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In Search of Big Feelings


In Search of Big Feelings

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In Search of Big Feelings

What book last reduced you to tears? What took your breath away or made your heart race?


Published on May 30, 2024

“A Wife” by John Everett Millais (c. 1860-3)

Illustration of a woman weeping, kneeling at a desk with her head down near an open book.

“A Wife” by John Everett Millais (c. 1860-3)

Lately, I’ve been in limbo. Entertainment limbo, a modern purgatory for a Goldilocks who has too many options, none of them quite right. This show is too slow. This show came out all in one drop and now feels irrelevant. This movie is too long; that one, too restrained. Books are a little more accessible, to my unsatisfied brain. So many of them are many things at once: terrifying, wise, funny, prophetic, clever, beautiful. I find it easier to give books a chance than movies or series, which is not how my brain usually works. I like a balanced diet, you know? A little bit of everything. But everything isn’t working. Do you know that feeling? When you want an experience, but you want to know it’s going to be An Experience? A bundle of feelings, thrown in your lap, undeniable?

So I went to see Children of Men on the biggest movie screen in Portland. This was not the experience of seeing that movie in a tiny, afterthought of a theater in a shopping mall when it arrived in 2006. This was large, and immersive, and still, after all these years, astonishing. It remains an artistic and technical triumph, and also one of the greatest examples of how an adaptation can, in fact, improve upon its source material.

When I left the theater, walking out into incomprehensible daylight—surely it had gotten dark; surely it was night, by now, better to hide my expression—I asked, out loud, “Why did I want to do that again?” And then the answer: “Because I wanted all those feelings.”

I am in search of big feelings. But not just any big feelings. The big feelings once associated with characters saving the world have dimmed and shrunk; too many stories about saving the world, the galaxy, the universe; too many teams of interchangeable heroes; too many ever-more-grandiose villains trying to enact their outrageous evil plots via powers that should make them unstoppable—but lo, the heroes pull it off! When you repeat the same big feelings formula too many times, it takes the edge off. Everyone is saving the world, on screen. Out here it just makes me despondent: The planet’s enemies are more subtle than Thanos. Not subtle at all, really, but still more subtle than that guy.

I wonder, sometimes, if the desire for big feelings is part of the lure of the thriving romantasy subgenre. Those, too, are specific big feelings, and not usually the ones I’m looking for. But they resonate with so many: big love affairs, maybe some big world-saving on the side. Good and evil and grand sweeping gestures and grand sweeping wingspans. I’m a little bit jealous of the romantasy lovers; they’ve got big feelings on a platter right now. But I’m happy for them, too.

Where do you look for big feelings? I’ve been thinking about feelings, and feelings in pop culture, nonstop since reading Heather Havrilesky’s Ask Polly piece from earlier this month. “The Rise of Emotional Divestment” is about so many things I find it impossible to sum up. It’s about everything we’re experiencing these days: the ignored but still present pandemic, the world’s horrors, the world’s indifference to said horrors, the picking apart of mistakes, the distance from other people. (Havrilesky also wrote a great and related piece in The New York Times in defense of tearjerkers.)

One of many sentences that grabbed me: “These days, we digest sadness alone with our phones.” This is not always true, no; nothing is always true. But do you want to pick a sentence like that apart for every letter of truth or imperfection, or do you want to think about how often it is true? I can’t tell you how many times a day I am staring in horror at something on my phone or laptop, and no matter how many other people are also staring in horror at that thing, somewhere, many of us are sitting alone. We look, and we look, and then there’s another thing, and another, and then eventually you close the app or the tab, and then what? You’re still alone.

I understand that for some of us, everything happening in the world right now has the opposite effect: fewer feelings, please. Please, put some back. But I want those fictional feelings that become real as they bubble and steam in my chest. They are like practice feelings; they are at once an escape and an outlet for “real-world” feelings I don’t know what to do with. Horror and grief goes into the reading or watching experience, and comes out the other side a little changed, somehow. Not easier—I am not looking for easy—but like I have discovered some unexpected nuance in my own ability to feel. There’s more to it. And sometimes I just want to feel a big feeling that isn’t horror or fury. Sometimes I want sneaky feelings, like the ones tucked into The Good Place when you least expect them.

Sometimes I too wish to give no fucks. To lie on the ground, inert, unfeeling. To take a little emotional nap from all of it: real feelings, fiction feelings, the cumulative grief of the last immeasurable span of time. But then I rise up, again, in search of the big feelings, the ones that don’t feel manufactured or paint-by-numbers or like the latest watered-down offshoot of something that elicited big feelings in people some time back. I want the fresh, vibrant, vulnerable, messy, terrible, crushing, incredible big feelings we are all, still, feeling, somewhere, even when they’re hard to access. I want catharsis

“We don’t have the patience for anything, let alone the slow unfolding of human emotion,” Havrilevsky writes. This is it: this is the big feeling I want. The slow unfolding of a character’s reaction to their world. Micaiah Johnson’s narrator, in Those Beyond the Wall, leaps off the page, a mess of feelings and fury, but the extent of her story unfolds slowly, changing the novel from a murder mystery to a revolution. Wicked, the book, is a slow unfolding of grief. It is hard to say, really, exactly which books, which stories, fit this bill, because that unfolding works differently for everyone. I’ve read two books that aren’t out yet—Rakesfall and The Mercy of Gods—in which the unfolding is so intense that I haven’t yet worked out what feelings, exactly, they unfold within me. And that’s a thing to treasure: a story delivering feelings that take time to understand.

I catch myself, while writing about big feelings, trying to refrain from yelling and shouting, like one must be calm and reasonable while thinking Please I would just like something that makes me sob, but in a good way! I want to know where you find that. What book last reduced you to tears? What took your breath away or made your heart race? What left you pondering humanity’s own horrors alongside those of an alien culture? What filled your well, inspired you, reminded you that someone else has been through loss and rejection and sadness? Where are the big feelings hiding? icon-paragraph-end

About the Author

Molly Templeton


Molly Templeton has been a bookseller, an alt-weekly editor, and assistant managing editor of, among other things. She now lives and writes in Oregon, and spends as much time as possible in the woods.
Learn More About Molly
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