You Don’t Have to Cry About It, or How I Am a Secret Cylon

The Millions has a great post about John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and how we talk about books that make an emotional impact. Janet Potter says that she and others recommend The Fault in Our Stars by saying how much they cried/their friend will cry/etc, but she recognizes that’s an incomplete shorthand for ‘This book made me feel very deep emotions, some of them being sadness and grief, but also emotions of hope and love.’ Potter says:

“What we’re trying to say is: this book mattered deeply to me, I think it could matter deeply to you too. At some point I stopped experiencing this book as fiction, and started experiencing it personally. I read fiction so that the characters’ stories, for the time that I’m reading the book, or hopefully longer, will be important to me. And for as many books as I go through, it’s rare for one to succeed. What we’re trying to say to each other is that this is one of those rare books; that you will love the characters the way you love real people, they will make you laugh and cry and want to live a better life. We’re saying, I felt something transforming. You should feel it too.”

That’s a fantastic way to describe what happens when you emotionally connect with a book. I certainly felt that with The Fault in Our Stars and have with many other books as well.

That said, Potter’s post got me thinking about a slightly different issue–the expectation of a book actually making you cry. Again, it’s very common to say, “Oh my gosh, read this, you’re totally going to cry.” But what happens when a reader doesn’t have that physical emotional reaction? Does that mean you didn’t connect with the book as much as a reader who did cry? Do we put too much focus on the act of crying?

It might be just my icy heart, but I tend to shy away from equating tears with emotional connection. I’ve certainly cried at my fair share of books (and might have spent an evening hysterical over a recent production of Our Town), but there have been a lot of times that I’ve been deeply moved by a sad story and not teared up.

For example, in fifth grade we read Where the Red Fern Grows. When my friends and I were discussing it before class, they all said “Oh my gosh, I cried so hard at the end.” I felt so awkward admitting I didn’t cry. Of course I was touched by the story and felt very sad at the ending, but that didn’t mean I needed to cry about it. Similarly, I loved The Fault in Our Stars (and will say that it gave me “all the feelings”), but I didn’t cry over it. When I think back on TFiOS, I’m most reminded of Hazel and Augustus in Amsterdam and the beauty and sadness and hope in those scenes–and these feelings don’t necessarily make me want to cry.

Does that mean I’m a cylon? No. (I know, that’s totally something a cylon would say.) But I remember being in fifth grade and worrying that I wasn’t having an appropriate emotional reaction to Where the Red Fern Grows. I was sad, so why wasn’t I crying? The thing is, you don’t have to cry about something. Emotions don’t always have to get processed in the same way for everyone. Some people cry at sad books and find catharsis in that; others process their feelings of grief and loss differently. Both responses are okay.

In eighth grade I read Night by Elie Wiesel and spent the entire book hysterical; the ending of Of Mice and Men made me tearfully throw my book across the room; but I can count the number of times a book as actually elicited tears on one hand, whereas books I’ve read and felt a deep connection with are far more numerous.

Basically, I don’t think we should fault to the shorthand of “you’re totally going to cry” when we recommend deeply moving books. It’s selling our emotions short and sets up unreasonable expectations for emotional responses. So cry, don’t cry, whatever you need to do. Just don’t feel bad about your emotional reaction.

5 thoughts on “You Don’t Have to Cry About It, or How I Am a Secret Cylon

  1. claresg says:

    I agree with you. I tend not to cry when reading books. I cry more when I watch movies – maybe because it is more visual, but even then it is somewhat random as to whether I will cry or not. I think it depends on the situation/how the book/movie speaks to you at that time, whether you are tired or not. Stuff like that. But you make a good point.

  2. Kate Sutton says:

    I just finished TFiOS and felt I really connected with characters – I did cry but I know friends that didn’t. I think there can’t be a right or wrong reaction when reading is such a subjective experience.

  3. greenembers says:

    I also think sometimes when people make statements, you’ll love this or it will make you cry, I tend to try and disprove them. It’s Something that I’ve noticed recently and I’ve seen it in other people. Now when I recommend things I never will say it will make you cry but rather it made me cry. I leave it open for the person to decide themselves instead of trying to influence a reaction. (or at least I try to be neutral as possible when it comes to them).

  4. Jill says:

    I’m also not a big crier when reading books…or watching movies or tv, usually. I haven’t read The Fault in our Stars YET, but I’ve also heard how much it’s going to make me cry…and I’m a little skeptical about that.

    I went to a production of The Laramie Project a couple of weeks ago, and man, was it gut-wrenching. But I didn’t cry. And I felt like a monster. I like the idea of owning your emotions and not feeling bad about how you express them.

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