Blubbering Over Books

By PJ Parrish

Have you ever cried reading a novel?

No, I don’t mean your first draft. I mean, has someone’s work moved you to such a point that you shed real tears?

It doesn’t happen often to me. Although I am a sucker for an emotional one-two punch. I remember reading Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club on a plane and getting to a scene where the mother explains why she abandoned her babies by the side of the road. Well, I had to get up and go into the bathroom to compose myself. What a wuss. What a good book.

I cry at books, movies, and commercials (that old one where the Army guy comes home for Christmas and wakes the house up making coffee gets me every time.)

Maybe it is because movies are more inherently commercial, but they seem to evoke tears more readily than books. Why is that? Are novelists more leery of the “cheap” reaction of tears? The last crime novel I can remember actually bringing a lump to my throat was T. Jefferson Parker’s Silent Joe. Why is that? We are dealing with the themes of death and loss all the time. We describe blood and guts with clinical accuracy. Why do we pull our punches when it comes to showing the emotional outfall of death?

I was thinking about the place emotion had in fiction tonight because I happened to catch the last half-hour of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Now I know that movie feels quaint in today’s world, but that scene where Spencer Tracy delivers his speech saying, “If what you feel for each other is half of what I felt for my wife, you’ll be all right.” With Katherine Hepburn all misty eyed in the background…great stuff.

Another movie that always gets to me is Breakfast At Tiffany’s: Even though I know it’s coming, I always sob during the scene where Holly searches for Cat in the rain. Now when I read Truman Capote’s novella that the movie is based on, I didn’t shed a tear. But the book’s ending is very different and, well, not as satisfying emotionally as the movie.

Other movies I get the Kleenex out for:
Roman Holiday: Princess Audrey, pauper Gregory Peck. Hopeless love.
The Vikings: Dead Kirk Douglas getting his Viking funeral sendoff.
Field of Dreams: Kevin Costner playing catch with his father’s ghost. Waaaa…
Sophie’s Choice: Stingo reciting Emily Dickinson over the death bed.
Old Yeller: Well, you know what happened to the dog.

Why doesn’t fiction evoke the same response as film? I don’t believe it is because movies are more visual. What is more powerful than the blank screens of our own imaginations? I think it might be because today’s crime writers are leery of being labeled as soft when we go into matters of the heart.

I had a conversation with a high-placed editor a while back. She told me she has noticed two trends in crime fiction recently: the decline of hard-boiled “guy books.” And the continued strength of romantic suspense. Now, let’s not kid ourselves. There is some terrific hard-boiled stuff being written right now, books that don’t turn up their noses at emotions. Likewise, there is some utterly putrid romantic suspense on the shelves these days, stuff that gets everything about police procedure and forensics wrong and gets really treacly about the romance part. Maybe I’m just reading the wrong stuff. What has gotten to you? What has made you cry? Movies are easy. But give me some books as well.

Or am I wrong in my belief that there is still room for well-wrought (as opposed to over-wrought) emotion in today’s crime fiction?


P.S. I am moving today. The movers came yesterday and packed us up. This morning, they are hauling all my earthly possessions down to the big truck. In two days, our little family will be starting a new life in Tallahassee.  The dogs, who’ve lived their whole lives in a condo, will like the new yard. Me, too. So, if I don’t get a chance to answer here…talk amongst yourselves and see you in two weeks!

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at

16 thoughts on “Blubbering Over Books

  1. I cry at Publix Thanksgiving commercials, so I’m not your target audience here. In books, Susan Wiggs can make me cry, to the point that I had to stop taking her books to the gym.

  2. I’m a crier. I cry for Hallmark commercials & animated films.

    I got hooked on books in elementary school when I originally loved horse books but shifted to reading for the brooding angsty cowboys who rode those horses. I still read for “the guy” in the book. I’m drawn to the enigmatic loner anti-hero. Even if the book is considered romantic suspense, I’d rather see the male play a larger role or have the story be his to tell. Is that considered a guy book? I don’t know but I read everyday & buy tons of books. I figure I’m as representative of the marketplace as anyone. So I write the type of books I like to read.

    But emotional stories are a must, in books & movies.

  3. Hacksaw Ridge. I was a Hospital Corpsman with the Marine Corps in Vietnam. The movie brought back a lot of memories.
    Please don’t thank me for my service. I have a band of sisters and brother for life and that’s all the thanks I need. I was Charley Med 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines.

  4. Another crier here. Nora Roberts/JD Robb can still wring tears out of me multiple times with each Eve Dallas book–even going on 45 or more. She’s a master.

    I cry at movies too. I think Call of the Wild when I was 10 or so still takes the cake for most copious amounts of tears, though.

  5. Forgive me but have to salute you, Brian. Noble work, sir.
    Hacksaw Ridge had my eyes raining. Don’t know why Kris but agree – much less frequent for books to turn on the water works

  6. “Have you ever cried reading a novel? … No, I don’t mean your first draft. I mean, has someone’s work moved you to such a point that you shed real tears?”

    The main one that comes to mind is I AM CHARLOTTE SIMMONS, by Tom Wolfe. There’s a certain point in the novel, such a tragic moment in the book, such a monumental and painful loss of innocence. Heartbreaking. And centered on such an outwardly little thing, too. Just thinking about that moment now, years later, forms a lump in my throat. Wolfe built up to the point so convincingly it just felt real and crushing.

    I’d highly recommend Tom Wolfe’s novel for a methodically built plot that’s dressed up with a colorful style and fascinating characters and incidents. And also Wolfe’s other novels BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES and BACK TO BLOOD. I’m not so sure of his second novel A MAN IN FULL, but even that has a captivating and suspenseful chapter in which nothing seems to go right for one character.

    Disclaimer: I almost never cry when reading books or watching movies. And I mean NEVER. So that should tell you something about Wolfe’s novel I AM CHARLOTTE SIMMONS. Potent stuff.

  7. Book – Charlotte’s Web – several scenes
    Movie – Dead Poet’s Society – “Captain, my Captain”. Gets me every time!

  8. I have read lots of books that bring tears to my eyes or that make me feel emotions deeply. That’s why I read them. Isn’t that what being an author is about–yanking on our reader’s emotions? As authors, if we are not creating an emotional response in our audience, then I think we have missed something important, something that is crucial to the craft of writing and our very human need for stories. I read and write because I feel.


  9. Recent books that squeezed out the man-tears in me:

    All the Light We Cannot See
    The Nightengale
    Everyone Brave is Forgiven

    Why are these all WWII books? Ah, the stakes were high then, weren’t they?

  10. I’m not much of a crier, Kris. Maybe that’s why I sometimes pull my punches in my novels. I HATE overwrought writing and it’s hard to get right. (Or is that write?) Good luck with your move and enjoy your new home in Tallahassee.

  11. For me, the mark of a great book or movie is that it engages my emotions to the extent I feel the characters’ pain and joy. So yes, I’m a crier. And occasionally a full-out belly-laugher. I can’t attend a graveside service without having to control unseemly laughter because I always remember a particular scene from Big Bottom Church by Bill Patterson.

  12. I remember my mother reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin to my sister and me when we were children and having to stop every now and then because all three of us were sobbing too much to continue.

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