What Novelists Leave Out

Amit Majmudar argues that, in contemporary literature, nothing is held back as much as sentimentality:

“Good” artists instinctively exclude elements of what they know to be part of real life if they feel it may be “bad,” artistically speaking. The prudish Victorians regarded sexual language in fiction that way. Charles Dickens, obviously, knew that people have sex, but he would never spell such a thing out in a novel, even though he knew dirty language was part of real life (especially among the lowlifes he sometimes wrote about, like Fagin and company). It was “bad.” It may have been “bad” in a different sense—as in indecent, improper—but it was “bad” artistically as well, in that his sense of his audience kept him from being too graphic or explicit, either in scenes or dialogue. Meanwhile, Dickens was at liberty to engineer a scene in which, say, a tuberculosis-stricken orphan switches places at the guillotine with a virginal seamstress…Today, you can put all sorts of explicit sexual references in fiction, and the average critic won’t chide you for immorality or indecency; sentimentality will get you panned every time.

The critical temperament of an age shapes an age’s creativity not just in the supply-demand way, motivating writers to produce what is praised and valued by critics and readers. The critical temperament actually blocks off areas of life to create a portrayal of the world that fits its idea of the world. So a prudish era like the Victorian will target immorality—and a cynical or ironic era like ours will target sentimentality.