Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Emotion on the Wane?

Saturday morning I sat, bleary-eyed, at my computer, a cup of coffee close at hand. I saw a tiny headline that woke me up quicker than the coffee: “Is literature losing emotion?”  The article quoted a recent study ( which seems to think so.
The researchers examined books published between 1900 and 2000, using a text analysis tool that looked for ‘content’ words that expressed emotion in six categories: Anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise. There’s a lot of deciphering in the ‘methods’ section of their paper, but the long and the short of it: emotion in literature is on the decline. The study claims a steady decline, with a two brief bumps, one in the late 1920s, another the early 1940s*, then dropping, dropping, dropping, with a slight upturn beginning in the 80s (the authors point out the biggest upturn has been with words indicative of ‘fear’, interestingly).
There are a lot of potential flaws with this research, and the Slate summary points out what looks an awful lot like confirmation bias. The study’s authors claim they are accounting for changes in language and word use, though we don’t know what words are used to indicate what emotions. Neither article really delves deep into what this means, whether it’s a reflection of our times, or something else. Personally, I wonder if it comes down to authors working harder at ‘showing’, not ‘telling’.
Someone commenting on the Slate article mentioned Raymond Carver, blaming him for stories that “focus on the dull & somewhat depersonalized stories of average people…all written with a heavy nod toward the language police & topped off w/, at this point, an enormous dollop of contemporary cliché.” Ouch! I haven’t read huge amounts of Carver’s work, but what I’ve found is his work is packed with emotion, but the emotion is in the tonethat permeates the entire piece, a mood he sets without using obvious content words. A skilled writer can do this without heavy use of emotion words. In fact, I would bet you can create a piece that’s dark and depressing while stuffing it full of words that would indicate the opposite. Hmm. If I were a contest and challenge sort of guy, I might suggest you do that. What the hell, do it anyway, on your own, have fun with it.
I haven’t found recent literature to be lacking emotion, have you? I do think writers are working harder at conveying emotion with less use of ’emotional’ words. What do you all think of this? Have you found books becoming less emotional? Do you find a major difference between old books and new?
Thanks for stopping, have a great weekend.

8 Responses

  1. Goodness, I haven't read an "old" book in so long, I couldn't tell you if there's a difference. But I agree with you. I believe you aren't seeing those words in books because they aren't being used as often. Instead, those emotions are being shown.

    And that's what makes a book emotional. You can tell me the character is angry, but show him throwing a chair across the room, while he's cussing (out loud or inside his head), and I get the message a whole lot better. I might even be tempted to throw something, too!

  2. I saw that article too. And I think you're right that style changes in storytelling may be to blame for the lack of "emotion" words they cited. I mean, if I'm critiquing someone's novel and they've written, "Tom was so angry he spit," I'm going to strikeout the words "was so angry he."

  3. I do believe books of the past are different from newer books but that's the point. The future is different, you can't expect books from the past to be like those of the present. Also I don't find literature lacking in emotion at all. In fact I think there's more now.

  4. Well, no one's ever accused me of not including enough emotion, that's for sure. I don't read the old stuff anymore, so I couldn't do a comparison, but I think you might be onto something about the show, not tell. You should rely on words to tell the reader the emotion, but show with action, which, of course, wouldn't register with that method for determining emotional content. It's more visceral now, which I think is better.

  5. I think newer books describe emotion differently–older books tend to (in my experience) tell more about the character's feelings rather than show what they're going through. Perhaps that's somehow affecting the word choice?

  6. I haven't found that at all. I wonder if they've taken into account the more 'showing' than 'telling' when they're calculating their data. If it's a computer program it's likely a bit faulty 🙂

  7. "Personally, I wonder if it comes down to authors working harder at 'showing', not 'telling'."

    I wondered the same thing. *shakes her head*

    Oh well. Have a great weekend! 🙂

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