Article published on February 19, 2016.
The other day I had a meltdown. It wasn’t a pretty sight, these things rarely are, unless of course you’re a Hollywood actress. Alas, I’m not, and there was no escaping the bulging red eyes, tear-stained face and yes, I’ll admit it, runny nose. (I told you it wasn’t pretty). And what, I hear you ask, was the tragedy that had befallen me? What was the source of my woes? Let me whisper it, the reason for my meltdown was… a book. A book? you may well ask. Yes, I know. Pull yourself together woman, get a grip. But admittedly, it is an all too frequent occurrence.
Read book, will cry. Obviously not just any book, I’m not that bad. But if it’s a weepie, I will weep, as much as I try to ignore the lump in my throat, fight off the tears that spring in my eyes. And such is how I found myself the other day, having got through a whole pack of Kleenex (other brands are available) and closing the book looking like an extra from some horrific zombie movie. And it wasn’t even as if the emotion caught me by surprise. I knew the book was a weepie and yet I decided to read it, no I wanted to read it.
Which leads me to the question, and the point of this article, why do I read books that make me cry, what is the appeal of it? And it’s not only me, I hasten to add, you only have to look at the popularity of well-known weepies such as PS I Love You, One Day and Me Before You, all of which have not only been bestsellers in print but have been transferred to the silver screen. (As if it’s not bad enough that these books have broken hearts once, someone somewhere has decided, no let’s make people cry, and this time in public).
It would be easy enough to avoid reading these books too, the blurbs and covers often give it away, and in addition if the title has any of the following ‘last’, ‘final’, ‘goodbye,’ the deal is virtually done. One publisher even sent a packet of tissues with a book! But there are so many of these books and they’re so well read that there is obviously an audience for them, I should know, I’m one of them. So why do I do it, why do I put myself through the misery, the heartbreak, the torment? Isn’t there enough of that in the real world anyway? Why would I want to read a book that’s just going to upset me? Indeed, it seems almost antithetical to the purpose of reading: pleasure, enjoyment, happiness.
Yet, despite, or perhaps because of, these books taking readers through the emotional wringer, there is a sense, having come out the other side, of having been through something powerful, important, special. Perhaps this is part of the appeal then, of having experienced the book, of having shared in the characters’ stories at an acute level and of having connected with their plight as a fellow human. What is a book without an emotional connection, after all.
Some people sneer at this fiction and those who read it, failing to see that much of it is extremely well-written and that it simply taps into a different emotional response to other fiction – crime that makes you scared, rom-coms that make you laugh. Obviously it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea – what is? – but neither is it just second-rate fluff or depression-inducing. It’s clearly also not a barrel of laughs but it can be empathetic, cathartic and affirming to read. And a lot of the books that have made their mark on me are of this ilk; books that stay with you long after the last page, books that have an effect on you. This is what good literature should do. And it is just that, good literature, and in large part it is that because of its emotional core. The emotion is integral to the story and to its power, but also to engaging the reader and making its impact.
So, in fact, if a book makes you cry, rather than being critical, seeing it as a flaw, an indictment of the book, we should see it as a strength, a marker of the author’s success in affecting the reader. In much the same way we praise those works of music and art that move us, literature should be no different. And whether it is because they carry more truth – after all life isn’t always happy ever after – that they express a solidarity, an understanding that we are not alone, or that they are more meaningful, a book that can move to tears should not be undermined but celebrated. So if like me you’re often found snivelling over a book, don’t worry about the red eyes and snotty nose or what others will say about it, just acknowledge that you’ve read a damn good book.
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