Feelings

Again and again, the developmental editor I hired to work on my Leafstone series wanted me to include more about the inner feelings of the characters. Specifically of the female characters; she never once desired to know more about the feelings of the male characters. I did add a few bits here or there, but her obvious bias suggested to me that possibly she was overly focused on women’s emotions. Her day job had something to do with helping abused women, which could have been either the cause of that or the result. Whatever.

Right now I have a couple of critique group people reading the opening chapter of my new novel — and I’ve run into the same sort of comment. My lead character is literally sobbing, the word “sobbing” is right there on the page, and the critique person wants to know more about what the character is feeling.

My dark suspicion is that readers today have been so emotionally deadened by TV, movies, and the speed with which the world is falling apart that they’re no longer capable of interpreting emotional cues that are present in the text. They need hand-holding.

Just for kicks, I pulled The Sun Also Rises off of my shelf. I’ve had the book for years, but I’ve never read it. Now, Hemingway was a fine writer, that’s not open to debate. But you would struggle in vain to find any description of interior emotion in the opening chapter of this book.

The chapter is only four pages long. The narrator is named Jake, and he plays tennis — and that’s absolutely the only thing we learn about him in this chapter. Jake is telling the reader about the early life of another character, Robert Cohn. We learn that Cohn has had his ups and downs. He “hardened into a rather unattractive mould under domestic unhappiness.”

On the fourth page we finally get to the opening scene. Jake, Cohn, and Cohn’s girlfriend Frances are sitting at a table in a Paris coffee shop. In this scene Jake says something and is kicked under the table, evidently by Cohn, although Hemingway never says that. Jake notices that Frances’s chin is lifting and her face hardening. (Those are Hemingway’s words.) Jake changes the subject and “Cohn looked relieved.” That’s just about it for emotion — two low-key mentions of things seen from the outside. At the very end, Jake tells the reader, “I rather liked him.”

I shudder to think what a modern reader or editor would think of this opening chapter.

The second chapter opens with Jake, once again, telling us about Cohn. Telling, yes, not showing. Jake (or rather, Hemingway) is insightful. We begin to get the idea that Cohn is going to make problems, for himself or for others. That’s as far as I’ve read, at the moment. The opening works as a hook by enticing the reader to want to know more about the trouble Cohn is going to get into. But the text gives us a view from the outside, not the inside — and a very distant view at that.

The lesson in this, for me anyhow, is that there is no right or wrong amount of emotion in a scene or a chapter. You could even make a case that the characters’ emotions are not what a novel is about. A novel is about character, yes — but a character is more than her emotions. Even if the character is feeling strong emotions, they may not be visible in the narration; the reader may have to infer them — and that’s perfectly all right. It’s a legitimate literary technique. It worked for Hemingway, and who are we to argue with Hemingway?

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