There’s No Crying in …Reading!

20th September 2011

I have read – count it – three (3!) books in the last two weeks that made me cry. And, boy howdy, I fought against it. I hate crying. It makes my eyes puffy, makes my contacts dry, and makes me feel like a dope.

It’s not that I inherently have something against crying. It’s just that nine times out of ten, I think tears are a waste of time. Plus, if I cry while reading a book, I become really suspicious: what was that author doing that made me cry? Huh? Were they, heaven forbid, manipulating me??

I use the word manipulate like some use four-letter words. I believe this fear of manipulation stems from a lot of writing and literature classes I had where the profs loved to talk about manipulative writers (check it, this may mean writers who made more than the profs), so I have an abhorrence of sad books, and to be honest – ditto for sad movies. I ain’t watching The Notebook, no way no how. Don’t even go there.

So after I read those three crazy books that made me first, get a lump in my throat, and second, grudgingly admit that the wet stuff on my face was saline dripping from my eyes, I had to stop and think: Are these writers bad writers because they made me cry?

In a couple of instances, the material itself was simply sad: dead children, a soldier leaving for war never to come home. I don’t ordinarily read these types of books, and by types, I mean material guaranteed to make you do the ugly cry. For one of them, Alice Bliss, I was forewarned. Elyse over at Pop Culture Nerd warned it was a tearjerker, and it was. I don’t think that makes it a bad book, partly because it was well balanced. There was enough humor that I didn’t feel overly emotional.

However, this other book (which shall remain nameless) starts out sad, goes to gut-wrenching, and leaves you, wasted and spent with tear tracks down your face. In other words, I hated it. Is that just my taste? Probably. Am I being harsh? Possibly.

Maybe I just don’t want to borrow grief. I’m the girl who, in elementary school, cried about the plight of the manatees. I can become maudlin at the drop of a hat. Books that have sadness or grief in them don’t trouble me; however, books whose entire schtick is sadness and grief? No, thank you.

You can probably tell I’m torn on this, so I’m asking you guys: What do you think? What constitutes manipulation in a book? And is that a bad thing?

  • I love a good cry over a book. LOVE IT. But I hate…I can’t even articulate it. I think it’s when the author sets out to MAKE YOU CRY DAMMIT rather than tell an excellent story that also happens to be incredibly wrenching in parts (see: Doomsday Book, The Sparrow).

    I was reading The Art of Racing in the Rain and WEEPING because I was in a terrible head-space and also, many bad things happen in that book and also it is narrated BY A DOG and it was like I was watching myself from a distance and totally unimpressed by this book and by the way it was working me over. But also I was weeping, so.

    But then you read books that are trying SO HARD to make you cry but they aren’t even good at MANIPULATION and that is worse. Like, and THEN, her mom gets CANCER, and she has to give up her dream job and go work the STREETS to pay for her mom’s CANCER TREATMENTS? And THEN, her faithful-companion-dog is struck down on the way to her new street job? And THEN, her long-lost rich uncle Sal sees her working but before he can rescue her he is ROBBED and accidentally KILLED? DO YOU NEED A TISSUE YET?

    In short, I love a good cry that rises organically from a well-told story THAT IS ALSO MAYBE ABOUT THE PLAGUE.

    • YES! This is exactly what I was so inarticulately trying to say. Hilarious as usual. Love it.

  • Elaine B.

    Here’s my question: what about actively seeking out books/movies/media that will make you sad/depressed?

    I recently read a manuscript that put me in a horrendous downward spiral of emotion for almost a week, but it was so well-written and complex that I actually read it three times in a row. It dealt with experiences I’ve thankfully never known (alcoholism, abuse) and I just could not tear myself away from it.

    And recently I’ve had a craving for books, memoirs, about grief. Like Joan Didion’s “Year of Magical Thinking”–I (again thankfully) haven’t lost anyone recently, but I’m finding myself completely drawn toward the experiences of others. Is that schadenfreude? And should I feel guilty about it?

    On that same note: how many times have I watched certain movies just because I felt like crying? That’s manipulation, but self-manipulation? Masochism? Is it okay that you’re being manipulated if you practically ask for it? Lots to think about.

    • See – that’s the Greek idea of drama. You force yourself into a false experience to feel something akin to that emotion so you are prepared to experience it at some point, OR just to renew your spirit, cleanse yourself.

      I personally HATE that. I can understand the need for it, and I know some people who cannot cry or grieve will watch something in order TO make them cry. I get that.

      My brother gripes at me for not wanting to watch sad movies, and to be honest, you’d have to trick me into watching one voluntarily.

      To answer one of your questions: heck no, I wouldn’t feel guilty about it. Not watching/reading sad movies/books is just my thing. I don’t think it’s masochistic. You’re obviously seeking it out for a reason, even if you’re not sure what that reason is.

      And the movies I watch over and over are usually happy. I don’t mind happy tears. And yeah – sometimes we want that manipulation. I love While You Were Sleeping and Christmas movies for that reason. It makes me Happy!! πŸ™‚

    • And yes, I’m totally aware that the happy movie thing makes me the total opposite of what you’re saying. I seek happiness. Subsconscious reasons? Not sure.

      Same thing for if I’ve I’m sick or really tired. I want to read a mystery. Do I want to kill someone? Not usually. πŸ˜‰

  • Paul

    The only book that has ever made me cry – and I’m not even sure I want to admit this in public – is The Grapes of Wrath. The ending took my breath away, and I found a few stray tears escaping which, for a Scottish man, is a lot to admit to! Even when I read the book again, the ending still stunned me.

    I do think it’s difficult for writers to manipulate readers and their emotions, because it’s difficult to predict how any individual will react to the story. It depends on a reader’s own character, life experiences and how they’re feeling when they read a book – and any book which chases the tears probably should be avoided.

    Films are different, because it’s easier to manipulate viewers with tear-jerking images. In saying that, I get a lump in my throat every time I watch Field of Dreams, so I’m not sure what that says about me!

    But I think writers who deliberately try to chase the tears or the laughs usually fail because most readers see through it.

    • Oh my gosh – I am so with you there. Have you read East of Eden? It’s so magnificent.Beautiful and moving.

      See – I think it can be relatively easy to manipulate a reader, given you choose a particularly sad topic. And, often a book reaches me in a way film cannot, by showing the thoughts of the person, almost forcing me to feel what he or she feels.

      But you’re right; ultimately, I don’t think a book like this is successful because it relies on the emotion as opposed to the story/writing.

  • I pretty much want to say what Raych said, except I’ll never say it as well. But I also just hate books that are designed to manipulate me into crying. I don’t mind it if it’s well done but there is just something about intentional tearjerkers I hate. I’m the same with movies.

    • pickygirl

      Exactly. If it feels more natural, that’s one thing. But intentional? No. And yeah – that’s why I don’t read or watch Nicholas Sparks’ books/adaptations.

  • I used to really enjoy a good cry in a book. Used to. Now, I sort of get annoyed by it all and I’m changing my book choices dramatically since last year. As Raych mentioned, if it’s not the sole intention, but just sort of happens, then I’m okay with it. But if the author is truly pushing you to just bawl your eyes out, ugh.

    I’m with you on The Notebook. Not ever going to watch it.

    • pickygirl

      For me, it happens rarely. But yes, if it is because of overwhelming beauty or sadness, that’s one thing. But yeah – when it’s over and over again. Nope.

  • +1, boo hiss to the books that make us cry just for the hell of us. but crying over beautiful, evocative sadness will generally be acceptable, even appreciated.

    but, you’re within your rights to not LIKE it! to each her own!

    I cry at books, occasionally even at movies or televisions, often at songs (hello Drive-by Truckers).

    manipulation? well. again, making me cry just for fun or to see if you can is not cool. but… sometimes an author sets out to make us feel an emotion, or makes us think about something from a new angle or consider a different perspective or just dig deeper into ourselves. that is manipulation in that the author has power over my mind or emotions – the power to make me think or feel new things. and when it’s well done, I respect this deeply. so, I guess it depends on what you mean.

    • pickygirl

      Julia! Well said. “Beautiful, evocative sadness.” This works well for me. Paul mentioned below John Steinbeck, and I would agree with that. But again, that’s taste.

      Songs, for me, are often linked to memories, so heck yeah, they can make me cry.

      Yeah – I think it’s all manipulation. Maybe the word should be OVERmanipulation? Not sure.

  • Yvette

    All books are, by nature, manipulative. If the author makes you like the characters, hate the characters, cry over the characters, or what have you. It’s all a form of manipulation. Same thing with films.

    The only incident that will automatically make me cry is the death of a dog. I tend to avoid books with this sort of thing in them. But I also cried during LASSIE COME HOME even though Lassie doesn’t die. Why? Because of the nobility of this damn dog. THAT made me weep.

    It’s hard to tell what (beside a dead dog or cat or any animal, for that matter) will get me crying. I wept at the end of BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, like nobody’s business. When Francesca receives the box of camera equipment, I became unglued when I realized what it meant. Was that an especially manipulative book? Yes. But it got to me anyway. I think because I’d somehow invested myself in the reading and caring for these characters.

    BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is another book (well, short story really) that had me weeping and heartbroken. Didn’t feel that Annie Proulx was manipulating me except in the normal author to reader way. Oh, but jeez, did I cry. The film as well had me crying – glad I didn’t see it in a theater. Too embarrassing. LOVED both the story and film – the crying didn’t turn me off at all. It is a very emotionally grim story.

    I don’t resent when this happens. It’s part of reading. Though I do try to avoid books with sad endings as best I can.

    • pickygirl

      You know, Sean from Read Heavily said the same thing, and I agree. It is all manipulation.

      Oh my gosh, yes, hate dying, dead, injured animals but especially dogs.

      You mention something interesting, though, in the not knowing what will make you cry. Often, it’s beauty/nobility more than anything else that makes me sob. And that, of course, is manipulation. But maybe it’s less expected. This will sound cheesy, but the scene in HP7 when the witches and wizards are fortifying Hogwarts? I did some ugly crying.

      As for your last statement…I do resent it, depending on the book. This is what I’m having trouble with: If the emotion feels natural or organic, perhaps not. If book’s sole purpose seems designed to make you cry…maybe it fulfilled its purpose?? But I need some redemption (not in story, per se) but in reading. If it’s not there, I’m not really thrilled.

    • Sommer

      Dogs are also my weakness! Whatever you do, don’t watch Marley and Me!!!

      • Yvette

        Not to worry. I caught on to that one pretty quickly. Will not see the movie will not read the book. πŸ™‚

  • Sommer

    I strongly dislike crying when reading books (I’m trying not the use the word “hate” lately — it’s for the children). Just like Cracker Barrel, I’m also boycotting Nicholas Sparks books. I just can’t take it anymore!!! I give him chance after chance. Time after time, he leaves me feeling literally exhausted emotionally. I’ve been manipulated…dang it! On the other hand –Jenn, in all seriousness, you need to watch The Notebook for your boyfriend, Ryan. He’s soooo hot in that movie!

    Doesn’t it feel SO MUCH BETTER TO LAUGH OUT LOUD? Author’s can manipulate me anytime into laughing. ;D

    • pickygirl

      Haha. At first I thought you meant Cracker Barrel was boycotting Nicholas Sparks, and then I realized what you meant. πŸ™‚

      I’ll watch clips. On silent. Like that commercial at the movies where you make you turn the sound off.

      And yes, I’d much prefer to laugh out loud.

    • Re: not saying hate! My grandfather used to caution me, when I was little, every time I used the word: “Hate is a very strong word.” He didn’t forbid it, just reminded me that it was a strong word and did I really HATE cheese with holes in it? I learned a lot and I think it was a good lesson.

      (I started to write “my grandfather always used to caution me” but he used to point out that “always” and “never” are strong words, too.)

      Oh the power of language.

  • Rickythewiz

    I like being manipulated. I think good literature should move us emotionally. If we aren’t brought to emotional states by writing then what good is it? Manipulation for me is just good story telling. I read philosophical, theological texts and non fiction to be intellectually challenged, but the purpose of fiction is to be drawn into a narrative and taken wherever the writer wants us to go. We should see only what the writer wants us to see and to feel the way the writer wants us to feel. Personal involvement in the narrative is vital. Many books can just be ‘plot platforms’ that do not engage us emotionally and though good for a quick escape into a story world, they are less satisfying than books that make us cry, or rage or feel any emotion at all. I say manipulation is good; it means for me that the writer knows about people and how to move them emotionally.

    • pickygirl

      Part of the problem is that the word “manipulation” has a negative connotation.

      I think, yes, as others have stated: all writing is manipulation. Yes. However, I also think there is a difference between reliance on the subject matter alone and adding in some overly-emotional scenes AND writing well and letting the emotion well from that.

      I would also disagree that we “should see only what the writer wants us to see and to feel the way the writer wants us to feel.” I think many authors would tell you readers pull out bits of text they never would have or that a scene was especially touching to one reader and not to another. Part of that is because, as you say, there is a measure of personal involvement. Each person’s background is different, so the level of that personal involvement differs. If a person hates dogs, perhaps a dying dog/dead dog story won’t affect him or her. Not sure.

      There are fantastic books that make me cry through the characterization or writing. Then there are books that simply rely on the subject matter, cranking up the emotive language in an attempt to tug at the heartstrings. This, to me, isn’t good writing.

    • Thanks Ricky, that’s what I was trying to say πŸ™‚

  • Don’t worry, I also cry easily at books. And movies. And conversations when someone else is teary eyed. I just cry easily and hate it also.

    • I don’t actually cry all that easily. I’m much more likely to cry when I’m angry as opposed to sad, lonely, anxious.

      And I HATE crying when I’m angry because I feel like it undermines my anger. πŸ™‚

  • I agree with you completely. Books that are all about sadness and grief just aren’t the right reads for me. On the other hand, I don’t mind it when something happens in the book that makes me cry. Actually, a lot of books that I love and reread often have scenes that make me cry. But the depressing stuff is never the whole point of the book. I’ve just never been drawn to books where the whole point is to illustrate someone’s sad life.

    • Agreed. This is me exactly. There were books in middle school – somewhere around the R.L. Stine range – that were all about dying teens and cancer and dead pets and stuff. Even then, I was like “are you kidding me?” No thanks.

  • I HATE being manipulated. I just resent a writer or director deciding at the outset “You will cry during the story,” and pulling stunts to make me do so. If the emotions and events feel organic to the story and characters, that’s one thing, but manipulation is whole different kettle of fish.

    But then I cry while reading graphic novels, so obviously I’m overly sensitive to this issue. :p

    • Exactly – and sometimes that crap will make me laugh at really inappropriate moments. I can’t help it. It’s so cheesy!!

  • Meagan

    I am notorious for crying…frequently. I don’t try to, I don’t like it, and in recent years have worked very hard to not be a constant cryer. But when it comes to books, I don’t mind it. : ) For instance, The Book Thief made me sob, but I LOVED it. You could probably name a hundred more book titles and I probably cried, but that means I probably absolutely loved it. But, that’s me. πŸ˜‰ You are totally weird for your Notebook issue. It has always boggled my mind.

    • Totally. The Book Thief was an ugly cry book. But I didn’t feel manipulated. I was amazed by people and the human spirit and love.

      But yeah – The Notebook, and I’d venture to say – any other Sparks novel – sets out to rip you apart and spit you out. No thank you!

      And yeah – still refusing.

    • Although…watching it and blogging about it might be slightly hilarious.

  • Unruly Reader

    Yeah, if a book is gonna make me cry, it darn well better do it fairly. If it’s over-the-top maudlin, I’m just gonna get ticked off instead of sad. So basically, I think it’s OK for a book to make me cry if I *let it*. (control freak, at all?)

    • I’m a control freak, too, so maybe that’s the issue. A book should work away at that.

  • I don’t mind crying, if I’m alone (hate being interrupted or around other people!!) and if I feel the author has earned my reaction and if the direction in which s/he has taken the story feels right to me. There are some books I’ve read that are so magnificently written, the characters so very real, that I definitely get emotionally invested. When an event that makes me weep feels like the way the story should naturally have gone (Book Thief, I’m looking at you), I will weep with abandon. If, however, the turn the story takes feels wrong to me, like it’s all for show or blatantly manipulative, I’m much more likely to become emotionally detached. (*ahem* Ann Patchett, this is why I’m done with your books.)

    Really interesting post!

    • Yeah – I feel much the same way. Earn it. And the emotional reaction will vary reader to reader. Book Thief was definitely one of those. Broke my heart. In a good way.

  • “ItÒ€ℒs not that I inherently have something against crying. ItÒ€ℒs just that nine times out of ten, I think tears are a waste of time. Plus, if I cry while reading a book, I become really suspicious: what was that author doing that made me cry? Huh? Were they, heaven forbid, manipulating me??”

    Yes! this! Me too! Absolutely! And perfectly said.
    I have thought a fair amount about what it is about crying over books and movies that bugs me.

    And come to a conclusion- it’s the kind of sadness. If someone dies in battle, like, say, a character in Harry Potter… I’m okay with weeping over it.
    But if there’s a plot arc about a character dying of cancer and survivors mourning… I cry hard, and feel surly and manipulated.

    Because I swear there’s a subgenre of women’s novels that shove a Now She Dies of Cancer plotline into a book where it seems sudden and weirdly forced. What do you think?

    • Yes: what you said exactly.

      And I totally agree about the subgenre. That’s what I was talking about in another comment. When I was in middle school, there was a whole series of books like that. Awful.

  • I was never much of a crier over anything. But a little more than a year ago, something happened. I don’t know what it was, maybe my heart grew three sizes or something. But now everything makes me tear up. I even got teary over a cat food commercial. (The one where the guy gets a cat for his gf and proposes…)
    I’ve had a few books lately where I sat on the floor and cried and even called the boyfriend for emotional support. I hate crying over fictional characters, but it’s happening to me more and more and I don’t like it.

    • I love it, your heart grew three sizes. πŸ™‚

      Sometimes, though, the crying is about you and your life. I’ve had those moments or periods where everything makes me cry. You are a bit more sensitive to emotions, or those emotions are just a bit closer to the surface.

      I also hate crying and went through a phase around Christmas where I was crying all the time. So glad that’s over with. πŸ˜‰

  • My best friend and I have a difference in attitude towards what she thinks of as depressing books. I like books like, say, The Kite Runner with adversity and tragedy. Feeling all those feelings and crying with the characters is cathartic. She’s more like you and feels there’s enough sadness in life without having it in her entertainment. I don’t think either viewpoint is better. Whatever floats your boat.

    I do agree with all the people who said something along the lines of all writers manipulate you emotionally. Or they should. Feeling happy or laughing because the author wanted you to react that way is part of the job description. Of course, I’ve never been to college, so I don’t know what professors say.

    • See – I loved The Kite Runner and definitely cried. But I didn’t feel as though the author was forcing me to cry. The emotion was sort of natural.

      What I don’t like is when the entire premise of the book is already sad and plays the “sad” up in order to get an emotional response. It feels cheap to me. I agree that writing is manipulation. Maybe the intention is part of it? Not 100% sure.

  • Nic

    I read scifi almost exclusively at the moment, mostly modern-ish authors. Just finished one that had a protracted 50 page death scene of a main character that had just strongly bonded with the other main character – and with 120 pages to go after that. Having a flat or depressing conclusion seems to be the standard these days and it’s wearing me down. Through the sobs tonight I found myself wanting to ask the author why he felt the need to do this. I am surely on the extremely sensitive scale of the average scifi reader, but come on.

    • 50-page death scene? Are you kidding? What a woman to finish that. That’s insane.