Dispatches | November 06, 2003

[By Anthony Varallo]

Lately, I’ve been noticing the phrase “fiercely unsentimental” on more and more book jacket blurbs. “___________ has a sharp, unflinching eye for the way we live now,” a typical reviewer might say. “Hard-hitting, honest, and fiercely unsentimental.” As high praise, “fiercely unsentimental” ranks second only to “stunning” as in “Fiercely unsentimental—a stunning debut!” I understand what is implied here—that the writer is a “realist,” artfully rendering life’s suffering, pain, alienation—but how odd to see these words on jacket after jacket. By simply deleting a few words (like novel, short-story collection) the blurb could equally describe a bulldozer, outboard motor, trash compactor, or ball-peen hammer. Just think of the terrific use Home Depot could make of these phrases. Three-speed power drill: “Fast, powerful—and fiercely unsentimental!” Forty-foot indoor/outdoor extension cord: “Unflinching!” Drywall: “Necessary and real, perfectly suited for these uncertain times.”

How is it that “fiercely unsentimental” came to mean high praise? When Charles Dickens published The Old Curiosity Shop in 1841, book reviewers admitted that they’d wept—wept—over the death of Little Nell. These were bright people, lovers of literature, readers like you and me (okay, they probably wore a monocle or a pince-nez, but otherwise…). Something seems to have happened since then, but it’s hard to say what. Nowadays we like our writers to be made of tougher stuff, out of some vague, unspoken feeling that toughness—and fierce unsentimentality—will lead us more closely to Truth.

Which makes me wonder: what is life like for the Fiercely Unsentimental Writer?

I imagine him/her grimly pushing a shopping cart through a supermarket, wincing at the sight of holiday pumpkins, Fruity Pebbles, and really good pears, heading straight for the “No Frills” aisle. There, he can buy paper towels without teddy bears on them, and thin tissues that work well enough without accidentally offering pleasure. Home, he sets the bags in his empty kitchen (the former owners had Amish buggy wallpaper that he had to scrape off—fiercely, at times—with a razor blade and hot water). He pours “No Frills” dog food for his unnamed dog, who the Fiercely Unsentimental Writer doesn’t mind so much as long as he doesn’t do anything especially pleasant, like greet him at the door, tail wagging. Night, he settles in under a thick blanket, without foolishly enjoying its warmth, then dreams of clouds, but not in a necessarily hopeful way. In the morning he drinks coffee (black, but wishes it could be more black) and writes a fiercely unsentimental page or two. Because the coffee sometimes goes to his head, he allows himself to imagine the blurbs his novel might receive, then quickly chases them away.

For a moment, he almost caught himself smiling.