Thursday, December 14, 2006

It Made Me Cry!

I'm still thinking about ways I respond to books as a reader. I've noticed a bit of a pattern in my own reactions as well as in the ways I've noticed others reacting. It would seem like, in general, we're more positively inclined toward things that make us cry (this may be a female thing, as I don't know that men react quite the same way -- though it does seem like if something is powerful enough to make a man cry, there's the belief that it has to be really, really good).

I've seen this when people post responses to television episodes or movies. "It made me cry!" or "I got tears in my eyes!" are high praise. I write and enjoy comedy, but I find myself doing the same thing. When I try to encourage people to watch Friday Night Lights, what do I say? "Every episode manages to make me cry. It's so good!" (I also mention that Kyle Chandler is hot, but that's another issue entirely.)

Do we do the same with things that make us laugh? I don't know. If something is billed as a comedy, it's expected. It only gets extra credit if it makes us laugh more than usual. It's not like the morning-after response to an episode of The Office is, "Wow, it made me laugh!" Well, duh. If it didn't, it was a total failure. Yet why are tears high praise for a drama? And no, I'm not ranting about comedy getting no respect. I'm just trying to figure out emotional responses and how they work.

What set me off this time was a book I was reading this week. No title, since I mostly didn't like it and wouldn't recommend it. The story line sounded like something right up my alley -- long-time friends from childhood growing up and eventually falling in love -- and it was told in the format of letters and e-mails, something else I usually love (if it's done well, but that's another rant). This book was a bestseller and I've seen rave reviews for it, but midway through, I was ready to throw it against the wall because I wanted to bash the characters' heads together. It tried to make it seem like the characters were some kind of star-crossed lovers where fate kept getting in the way until the timing was right for them to get together, but to me "fate" boiled down to making really, really stupid choices, not actually talking to each other about major issues, and then getting mad when the other person made a choice without having that major information that might have changed their choice. So, I did what I often do when I'm having a massively different reaction to a book than I get the feeling that I'm supposed to have: I went to Amazon to read reader reviews. The reviews were split down the middle. One half raved, calling the book wonderful and oh so romantic. The other half had a similar reaction to mine. But I noticed that a lot of the raves mentioned that the book brought tears to their eyes and how they needed tissues handy at the end. So, although I was ready to put the book down, I kept reading out of curiosity. Sure enough, there were some tearjerker scenes near the end (in that "point of no return" zone) in which one of the main characters had some deaths in the family, and then the ending was written in such a way that I admit that I cried a little, even though I knew I was being manipulated. As I put the book down, my opinion of it was much higher because I felt somewhat touched. And then I remembered all the things about it that had annoyed me and snapped out of the spell.

There seems to be a similar thing at work with a certain majorly bestselling author. Her books are loved by millions, but her writing style drives me insane, and I can't stand her main characters. I'd tried to read several of her books and kept giving up a few chapters in as the books ended up doing things like propping up fans and doing other useful household chores for me. I only managed to finish her books when I was having to read them to judge them in a contest and I felt obligated, and then I really only managed to get through them by reading them on an airplane when I had no other reading material (and even then there were a few detours to re-read the SkyMall catalog). In addition to trying to judge the books' worth as books, I was trying to figure out why people respond so strongly to them when I'd rather eat ground glass than read them. I discovered that near the very end of the book, she always has some tearjerking scene, so that you still have tears in your eyes when the book ends, and that seems to leave the impression of the book having been truly moving. It actually worked on me for a moment, until I went back and looked at that scene and realized that it had absolutely nothing to do with the main story! It involved secondary characters and a sub-sub-sub plot. Basically, there was a scene with a cute, sad kid thrown in about 30 pages before the end so that you were already crying as the main plot came to a close and you were left with the impression that the book as a whole and the main story had moved you deeply.

It's actually quite a brilliant strategy. I may have to throw a kid in front of a bus or show him worried about not getting anything from Santa Claus this year just before the endings of all my books. Never mind if the kid is barely in the rest of the books.

I'm curious. Does anyone have any thoughts on this? Do you automatically rate something higher if it moved you to tears, or do you give equal weight to other emotional responses, like laughter or intense fear?

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