Avoiding Sentimentalism

Creating true art and defining it are both difficult.

One way to understand art is by contrasting it with sentimentalism. For writers, the difference is crucial.

In The Evangelical Imagination, Karen Swallow Prior offers clarity and direction for us.

Sentimentalism is an emotional response in excess of what the situation demands; it’s an indulgence in emotion for its own sake . . . . Emotionalism can also be evoked by external manipulation. This is what sentimental art does: it attempts artificially to create feelings that exceed what the situation warrants. . . .

If the purpose of art is to recreate human experience, the purpose of sentimental art is to create emotional experience. . . .

Sentimentalism can do harm when emotions are evoked apart from or subordinate to other aspects of the human experience (such as intellectual, spiritual, or physical experience) and thus to the totality of what is real. Whether portraying things in terms overly sweet or overly sad, or whether interpreting people (who are complex) as one-dimensional heroes or villains, sentimentality smooths over the rough edges of reality and glosses over hard questions so as to tie things up neatly in a bow.*

Some Christians have a tendency to do just this. We prefer simplistic answers to more truthful but incomplete reflections. We hesitate to show how both heroes and villains are genuine mixtures of faults and virtues. Here are two brief cases.

First, a nonfiction example. The problem of evil is possibly the most intractable difficulty in Christianity (as well as for every religion). Though I have been helped by many discussions of the topic, in all my reading, I have yet to find any completely logical answers that are morally, emotionally, spiritually, and theologically satisfying. In fact, I don’t think any are possible this side of heaven. Even the book of Job offers no explanation for the origin of evil or justification for why evil exists. God does not give any reasons for innocent suffering. We do a disservice to our readers, to reality, and to our faith if we suggest that the problem is completely solvable. Possibly we can see hints, but we must be honest that we cannot answer it fully.

Second, let’s turn to fiction. In Shūsaku Endo’s Silence we have a historical novel set in the 1600s during a period of great persecution of the growing Christian movement in Japan. The protagonist, Father Rodrigues, acts faithfully throughout the book until the end when he is faced with the threat of torture and death for himself and his fellow believers. Ultimately he disavows his faith—yet the book portrays this simultaneously as an act of faith as well as unfaith.

The antihero of the book, Kichijiro, repeatedly betrays Father Rodrigues in the face of threat and persecution. But ironically, in the end it is Kichijiro who is martyred for maintaining his faith.

There are no nice, neat bows in Silence. All we find are gritty reality and lots of questions. Is it right to save the lives of others by recanting our faith? How do we faithfully love Christ and love others? What are the ways we are pressured to compromise our faith in a modern, individualistic, consumerist society?

This is what true art does and what art that is true to faith does. It doesn’t merely affirm what we already believe. It propels us to a deeper life of faith.

*Karen Swallow Prior, The Evangelical Imagination (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2023), pp. 126-28 (my emphasis).

Was I Wrong about Malcolm Gladwell?

In Write Better I critiqued the opening of Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller, Blink, a book on intuition. Although ultimately the book raises serious questions about snap judgments, the subtitle (The Power of Thinking Without Thinking) and its compelling opening story make us think the book is entirely positive about our hunches.

I found this problematic and said so. When my son Dave read Write Better, he wrote to me to say he thought my critique of Blink was convincing. He concluded with this:

Andy Le Peau: 1
Malcolm Gladwell: 5 million copies sold

(Leave it to our children to keep us humble!)

I’m still a fan of Gladwell who is a skilled and insightful journalist. I was therefore interested to hear on a recent episode of his podcast, Revisionist History, that many people were confused about Blink. Gladwell said:

Nor does it surprise me now after thirty years of writing books that people don’t read or listen to the end. . . . My second book Blink was a book that looked critically at, when I say critically, examined both the pros and cons of snap judgments. But you had to keep reading. It started out on the pros and then as I dug deeper, got interested in the cons. The number of people who either supported or loved that book or hated that book because they perceived it as being a book about celebrating snap judgments was limitless. Any time you tell a story with a twist, you’re going to leave some people along the way.

So was I wrong? I don’t think so. Gladwell didn’t address how the subtitle misdirected people. In addition, as I recall, he doesn’t make the point about pros and cons in the book as clearly as he did in the above quote. He doesn’t make it explicit to readers that he starts with one notion and moves to another. He fails to offer necessary signals that there is “a twist,” that things are moving in a different direction than he first thought. Without that, readers will draw the wrong conclusions, and as he says, they did.

It’s ok to write a nonfiction book beginning with one premise and slowly moving away from that to a different conclusion. But if we do, we need to plainly tell readers that is what is happening. We could write: “Here are the pros I found,” and later, “But I also found some cons.”

We could say something like, “But then I began to find evidence that contradicted my initial ideas.” Or, “I was stunned! Could I have been wrong about how beneficial intuition is?”

Or this: “Although this opening story seemed to confirm the universal value of snap judgments, as I pursued the topic I began to question this idea. This book is about how I changed my mind.”

Probably all of these (or ones like them) should be used because in the course of a couple hundred pages, we need to keep reminding readers of where we have been, where we are, and where we are going.

Reading is hard work. When writing nonfiction, we need to be sympathetic to that. Our job is to keep readers with us. If they don’t, we shouldn’t immediately blame them. We might look at how we could have done a better job.

*Malcolm Gladwell in “The Bear Was Poked,” November 1, 2023, about minute 10:00 to 10:45, www.pushkin.fm/podcasts/revisionist-history/the-bear-was-poked-with-maria-konnikova.

A Book’s Not Worth Writing Unless. . .

Are there ideas in a book that the author didn’t intend?

I asked this in an earlier post regarding interpreting the biblical authors. It’s important for understanding the Bible or any piece of literature. C. S. Lewis once weighed in on this very question.

In 1944 Charles Brady wrote a review of Lewis’s output up to that point, including the first installment of Lewis’s Space Trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet. Brady commented on the scene when the main character, Elwin Ransom, first encounters a race of intelligent beings from Mars, the Hrossa. This, Brady thought, could “be interpreted . . . as an allegory of racial fear and repugnance.”

Lewis wrote to Brady a few months later, thanking him for the overall positive review, and in the process made this insightful response: “When you talk about meetings of human races in connexion [sic] with Ransom and the Hrossa you say something that was not in my mind at all. So much the better: a book’s not worth writing unless it suggests more than the author intended.”*

Even though Lewis didn’t mean to say something about racial encounters generally (something that still concerns us today), nonetheless, he was happy to acknowledge that sometimes books take on a life of their own. Lewis seems to imply that that is the whole point of writing a book—that it be subtle, complex, evocative, and carry more ideas than the author even consciously anticipated.

That is what makes for great writing. If all the meaning is on the surface, it won’t stand the test of time. But a book with layers and depth can become something worth pondering for generations.

*These two quotes are from Mark Noll, C. S. Lewis in America (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2023), chapter one: Charles A. Brady, “C. S. Lewis: II,” America, June 10, 1944, 269; and C. S. Lewis to Charles A. Brady, October 29, 1944, in Books, Broadcasts, and the War, 1931–1949 , vol. 2 of The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, ed. Walter Hooper (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004), 630.

What’s Left When Persuasion Dies

Our world is complex and difficult to understand. With billions of people, millions of ideas, thousands of corporations, and hundreds of countries—each with different (sometimes conflicting) histories and motives—no wonder we are confused.

No wonder we are anxious and yearn for simple explanations. No wonder we want someone to tell us conclusively what is going on in the world—and who is to blame!

Because easy answers to complex questions are very appealing, we are sometimes willing to believe people who are very confident and who play on our fears—even if reason and facts don’t support them.

Diane Benscoter found herself in just this situation. In chapter six of The Persuaders (which I reviewed here), Anand Giridharadas tells how she became a true believer in the Moonie cult back in the 1970s. After she got out, she reflected long and hard on how she was sucked in and was so thoroughly indoctrinated.

What didn’t help Diane leave was people trying to replace bad information with good. What did work was someone planting a seed of doubt about the bad information.

People showed Diane how brainwashing looks in general (not about the Moonies in particular), and then let her draw her own conclusions. What she began to see is that the manipulative techniques of both revolutionary Chinese Communists and of the Moonies had a lot in common. And the trickle of doubt became a torrent.

While there can be many dimensions to brainwashing, two of the most common techniques are isolation and indoctrination. You remove people from a wider range of contacts (family, friends, etc.) and only let them connect with those who are like-minded.

That can sound eerily like many people today who only associate with those who share their political viewpoints and who only consume “news” from outlets (right or left) that they agree with. They may be unwittingly cooperating with their own mental and emotional exploitation. Diane is now on a mission to inoculate people against being manipulated.

In chapter seven Giridharadas then contrasts that manipulative model of persuasion with an approach called deep canvassing. Usually canvassing means knocking on doors and asking for someone to sign a petition or vote for a candidate (all in less than five minutes). Deep canvassing asks people for fifteen to thirty minutes of their time.

The approach might be called deep listening because canvassers ask lots of questions and accept every answer without judgment. After building trust in this way, eventually canvassers ask, “Do you know anyone affected by this issue?” At that point they are legitimately beginning to touch the whole person, and potentially get beyond the surface opposition a person might have.

As I’ve said in Write Better, reviving honest persuasion is important to me because without it all we have left is manipulation or coercion. In these two chapters Giridharadas emphasizes just this point.

image: Peggy Marco on Pixabay

Confessions of a Bad Speller

I am a terrible speller. This has been true from an early age.

I remember having a test in third grade. We had to write out certain sentences, and I kept writing the word has without the h—over and over. I knew it didn’t look quite right, but I just couldn’t figure out what else it could be. Since has was in most sentences, I got a very bad grade. How embarrassing to not be able to remember such a simple word!

Another traumatic event came in fifth grade. The teacher had us all stand around the perimeter of the room for a spelling bee. Somehow I was confident I would be standing a long time. My first word was swimming, and I knew I’d nail it. Only I spelled it with just one m, and in disappointment and shame I was told to sit down. I was stunned. How could that not be the right spelling ? To this day, I still wonder if that extra m is really necessary. Would anyone seriously be tempted to pronounce swiming with a long i?

So many pitfalls. Consider weird. Does it follow the i-before-e rule or is it an exception? I can never remember. Before autocorrect, I had to look it up every time. With autocorrect I get it right, but I still don’t remember how to spell it. The list goes on:

      • occurrence or occurence
      • occasion or occassion
      • cemetery or cemetary
      • misspell or mispell

You get the idea.

After college, almost fifty years ago, I proudly called my parents to tell them that I had gotten a job as a full-time editor. My mother responded wryly in her southern twang, “Well, Andy, how are you going to know how to spell the words if you don’t call me?” Instead of running up my long-distance phone bill, in that era before spellcheck, I tacked lists of words I couldn’t remember on the cork board in front of me. Otherwise I tended to look up everything, even words I was certain of.

Is there a virtue in being a good speller for its own sake? I’m not sure. Is there value in memorizing the number pi to a hundred digits? Certainly as mental exercise. Perhaps not much more.

We need a love for words and a respect for their power. That means being careful with spelling but much more. Spellcheck won’t help us if we inadvertently write now instead of not—giving the opposite meaning of what we intend if we put down, “I am now a bozo.” Substituting principal for principle or effect for affect can trip our readers. We should pay attention to the meaning and nuances, the rhythm and sound of words. Having some familiarity with their etymology can add depth to our writing. Doing all this enhances effective and beautiful communication.

And when we do, we give space for words to cast their spell.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Style Matters

Many books on writing nonfiction advocate a clean style stripped of unnecessary words and ornate language—mine included! In Write Better I note, “Hemingway pioneered unadorned fiction a century ago. Orwell, Strunk & White, and Zinsser then took up the cause for nonfiction. And happily this approach still holds sway” (160). They rightly complain about the clutter of obscure or officious writing that hides what is being said rather than illuminates it.

But then I add this thought: “Art goes through phases, and I suppose there will come a time when spare prose will fall out of favor and something different will replace it” (161). What might that style look like?

I don’t know. But sometimes the past can give us hints about the future. The Medieval world might, for example, suggest how and why different styles rise and fall. For people in that era, the cosmos was a thing of intricate beauty, ornately crafted by the Master Artisan who wove spiritual realities into his creation. No wonder their very prose and poetic styles reflected this worldview.

And no wonder Hemingway shunned such a style. His world (and ours) is stripped bare of all but what can be seen and touched, measured and analyzed. We live in a complex, intricate universe—yes. But one of lifeless particles guided by the impersonal forces of gravity, electromagnetism, and subatomic energy. Even in our imagination so-called spiritual powers are generated by the material (think the Force of Star Wars) not the other way around.

This flattened perspective nonetheless seeks to fill the gap left by a world without wonder. So often we are beholden to the spell it weaves. As Lewis said eighty years ago, “You and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years.”*

We need new stories and new ideas to break this enchantment, to be sure. But perhaps we also need a new style of writing, a style that itself reflects a universe populated not merely with quarks and quasars, bosons and black holes but also one infused with mystery and meaning, beauty and blessing.

Lewis especially admired how Dante achieved this. He showed “how an artist could cast a ‘counterspell’ in which the good feels weighty and attractive, a spell to overcome the ‘evil enchantment’ cast by modernity.” In Paradiso, instead of picturing an insubstantial existence of clouds and harps, “Dante’s poetry gets more concrete, more sensible, more tangible, with every step closer toward God.” The poet adds another dimension as well. “Dante simultaneously combines ‘weight’ and ‘soaring,’ and thus paradoxically renders sensible that which is beyond language.”**

We can more readily imagine how this might be played out in fiction (as Lewis himself did in The Great Divorce). But what kind of writing style might reflect this re-enchanted world? I don’t think it will or should simply go back to mimic Medieval patterns. We have to move forward in ways that are mindful of the world we have now. If you know of examples to suggest that might achieve this, I’d welcome them.

Style in writing matters. Not only do the ideas we employ communicate meaning and substance, but so does the way in which we write.

*C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (New York: HarperOne, 1980), 31.
** Jason M. Baxter, The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2022), 88, 91, 95.

Writing to Influence People

OK. You want to convince teens who don’t use sunscreen that they really should. How do you go about it?

Do you marshal facts about skin cancer? Explain how ultraviolet rays work? Add arguments about increases to health care costs? Then offer examples that support your case?

When we want to persuade someone, our tendency is to begin with a direct approach. Such a technique, however, is often ineffective. As I noted in Write Better, “When we put forward an argument, we can trigger the rational, judging, and evaluative faculties in our audience. As a result, they may respond (at least in their own minds) with arguments of their own” (p. 60).

Our brains aren’t just rational machines that pump out logic. We have another and probably larger dimension to our thinking that we often don’t consider. Some call this intuition or gut reactions. Jonathan Haidt calls them automatic processes.

Based on years of research into how people make moral judgments, Haidt believes we should instead start by being friendly, taking time to understand the other person’s point of view.

Why? Because our emotions have a profound effect on how we think about things. Emotions aren’t opposed to reason, he says. They are instead a way–a very important, very useful way–to reason. (Think about sociopaths who are very rational but lack many emotions and therefore make terrible decisions.) Emotions are not infallible in decision-making, but neither is a rational approach.

Contrary to what we might think, studies have shown that usually we initially have a hunch about what is right or wrong when faced with an issue. Then our rational faculties may or may not come into play, using our hunch as a starting point. If, then, you want to persuade someone (in person or in writing), start with that intuitive, emotional side because our hunches tend to guide our reasoning.

Haidt offers a model for how we might put together a persuasive case. Indeed he structured his book, The Righteous Mind, using this very approach. He tells us,

I have tried to use intuitionism [the theory that decisions begin with emotions] while writing this book. My goal is to change the way a diverse group of readers—liberal and conservative, secular and religious—think about morality, politics, religion, and each other. I knew that I had to take things slowly and address myself more to elephants [our intuition] rather than to riders [our reasoning]. I couldn’t just lay out the theory in chapter 1 and then ask readers to reserve judgment until I had presented all of the supporting evidence. Rather, I decided to weave together the history of moral psychology and my own personal story to create a sense of movement from rationalism to intuitionism. I threw in historical anecdotes, quotations from the ancients, and praise of a few visionaries. I set up metaphors (such as the rider and the elephant) that will recur throughout the book. I did these things in order to “tune up” your intuitions about moral psychology. If I have failed and you have a visceral dislike of intuitionism or of me, then no amount of evidence I could present will convince you that intuitionism is correct. But if you now feel an intuitive sense that intuitionism might be true, then let’s keep going (pp. 59-60).

That’s a pattern we can use too. If, then, we want to encourage people, especially teens, to form a habit of using sunscreen, is there a better way?

Could we connect with them at the emotional/intuitive level before going to a rational approach? We could begin by identifying with our audience about how much we love the tanned look. But instead of then moving to the topic of cancer, what if we stick with the beauty angle? Chip and Dan Heath suggest noting that too much tanning gives you wrinkles.* That distasteful image can get an immediate negative reaction from teens that can guide their thinking.

Will everyone be persuaded? No. But by approaching people as whole people, we are likely to persuade more.

*See Made to Stick, pp. 38-41.

Image by Pierre-Laurent Durantin from Pixabay

The Success Conundrum

Like many book lovers, you have probably enjoyed certain authors so much that you keep reading their books. At some point, though, you may get tired of them. It may begin to feel like they are writing the same book over and over, especially if they have hit on a successful formula. We can see this with money management books, self-help books, or thrillers like The DaVinci Code.

It’s a conundrum for authors. On the one hand we are told to write what we know, yet we are unlikely to have deep knowledge or experience in several divergent areas. Likewise we may have gained expertise in a certain style of writing that may not transfer to a different genre. Imagine trying to shift from technical writing to popular fiction. It can and has been done, but it takes practice and discipline.

Then there is that old issue of audience. If we have developed a following (which can take a lot work and luck), why walk away from readers who still seem to want more?

One strategy is to take a chapter or subtheme in your first book and expand that, going in depth in a way you couldn’t before. Another option is to take the topic you are known for and apply it to a different audience or context. Instead of getting organized in the home, consider getting organized at work.

Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers, Blink, and David and Goliath) is someone who has found a happy balance of combining the similar and the different. He uses the same excellent journalistic and story-telling style to approach many different topics (success, intuition, underdogs). He models a curious mind, and I, for one, am happy to go wherever his interests take him.

I have also followed authors who have written similar kinds of books. The books in Louise Penny’s mystery series centered on Chief Inspector Armand Gamache are quite alike, usually containing the same (or reoccurring) characters, mostly in the same locale (Quebec), using the same style. Yet she manages freshness in plot and superb characterization that makes us care about the people in her stories, book after book.

Yet sometimes after reading a couple books from the same author, I move on. Part of that may be due to taste. Or perhaps I’ve just gone deeply enough into a topic to suit my needs. But sometimes I just feel like I’ve read it before.

Publishers often see this reality in the declining sales of each new book by a previously successful author. It can be a conundrum for them as well. After working hard to establish a new author, they want to build on that—if they can without prompting tedium.

What if, as a writer, you have only one area of expertise and you’ve pretty much said everything you have to say in one book? To me, that’s ok. And if you desire to write more, there are plenty of other channels for shorter pieces like blogging, articles, contributing a chapter to an edited collection, short stories, poems and more.

And one of these may spark an idea for a book on something brand new.

The Problem of the Anonymous Author

Everyone who has tried to get a book published recently knows the question every publisher will eventually ask: “What’s your platform?” That is, how well known are you? Will you be able to let lots of people know about your book once it’s published? Do you speak to groups regularly, and if so, how many? Do you have a prominent professional position or a large following in social media? If you don’t, publishers aren’t usually interested.

Once upon a time, publishers could successfully sell books of not-so-famous authors through the thousands of bookstores spread around the country. But with the rise of e-sales and the resulting demise of two-thirds of all brick-and-mortar book shops, publishers have had to rely more and more on authors to make a book known.

But what if the content of your book means you need to remain anonymous. Maybe you have a memoir in the works, but you don’t want to directly expose sensitive information about those close to you, information like past addictions or trauma.

Maybe (more intriguingly) you are a whistleblower. If your identity in a particular organization were to become public, then you might expose yourself to retaliation. Nonetheless, publishers want the author out there in person, using your real name to promote the book. Otherwise they won’t touch the project.

What’s the solution?

One option is to find a coauthor with a platform who could be the public face for the book. Ideally your coauthor would have some credentials in the main topic of your book. If addictions or trauma is involved, then teaming with a psychologist might make sense. If corporate misdoings are the focus, then a business writer could work. Having a coauthor with an established platform can even help you get published even if you don’t need or want to be anonymous.

Pairing with someone who will do all the promotion and who will already be well-known could mean your coauthor gets more than half of the royalty—even if you write half or more of the book. But hopefully the book will do at least twice as well as an anonymous solo effort. So you should break even or better.

In fact, having a coauthor could make the difference between being published and not being published at all.

Image by Irina L from Pixabay

The Best in the Business

As an executive at a publishing house for decades I read dozens of business books. Some I read for my own interest. Others were assigned to me by my boss for our team to read.

Too many of these were filled with abstract ideas, gave few examples of how to put the theory into practice, had longs lists of to-do’s, were based too much on one person’s experience, or simply had too few ideas.

The best of them kept their audience firmly in mind. The authors knew their readers were busy people who needed fresh, practical ideas on specific topics. They had to keep the attention of people who were distracted by dozens of problems needing immediate attention, people who wanted help—right now. How did they do that?

1. Stories. Some business books (which shall be nameless to protect the guilty) give theory or outlines without engaging the human element. Stories engage our passions. But they also use stories to make principles concrete. Often we don’t know how to put an idea into practice in our own context until we see an example even if it is in a completely different setting.

One of the most memorable pieces of leadership advice I ever read was in First, Break All the Rules. Counterintuitively the authors said not to spend a lot of time trying to fix weaknesses in employees. Rather concentrate on their strengths and on your best employees. That seemed odd to me until they told a concrete story of Jean P. whose average for data entry was 50% higher than the national average. Her manager helped her set goals to improve and track her progress. In three months she doubled her performance. So she set new goals and in six months she doubled that! (p. 177)

Suddenly the point became clear. Rather than spending a lot of time trying to get five average people on the team to improve by 10%, far more could be achieved by giving focused attention to star performers (in data entry or sales or case loads). When I read that, I got it! And it transformed how I managed.

2. Practical. The best books don’t open with several chapters of theory and then offer concrete advice at the end. Rather they mix theory and practice in every chapter. Unless readers feel they will get something they can use right away, they will give up on the book.

3. Substance. I am often annoyed by business books which “are magazine articles with a very high view of themselves.”* Books that stretch out a single, thin idea are exasperating. They waste my time. While most readers won’t tolerate a thick, academic approach, they do want something that is based on solid research which has been distilled in a way that doesn’t talk down to them. Which brings us to the next point.

4. Simplicity. It’s hard to put something into practice that you can’t remember. It’s also hard to put something into practice that is overly complicated. Don’t get me wrong. I love subtly and nuance and balance and sophistication in everything I read. Sometimes I’m able to gather the main points myself. But it is so much better if authors could do that for us.

One of the best business books I’ve read is, under the surface, a manual on how to write a business book. Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath is for those who have an important message to convey—teachers, sales managers, team leaders, coaches, writers, parents, entrepreneurs talking to investors, yes, . . . and those writing business books.

They highlight six points which they summarize in a memorable acronym SUCCES—Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Clarity, Emotion, Stories. And they practice what they preach, using all six of these features in their book to explain each of the six points.

No one formula is right for every book. But if you are able to incorporate even some of the elements the Heath brothers encourage, regardless of the kind of book you are writing, then you’ll definitely be in business.

*As my friend Steve Board once put it.