Last year, in a piece titled “How Crying on TikTok Sells Books,” the New York Times tracked how the social media app was ushering readers into the Age of the Ugly Cry: clusters of videos dedicated to “books that will make you sob” have reached millions of views and were having, according to publishing-industry insiders, a seismic effect on sales. Years-old novels about domestic violence (It Ends With Us), childhood sexual abuse (A Little Life), bisexual yearning in Old Hollywood (The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo), and getting your favourite twink killed in the Trojan war (The Song of Achilles) have experienced massive, ongoing increases in sales, largely based on videos that promise they will make you “sob until you can’t breathe” or will leave you “heartbroken and shattered for days.” Your local bookshop probably has a TikTok table; at least half the books on it will be designed to make you weep into your breakfast muffin, if you’re a breakfast muffin person.
Because it involves both melodrama and young people online, it’s easy to set this phenomenon at odds with a more high-brow appreciation for quality fiction, but I don’t think that’s necessary. Everyone wants media to occasionally make them feel things. Aren’t even the most Cusk-pilled among us sometimes a little sick of spare, dysthymic, white-dustjacketed novels about watching your house plants die in your Brooklyn apartment? Don’t you just want to chuck it all in for a book that’ll kill off every other thought in your head? And sure, some of the novels beloved by sobbing TikTokers are very bad. Most novels are. If you managed to get through adolescence without writing a novel’s worth of bad hurt/comfort fanfiction, good for you, but we are different people. There exist valves in the human psyche that are best turned by fiction that is perhaps inept, but is emotional in a vulnerable, sincere, full-throated way.
However, there remains something a little unsightly, a little base, about books that set out to make you cry, and something a little unnerving about books that try to cloak the rawness of that motive with a high-minded style. This aesthetic clash is typified by A Little Life, a Booker-nominated 800-page tome about a ravaged, traumatized lawyer in New York, which started heavily featuring in teenagers’ sad-book recommendation videos years after its 2015 release, sitting snugly between various popular YA and romance picks. Why? Well, because A Little Life depicts Gothic extremes of suffering and penitence interspersed with teary-eyed scenes of love and acceptance, and reading it feels like you’re a big cow made of tears and Yanagihara is milking you. To quote Brandon Taylor: “It gave fanfiction, if we’re being totally honest” — that’s its emotional key, that’s its set of tactics, though in the hands of an author with considerable skill to pull them off. And teenagers, after all, often do feel like pendulous tear cows a lot of the time.
Still, I am not writing another article about A Little Life. Andrea Long Chu said her piece and now we all get to shut up for another few years. I have a different bone to pick with the broader Ugly Cry Canon, and it has to do with a little tearjerker tactic I can’t stand. It’s teeth-grindingly saccharine, politically dubious, lacks the excuses of adolescent excess or the fun of melodrama, and as a bookseller I have to deal with people telling me how great it is all the time, which means I’m making it your problem. I call this device the Good Little Pig.
The Good Little Pig does not have to be a pig, though unfortunately for Sequoia Nagamatsu’s How High We Go in the Dark (2022), there is a fictional pig that demonstrates this archetype perfectly. It tends to be either a child or a sentient animal with a stupid name, and it tends to be used within a type of overtly political, liberal, humanistic fiction that straddles the divide between literary and mass-market: think state-of-the-nation novels, climate-change fiction, novels that are concerned about how divided society is in the Trump/post-Trump/COVID/post-post-Trump era. The Good Little Pig is sad and confused that things are so awful. It wants to ask us why people can’t just get along. It wants to tell us that it believes in human nature. It wants to stare up at us with its big Disney eyes. The Pig is impossibly intelligent, impossibly naïve, free of fault, full of love and wonder, and would die for our sins in a second if we asked. We will probably ask.
The pig in How High We Go in the Dark is a lab specimen, bioengineered to grow human organs for children sickened by a climate-change-accelerated plague, who develops the power of speech. He snuffles happily as the interns read him Where the Wild Things Are, and mournfully says “Lonely. Lonely pig” when they leave him alone in his pen. Later, faced with a choice between donating his organs and spending a few more weeks alive, he intones “Pig go back. Pig help people,” while the scientists sob. The pig — whose name, regrettably, is “Snortorious P.I.G.” — has few characteristics other than childlike wonder, dismay, and an indiscriminate interest in the protagonist, willingly becoming a replacement for the protagonist’s similarly faultless and adorable son, who died of the plague in the book’s previous chapter. Just before the pig dies, he asks the protagonist to finish reading the story that he was reading to his son before the child’s death.
This is debilitatingly twee, and laden with the kind of cheaply produced sincerity that easily tips into the parodic — my girlfriend has taken to calling “Lonely pig!” from the living room when she wants attention — but it’s also effective, particularly on those who are inexperienced or generous enough to take the book on its own terms. I’ve had five booksellers tell me they cried at the pig. Five! I’ve also heard many an adoring comment about the protagonist’s dog, Six-Thirty, in Bonnie Garmus’s runaway bestseller Lessons in Chemistry (2022), who, in one scene, stoically bears the responsibility of telling the protagonist’s unborn child that her father has died — presumably through some form of cross-placental ESP — and then starts regularly walking to the dead man’s grave to tell him how sad the protagonist is. I don’t mean to pick on debut authors, either: Ali Smith’s award-winning Seasons Quartet features not one, but two installments (Winter and Spring) that rely on impossibly intelligent, magnanimous manic-pixie-dream-children to teach the protagonists how to live, one of whom (Florence) disappears into the immigration detention system after she’s done her work, the other of whom (Lux) is implied to later die in the Grenfell tower disaster.
My objections to the Good Little Pig are initially aesthetic — they are unfailingly grotesque in their prettiness, these pristine little mascots created to knead at our glands — but are ultimately political. These novels are trying to talk about serious topics: Winter and Spring are responses to Brexit, rising fascism in Britain and anti-migrant violence; Lessons in Chemistry is steeped in the history of misogynistic violence and women’s disenfranchisement. But they all cling to the idea that the reader and author share a rationality and kindness and desire for compromise that would make everything work if everyone else just felt the same way. “Nobody agree on anything,” Snortorious says sadly after watching the news, conveying the mission statement of a genre that is often more focused on lamenting “division” than anything more specific or sharp.
Crying can be a powerful form of catharsis; we process the protagonist’s grief, we watch the attractive men sob into each other’s angora jumpers, and we feel freshly empty and held. But the Pig is a crappy way of getting to catharsis, because it neatly excises the part that complicates our lovely purgative experience: the possibility that a real-life Pig might reasonably want to kick our brains out with its hooves for what we’ve done to it and its world. That kind of brutality would be preferable to the superficial form we encounter when “making you cry” becomes a marketing category, which is actually pretty servile. Leaving us cutely teary-eyed, rather than discomforted and mute, is a form of indulgence that often means prioritising extremes of feeling ‘difficult’ material —– hard-hitting topics, character deaths, sad endings —– over less marketable difficult thinking: examining our own culpability, reading perspectives that are unfamiliar and hostile, grappling with metaphors that do not resolve neatly in our hands.
Crying at the state of the world, and at the beauty of human persistence under awful conditions, is fine and good. But crying in a pillowy and self-satisfied fashion at the death of a Pig, and its peaceful little eyes as it dies, and at our own exquisite depth of feeling? Returning to the world clean and newly inspired to do…something, presumably? That’s a useless mockery of a supposedly profound experience, particularly in the case of books that purport to be that serious.
Elia Cugini is a culture writer and incoming PhD student at the University of Manchester.