Thinking, Feeling, Reading

The relationship (or lack thereof?) between critically engaged reading and emotionally immersed reading, between thinking and feeling, is a topic I’ve been circling back to in one way or another as long as I’ve been blogging. This particular post stewed so long while I was busy with end of term grading that I’m no longer sure what I wanted to say or why I thought it was important. But I also can’t quite set it aside. So here are some bullet points. They’re meant as discussion starters, not as a polemic. I think. I hope.

What Started Me Thinking About This Post:

  • Pamela’s post on “Overthinking and Balance,” in which she asks, “can I love what I read and surrender to the reading experience, and still think and write critically about it?”
  • Sunita’s post on “Fetish Reading and Genre Reading,” which I think is considering–perhaps only implicitly–what happens to the genre when a lot of our conversations about it focus on reading primarily to satisfy particular emotional desires (including, but not only, sexual ones).
  • A tweet I saw saying that “literary fiction requires us to detach emotionally, unlike romance/popular fiction” (not an exact quote, and I’m not citing the source because it’s a tweet from a conference, so I don’t have the context for it. I don’t want to call out any particular person, because it’s a sentiment I see a lot around Romanceland).

Thoughts, Questions, Responses:

  • To that last idea, I say “bullshit.” The book scene that moved me most lately was from Catherine O’Flynn’s Mr. Lynch’s Holiday, where Eamonn takes his elderly father’s hand and presses it to his cheek. And it worked because by that point I understood these two men, and the distance between them, how they loved each other but couldn’t easily express it. (I will say that in the classroom we are required, to some extent, to detach emotionally, and that’s where a lot of people have encountered and been turned off literary fiction).
  • I have just finished listening to George Eliot’s Middlemarch, a novel I love and that I (rightly) think of as highly intellectual. But it also ends with a series of emotionally-charged encounters between various pairs of characters, scenes to which Juliet Stevenson’s narration did full justice. Eliot’s novel is often think-y about feeling, but it’s also often emotional.
  • Why are we so quick to separate thinking and feeling, anyway? Here again, I think of Middlemarch. Eliot writes about how Dorothea learns “to conceive, with that distinctness which is no longer reflection but feeling–an idea wrought back to the directness of sense, like the solidity of objects–that [her husband] had an equivalent centre of self.” This is a pretty dense sentence that requires some unpacking (thinking/detachment) to understand. But it’s also one to which I have an emotional response: Yes! I’ve felt that! That moment when someone else’s subjectivity is not just an abstraction but a reality you know and feel in your gut (um, yeah, what Eliot said much better). Reading and thinking about that sentence, I remember and feel over again the moments when I’ve had that emotional experience. This connection between thinking and feeling is something Eliot comes back to several times in the novel.
  • What do we mean by “feeling” anyway? I’m not sure what a feeling is, I’ve been thinking about this so long. I need a dictionary. Do we only count as “feels” what we feel in our bodies as well as in our hearts or minds, or wherever feelings live? Only things that give us a clench in the stomach or the chest, that make us cry, or breathe faster, or arouse us sexually (my least favorite phrase, “underpants feels”)? Because when I’m working on a paper, or a blog post, or just thinking about a book and I suddenly have an insight, make a connection, solve a problem, find an interpretive claim–I don’t know what to call the result of that thinking except a feeling of joy. I am not emotionally engaged with the text in the same exact way as when a scene roils my chest, but I’m still emotionally engaged.
  • Following on from that: I realize that my own temperament and training lead me to value thinking over feeling. My participation in Romanceland has helped me work against those prejudices and assumptions. And I don’t want to denigrate reading for enjoyment, for pleasurable feelings, for arousal, or to satisfy a particular kind of sexual or emotional kink. I’ve done all those things. But I do think conversations among both writers and readers tend to focus on a fairly narrow range of feelings as the ones we read romance for–not only sexual ones, but certainly that’s part of it. And I wonder if that focus on certain elements begins to narrow the range of what books try to do, which is a shame. (I don’t know what I’d suggest should be done about this. I wouldn’t want to impose rules on other people’s conversations even if I could).
  • My biggest realization is that all of this is part of why I haven’t been enjoying romance much lately. I am actively resisting allowing a book to make me feel something, because I’m sick of “feels.” I sort of feel like every book is just out to push a few emotional buttons, not bothering to earn it with full characterization and a richly-drawn world. I said to a friend that sometimes I feel like I’m reading about a pair of sex dolls in a vacuum. I know that this is over-reaction on my part, exaggeration. But recognizing that it’s an over-reaction to something specific has helped.
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41 Responses to Thinking, Feeling, Reading

  1. Ros says:

    You know the command is to love the Lord with all our hearts, souls and minds. I have always found that fascinating because it is so different from the way we often talk about love in modern culture. It links thinking and feeling. It makes love something that we consciously do, as well as something we instinctively respond with. I think that real life relationships need to involve both thinking and feeling, and so I want that in my romance too.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I’m coming up on 20 years of marriage, and I find a lot of the HEA requires making a thoughtful choice to ACT loving when you don’t FEEL loving–being patient because someone’s crabby or depressed for good reason, e.g. If romance fiction doesn’t reflect that kind of thing (even if it’s not a big part, because it’s mostly still the courtship stage) I find it hard to believe in an HEA for the couple.

      One thing I really enjoyed about MIDDLEMARCH this time through was the contrast between the young lovers/courtship stories and the older married couples (the Garths, the Bulstrodes). In some ways, the most romantic, loving act in the book is Mrs. Bulstrode’s decision to put aside her pride and remain loyal to her husband when he has profoundly disappointed her–when he’s been sinful and unethical. She takes her marriage vows seriously. I found that scene super emotional and moving, too.

      • Ros says:

        Yes, exactly! I think this is one of the reasons why NA just doesn’t work for me at all. It’s all about the overblown irresistible emotional impulse and I can’t believe that results in the true, everyday, practical love you need to sustain a relationship.

        I need to reread Middlemarch. I don’t really remember much about the Bulstrodes. It is one of the things I like a lot about the Outlander books. She’s very good at showing the development of a relationship as Clare and Jamie get older and have been together longer. And the little gesture that show their love in all kinds of ways, even when they’re tired or angry or whatever.

      • willaful says:

        Children’s literature knew this 40 years ago. “Love isn’t what you feel. It’s what you do.”

  2. SuperWendy says:

    “literary fiction requires us to detach emotionally, unlike romance/popular fiction”

    Um, yeah. Wow. Uh, no. I’m not terribly well-versed in current literary fiction, but this just seems so blatantly (laughably) wrong to me.

    The best explanation re: lit fic vs. genre I’ve heard (and I’m paraphrasing WILDLY) hinged on the idea of resolution. Genre fiction is all about resolution. The killer is caught, the quest is complete, the couple lives happily ever after. Lit Fic doesn’t necessarily have to concern itself with resolution to the point where everything is “tied up” in the end. It can end a bit more openly (for lack of a better word).

    I can easily get burnt out of SexyTimes. When I get to that point I pick up something that I know will be lighter on the “act” and play up the “tension” aspects of the romance. Either milder category lines (like Harlequin Romance) or an inspirational (I have a few go-to, not-preachy authors).

    • Ros says:

      I read Betty Neels in those moments. Or Heyer, but more recently it’s usually Neels.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Oh, I think that’s a really interesting distinction, thank you! Sometimes I like not knowing where the story is going to go, not being sure that main characters will be safe (I enjoyed/dreaded/thrilled to the roller-coaster ride of THE GOLDFINCH). Sometimes I want to be assured of a resolution. Sometimes I want angst to be safely contained by the promise of an HEA; sometimes I want the messiness of the way it is in real life where sometimes you just have to endure, and I need to know how to do that.

      I do think part of what’s going on with me is that I’ve been reading romance long enough to burn out. I’ve been enjoying reading a lot of different things lately, and I’m hoping that will mean I enjoy mixing romance back in again, too.

    • I am currently burned out on highly sexualized stories and have gravitated towards Heyers and Regency Trads. I find that the removal of all those love scenes gives more real estate to relationship and story development, and yes, those delicious romantic tension scenes.

  3. Jorrie Spencer says:

    I am going to buy this Middlemarch audiobook with Juliet Stevenson. I need a cartrip audiobook, and this fits the bill.

    As for literary fiction and being detached emotionally…well, there are times when I realize I can’t read a certain work of literary fiction because I can’t face the emotions they may churn up with no happy ending in sight. So that argument makes no sense at all to me.

    Now, that doesn’t mean I find every work of litfic emotionally charged, but it sure does exist. I was very moved (but in a good way, not a damaging way) by Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Home, for example. Also, what I’ll do sometimes, and this is a little embarrassing (or at least it feels that way) is “rescue” a character by creating a different story for them for myself—not writing it down, just imagining it. Admittedly this need to rescue someone occurs for both litfic and mainstream books, whatever the difference between those is.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Stevenson is a really great narrator. I listened to her do Austen’s Emma and Persuasion as well. Middlemarch will cover a lot of driving!

      No one is emotionally engaged by every book, whatever the genre. But that often has as much to do with the reader than the book. And I do think some books (again across genres) are more interested in creating an emotional effect than others.

      When I finished Middlemarch I totally made up an epilogue with a happier ending for a favorite character. 😉

  4. kaetrin says:

    @Ros While I agree that there seems to be a lot of NA which is all about the over the top emotional “feels”, the kind I tend to gravitate towards is where the the characters learn and grow up – where, over the course of the book, they make grown up decisions about things and choose to turn away from being childish. In between the Beautiful Catastrophes there are at least a few books about romance and coming of age which are about emotions and thinking and making decisions about love and being together. It makes me a little sad that some great books are lost in the morass.

    I love books where characters take time to think and feel. I hate the “big mis” trope because it so often feels immature to me. Couples who succeed are couples who can talk to each other, who can give each other the benefit of the doubt and I want to see that in my fiction. I finished Bet on Me by Alisha Rai last week and one of the best things about that series (Bedroom Games) apart from the funny and the sexy (of which both are present in abundance) is that this pair *decide* they are going to make it work. They are going to be mature and grown up and not squander their second chance to get it right. They have the same reactions you’d expect, but they consciously choose not to be a slave to them. That is incredibly romantic and sexy to me.

    I can occasionally go for an over the top book but if I’m feeling like I’m being manipulated by the author to feel a particular emotion, I get crabby. I know that, essentially, the author is always trying to manipulate your emotions – that’s the nature of art I think – but the difference (and I expect it is a sliding scale and people fall in various places along it) for me is when I can see the authorial hand, when something is in the plot *only* to manipulate my emotions/as a kind of emotional “short cut”.

    • Ros says:

      Kaetrin, that’s good to know. I admit I’ve only tried a few and found they just didn’t appeal to me at all.

      • kaetrin says:

        I haven’t read all that many myself Ros – I tend to steer clear of books with Beautiful or Disaster in the title LOL

        And of course, it’s completely okay not to like something just because you don’t like it. Or to like something because you do. 🙂

    • I love this comment. It’s so important for the protagonists to act mature and responsible and loving.

  5. lawless says:

    But I do think conversations among both writers and readers tend to focus on a fairly narrow range of feelings as the ones we read romance for–not only sexual ones, but certainly that’s part of it. And I wonder if that focus on certain elements begins to narrow the range of what books try to do, which is a shame.

    I sort of feel like every book is just out to push a few emotional buttons, not bothering to earn it with full characterization and a richly-drawn world.

    I could not agree more. I have a lot of problems with genre romance, and that’s one of the big ones. I’d like less sex and more plot and personal maturity in romance — something that resembles how couples negotiate the world we live in, not fantasyland. (I know that makes me an outlier too.) So much of it (a) is repetitive and boring (hello, I know how men and women boinking works) and/or (b) equates (or conflates?) sex with love (or good sex with real love), which is problematic in itself. If I want to read a story about how people relate sexually, there’s always porn, erotica, erotic romance, and fanfiction, though fanfiction is skewed toward m/m interaction, not m/f.

    I’ll be over here reading books by authors like Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt, who were able to write about (or around, when it comes to explicitness) sex and its dynamics while concentrating on plot and character.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Sometimes I like a good over the top fantasy (I enjoy some Harlequin Presents, for instance) but I like there to be a core emotional/psychological reality that I recognize, even if it’s in exaggerated, symbolic form. And I am tired of adults in romance who act like middle-schoolers–as Kaetrin says, things like the Big Mis where people can’t even talk to each other drive me nuts; they also seem like really artificial ways to drum up conflict. Often these kinds of elements work better for me in historicals, where there really were many constraints on people’s behavior that might keep them from being honest with each other.

  6. Sunita says:

    I wonder if part of the issue is the fact that so much of my romance reading is now intertwined with social media, so that I hear discussions about books that I would never choose to read and yet the discussions affect how I perceive the genre in general. It’s partly being on Twitter but not just that, because I visit blogs and read reviews even when I’m taking Twitter breaks, and I feel as if I know more about books I don’t want to read than books I do.

    There’s clearly a market for the “many feels” books because more and more publishers are releasing them, and so it makes sense for them to be published and for readers to talk about them. I just wish I could find more conversations about the books and storylines I *am* reading, or want to read. I read two good historical fiction (with romantic storyline) books in the last month, but they’re not being discussed in romland. Which is fine, but I don’t really know where to go to discuss them, and meanwhile I’m scrolling past reviews and tweets about books I want to avoid like the plague.

    • Isobel Carr says:

      “I feel as if I know more about books I don’t want to read than books I do.”

      THIS!!! I’m not sure if I’m really as alienated as I often feel from mainstream romance or if I’m just overwhelmed by information about the parts of it that don’t appeal to me. And could you PLEASE disclose the good historical fic titles. *bats eyelashes*

      • Sunita says:

        Heh. They’re both books I’m behind in reviewing for DA. The first, which I finished, is Donna Thorland’s American Revolution historical, The Rebel Pirate. It’s not perfect but I really enjoyed it and the historical details felt very well done to my inexperienced eye (I am NOT an expert on Revolutionary New England, to put it mildly).

        The second book, which I’m still in the middle of, is Michael Nava’s historical novel about turn of the 19th/20thC Mexico. The first third is about a couple and then the next part is about their son. Again, not perfect, but the feel of Mexico City and the way he portrays the male protagonist as an outsider/insider is terrific. The relationship is a flip of Beauty and the Beast, he’s the beauty and she’s the locked-up beast. As I say, I haven’t finished, but so far so good.

      • Isobel Carr says:

        Yea!!! Off to check those out …

    • Lynnd says:

      I would like to have those conversations as well. I find that most if the sites I visit these days are not featuring any books that interest me. I don’t know whether that’s a function of what is being published now or whether this is the choices being made regarding what will be reviewed. It has meant that I am reading a lot of older books and more books outside of the romance genre.

      For me books that are just about the feels are like a cheap candy bar – momentarily satisfying, but easily forgotten. Books that make me think and feel are like the best dark chocolate – intensely satisfying and they make me want to come back and have more.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I agree with you about social media. Especially when some/many blogs focus on reviewing the new/big books, which of course their readers want so I don’t blame them. I was excited to see Jane tweeting an invitation for people to review older books they’d loved or hated on DA. Those posts often get good conversation because many people have read the books over the years. I do try to moan less and just talk more about what I’m actually reading. The key is to find a way to talk about it that generates some discussion even when no one else has read the book, and that’s hard.

    • kaetrin says:

      I think you’re spot on there Sunita. I hear about books I probably won’t ever read all the time on Twitter. It’s quite a different experience than just browsing in a bookshop or talking to a trusted bookseller who knows my tastes. It’s sometimes led me to books which have taken my reading in a different (and good) direction so it’s not always bad. Sometimes it feels a little like everyone’s playing and I can’t join in unless I read that “buzz” book as well. But the buzz dies down pretty quickly and there’s always another book and I have such a diverse range of Tweeple that someone I follow is almost always talking about a book that interests me. I think I’d get 60%+ of my book recs from Twitter.

    • willaful says:

      Excellent point. And it seems so hard to get discussion going. Even buddy reading doesn’t often work.

  7. Janine Ballard says:

    I agree completely with what Jorrie said about literary fiction. I find that the emotions it evokes in me are often far more powerful (in a devastating way) than those I get from reading romance, so the tweeted statement that literary fiction doesn’t engage emotions is beyond puzzling. In fact, the reason I don’t read more literary fiction isn’t that I don’t appreciate it, but rather that I’m afraid to feel so much.

    I love books that engage me both emotionally and intellectually. A recent read along those lines was Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (now a Hugo finalist), which I really, really think you would enjoy, Liz. And I still recommend Bitterblue to you, and also more of Kathleen Gilles Seidel–her books generally engage me intellectually, as well as being romantic.

    I know you didn’t ask for recommendations, but I can’t help but offer them. It’s okay to switch genres though, or take a break from romance if that’s what you need.

    I also agree with Sunita’s comments that we are hearing more about books we aren’t necessarily interested in. And with yours (I think) that there are a lot of “feels” books circulating right now.

    But I think the pendulum will have to swing back at some point…

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Everything you mention is on my teetering TBR or wishlist somewhere.

      I don’t think all the emotions in litfic are negative/depressing (I don’t think that’s what you meant, either). But those are much harder to read about and empathize with when we are not assured that things will be OK. I think this is why I like rereading classics, too. 19th century novels often don’t have the kind of “cherry on top” perfectly satisfying ending some romance feature, but they DO usually mete out emotional and other kinds of justice (although the 19th century version of that is not the same as ours in every case).

      • Janine Ballard says:

        Yes, I agree not all the emotions in litfic are negative or depressing. And even some of those litfic books that are very dark, I can read and enjoy a lot. But when I read litfic regularly, every once in a while I’d pick one up that broke my heart and impacted more than I wanted to be impacted. I wish that weren’t the case because I enjoyed some of those books a great deal. If I could only read that genre (I think it is a genre too) with impunity, I would be reading a lot more of it.

        That’s a great point a bout 19th century literature. I should try to read more. What holds me back there is the language, and also, the fact that I try to keep my reading focused around books I can review for DA and that our readership would want to hear my opinion of. Someday I really want to make time for Middlemarch and other classics.

  8. I’ve found myself in a position where I’m “no new characters”–to paraphrase Drake’s song. I feel fatigued by the effort of getting to know unfamiliar characters, and keep turning back to books/authors I read 10-11 years ago. Now that I’ve been glomming on some older authors, I wonder if my reluctance is because of the “voice” of today’s romance novels? I haven’t read a Regency-set Historical in years, but am now gobbling both trad and single title from the 80s and 90s without a qualm. The familiar, almost cliched pieces are there–Prinny, Almacks, curricle races, etc–but they are hedged about with an earnestness about the historical backdrop that is sorely missing these days. Also, I caught the tail end of yesterday’s Twitter convo about OTT, WTFBBQ romances, and perhaps they went down easier in the 70s-90s because the authors weren’t trying to go for the “feels” (or gratify “id” reading). They were following the trail of the story, but kept a steady hand on the till.

    • willaful says:

      That’s a thought — the purpose of the OTT. The purpose of billionaires and rock stars seems obvious, and not that interesting unless they’re your thing. The purposes of older forms of OTT are at the very least wider in scope.

      When I said that Laura Florand was writing contemporaries the way people like Ivory used to write historicals, this is pretty much what I meant.

  9. Janine Ballard says:

    Also, I caught the tail end of yesterday’s Twitter convo about OTT, WTFBBQ romances, and perhaps they went down easier in the 70s-90s because the authors weren’t trying to go for the “feels” (or gratify “id” reading). They were following the trail of the story, but kept a steady hand on the till.

    That’s what I meant when I said yesterday that premises have always been OTT, but maybe what’s new is OTT execution?

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Evangeline, Willaful, Janine–thanks for your comments on OTT. The other day I found a Jane Aiken Hodge Gothic (heroine in pants! smugglers!) I’d loved as a teen on sale at Kobo, so I bought to see if OTT can still work for me. And I really enjoy a lot of crazy/goofy Amanda Quick historicals, even if I’m not fully caught up in their OTT-ness (it’s a different kind of OTT from Old Skool, but I’d still call it OTT). I think different kinds of voices and different kinds of purple/extreme/over the top elements will work for different readers, and it’s good for me to remember that A) some kinds work for me and B) elements may sound crazysauce in a blurb, but that doesn’t tell me much about how an author makes them work in a story.

      I have a harder time with OTT elements in contemporary books. Or maybe it’s when a book mixes realistic and OTT elements (like the way every hero seems to have to be a billionaire/tattoo artist/whatever even when that doesn’t make sense or isn’t necessary for the storyline). Intellectually I can see how exaggeration is part of romances fantasy, but for me, when that’s blended with too much reality, I can see the joins and get thrown out of the story. I’d rather have my billionaire in a soapy Presents, I think, where the whole thing is coded as fantasy. Maybe I WOULD actually like motorcycle club books, as long as I didn’t think about real world MCs. Nah, maybe not.

      • willaful says:

        A number of times, someone looking for a book describes some utterly crazy scenario and it turned out to be from a book I know very well, and I hasn’t recognized it. Because that wasn’t what I took away from the book.

        In Florand’s case, the use of metaphor and shared reality makes the ridiculous acceptable. She’s kind of grown away from that, and I miss it.

  10. pamela1740 says:

    I’ve been traveling for a week now and doing a lot of driving — optimal conditions for thinking about reading, but not really reading very much (we’re not doing audio books this trip, just music). I completely agree that it’s possible to have an analytical response to a novel that is also a form of emotional engagement — or to “feel” a certain delight or other emotion in the thinking and puzzling and connecting. I can’t always really separate my emotional and intellectual engagements with a particular book. If I’m really caught up in it, I almost always want to try and articulate the why and how of it.

    Also want to second Sunita’s recommendation re. Donna Thorland. The Turncoat was one of my favorite books from last year. I do read lots of historical fiction set during the American Revolution and/or colonial New England, and I don’t think there’s anything better being written these days, if you like swashbuckling romance.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, that’s a good way of putting it. For me my emotional and intellectual responses/engagement are always entangled. I don’t know if I can say one “lessens” the other–that’s just how it is, and there’s no way I can go back to a more “innocent,” emotionally immersive reading, even if I wanted to (and even if I ever actually had that stage–I think I did, but it was long ago). I guess part of what bugs me is the rather prevalent idea that emotional immersion is somehow a “better” way to read romance. Why should it be? I don’t want to argue that it’s a lesser way, either, but it’s not my way and never can be.

  11. willaful says:

    Your point about different kinds of feelings in response to reading is spot on, and I’m going to remember it for the future. I’m as irritated by the attitude that reading for anything but obvious emotional response is dull and elitist as I am by the attitude that genre reading is all escapism.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, I feel like some of these comments are a reaction to the denigration of romance and the pleasures it offers readers (“Oh yeah? Well lit fic is all tragic and depressing and has no plot! So there!”). And I understand that response. But these statements are just as stereotypical and untrue to my experience. They make me feel excluded sometimes, like there’s no place for me as a reader in Romland and I’m reading “wrong.”

      • willaful says:

        I know I’m guilty of doing that! It’s more about my personal need for resolution in my fiction… honestly, I don’t even know what makes a book into literary fiction other than it lacks resolution! Or a dude wrote it. 😉

  12. Janine Ballard says:

    Replying to Willaful’s comment from above:

    A number of times, someone looking for a book describes some utterly crazy scenario and it turned out to be from a book I know very well, and I hasn’t recognized it. Because that wasn’t what I took away from the book.

    In Florand’s case, the use of metaphor and shared reality makes the ridiculous acceptable. She’s kind of grown away from that, and I miss it.

    Willa, I haven’t read Florand (I’ve tried but so far I haven’t been able to get into her books). Can you elaborate on your last sentence above, or give an example of what you mean?

    • willaful says:

      Well, there’s a scene in The Chocolate Kiss in which the heroine, who is very guarded and self-protective, creates a chocolate scene from Baba Yaga follore, a fence with skulls. This is something that’s supposed to keep a prince away. But the hero of the story instantly notices that one of the chocolate skulls has fallen off, which voids the spell. They both recognize what she’s trying to do and how useless it will be.

      The whole premise of The Chocolate Thief is utterly ridiculous, yet the main characters completely embrace it, because their minds work the same way. It’s like they’re both living in a slightly different world, where ridiculous things are real.

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