of my generation is wont to do at the slightest provocation, I Googled it.

“Only God can make a tree” comes from this super sappy poem called “Trees,” by Joyce Kilmer. It begins, “I think that I shall never see/ A poem lovely as a tree” and ends with “Poems are made by fools like me/ But only God can make a tree.”

I’d never even heard of Kilmer, which meant a quick jump over to Wikipedia to find out whether my $40,000 liberal arts education had, indeed, failed to introduce me to one of the greats.

It hadn’t. “Trees” has managed to enjoy widespread popularity in anthologies, but the rest of Kilmer’s work is pretty much unknown, as most of it was rejected by the literati and banished to permanent obscurity. As Wikipedia explained: “Several critics—including both Kilmer's contemporaries and modern scholars—have disparaged Kilmer's work as being too simple and overly sentimental, and suggested that his style was far too traditional, even archaic.”

‘Of course,’ I thought to myself, ‘that’s why my father-in-law likes him.’ The iambic pentameter, the AA-BB rhyme scheme, the sentimental message: It was all exactly the sort of thing that would appeal to my highly traditional father-in-law. But me? Well, I probably have to agree with Kilmer’s critics on this one. The work is sentimental. Yuck.
Why does sentimentality repel us? Or at least, it repels us when it is found in a poem or story, even if we find sentimental tendencies in our own private personalities. Much like picking one’s nose, sentimentality is not seen as an acceptable public gesture but something to be done secretly, at home, and with some embarrassment. And so for writers who endeavor to put forth their work into the world, sentimentality is received like a used tissue, the evidence of the writer’s urge toward an indulgence that ought to have been grown out of by now. Yuck, say the critics. Nobody needs to see this.

Perhaps it is because we—and here I mean the public consumers and critics of what may be deemed Literature—demand that the arts be adequate reflections of reality, and sentimentality produces art with an overly simplistic worldview. Sentimentalism wraps the world in a very neat package and ties a picture-perfect bow on top. Consumers of the arts prefer for the package to be torn open, its contents spread for examination upon the floor. The world is both beautiful and broken, and it is frustrating to contend with writers who insist it is only one or the other.  If they lean too hard toward the latter, the result is too bitter a pill to swallow; if they lean too hard on the former, the result is sickly-sweet as cotton candy, and leaves consumers feeling queasy.
The cotton-candy approach to craft is one of the reasons the Christian presence in mainstream fine literature has diminished so sharply over the last century or so. Like the Catholic Kilmer, many writers who endeavor to write explicitly about faith or spirituality are dismissed by critics (editors, publishers) as sentimental. Even some Christian audiences find the offerings of the Christian community of writers “cheesy,” and lacking in the depth and complexity the faith truly deserves.

Too many Christian authors produce work that winds up sounding like a “Smile, God Loves You!” bumper sticker. It’s unclear whether the work is meant to be fine art or a Gospel tract in novel form. Writers yank the mystery, complexity, and disturbing ambiguity from their work in order to produce a Sunday School lesson for readers. It’s just no wonder that we see so little of it in the world of fine literature. Writers who lean into sentimentality depart from the mode of storytelling Jesus himself embraced—fully aware that he was speaking in parables to people who though hearing did not hear. Great Christian writing not only begs multiple readings and interpretations—it demands them. Too many Christian novels, poems and essays depart from this tradition, finding it irresistible to hit the reader over the head with a figurative two-by-four of theology.

Admittedly, it’s a difficult task to avoid sentimentalism when addressing topics like redemption, transformation, and of course love. How can one discuss these powerful concepts without sounding sappy? 

Too many Christian writers don’t seem interested in finding out.


  1. YES. YES. YES. I think you and I totally should be friends. I also think you'd like my ebook, Church Isn't Cute. :) Down with bumper sticker theology! But I hate that I'm so cynical that I am often against sentimentality. I just need to realize that people who are sentimental aren't ALL simplistic, but when you're kind of prescribing it as a worldview for everyone, it doesn't work. If that makes sense. Kind of like being an optimist or pessimist, I should allow people to be sentimentalists as long as they aren't trying to make EVERYONE that.

    1. Yes, we are obviously going to turn out to be friends. Meeting people I click with--when I would otherwise never have met them--is one of my favorite parts of the Internet.

      You bring up a totally valid point--I struggle not to stereotype sentimentalists. I usually quickly label them. It's a challenge to view them with grace. Glad for your thoughts.

  2. Thanks for this. I completely agree. But when I was first venturing seriously into writing in college, it was hard for me to accept this. The act of learning to write well, to write the real gritty details of life, was almost a kind of faith crisis for me. As I became a better writer, I saw my stories get more and more depressing and I wondered if this meant that I didn't really believe in redemption. Now I think that the task of writing hope (or infusing hope into any art) is one of the hardest things we can do as artists, and yet the challenge forces us to dig deep and discover where we truly find our solid ground. Hope that makes sense.

    1. You bring up such a good point, Katie. Infusing hope, without being cheesy or flip, is so hard. I too find that some of my writing gets too depressing. (What do you expect from someone who struggles with depression?) I really appreciated your thoughts this morning, friend, and I'm loving the real women's stories on your blog!

  3. I think I rebel equally against 'sappy' writing (Nicholas Sparks is the number one offender, in my humble opinion, along with Robert James Waller--and neither author has anything Christian in their books). One of the most redemptive books I've ever read wasn't intended for the Christian market (and maybe that's the key--tell it like it is, the nitty, gritty, mundane, illogical sometimes Pharisaical truth about church and community and let readers draw their own conclusions) and it spent time on the NY Times bestseller list (The Brothers K by David James Duncan). I ramble. But I know what you're saying and I appreciate you saying it. Writing well is a worthy pursuit--especially for Christian writers.

  4. I think so many believe that in order to gain followers (writers or faith-related) you must dumb down the topic. While it may seem to them that it will bring greater appeal from the masses, it actually comes across sometimes as desperation. So unfortunate, but I believe there should be a happy medium somewhere.