Crying in cafés isn’t a common pastime. Crying in public full stop is generally viewed as a sign of weakness and instability – an inability to keep your feelings to yourself. Tears are a social faux pas; letting your brave face slip is dreadfully embarrassing. Better to strictly regulate your Great British stiff upper lip, avoid meeting strangers’ eyes, and save the sobs for the safety and privacy of your bedroom. Yet, a couple of weeks ago I found myself tearing up at a café table, in plain view of people attempting to enjoy their cappuccino froth and frothy conversation.
My brave face, my usual control over my emotions, my ability to toe the line of acceptable public behaviour, had definitely slipped. But it wasn’t my fault, entirely – the book I was reading tripped me up. One moment I was another coffee drinking café reader, the next I was clutching Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body closer to my face, to try and conceal watery eyes and a wobbly lip. A sensual, poetic story of love and loss – maybe I should have predicted it would choke me a little bit, but I didn’t. I thought I was in control. Sure, it was essay season and grey outside – I was feeling a little stressed, a little more fragile than normal – but I was fine, until some words on a page pulled on my heartstrings and kicked my composure out from under my eyelids.
Like crying in cafés, I don’t usually make crying at books a habit. Studying English Literature enforces a level of academic numbness to the reading process. I am meant to be the one in control, able to judge novels dispassionately, pick out literary techniques and analyse the author’s intentions – how can I break a narrative down into themes and images if I’ve got tears in my eyes? Anyway, isn’t getting weepy over printed pages a little immature, a little bit too Twilight-fan?
We have these strange rules about emotions and about privacy. Films are easily labelled as ‘weepies’; apparently the cinema is an acceptable place to cry alongside strangers. Maybe it’s the cover of darkness that exempts us from the usual social emotional-embarrassment – no one has to awkwardly look away from your tears under the glow of the silver screen. Or maybe it’s because the movie business is built on shared experience. While some may leave a screening dry-eyed, if a ‘weepy’ prompts some sobs from you, you can usually rely that there will be someone sobbing harder a few rows back from you. Our collective fear of social stigma can be soothed in the cinema auditorium – it’s ok to get a bit emotional if others are too.
Books don’t have quite the same defence. Reading, like crying itself, is seen as a private experience. Since we ditched the bards and their lutes and started reading curled up on our own, our relationship with books has been purely ours. There’s no 10-foot high Hollywood projection telling anyone else what you’re seeing in between the lines. And there’s nothing we like less than not being able to explain something, or stash it away in a clearly labelled box. So when the private experience that’s meant to be contained in a book’s pages spills over into the public space we get all confused and muddled and don’t know where to look. An involuntary tear (or shriek of solitary laughter for that matter) is like the book reader’s nipple slip.
But surely that’s part of the strange joy of reading – that strange feeling of displacement between the world you’re sitting in and the one you find in your hands. The escapism of books is widely discussed; we readily accept that those people on the Underground clutching well-leafed novels are trying to leave the body odour rush hour for more exotic, exciting scenes. However, it is often not the total immersion into a sci-fi dystopia, or a romantic utopia that provides the thrill of fiction, but the, sometimes uncomfortable, partial immersion in two worlds at once. Perched on a sofa in the corner of a café, I hadn’t lost myself entirely – I was all too aware of the caffeinated customers and hip baristas around me. It was precisely this odd disconnection, the sense of hovering between the people in the pages and the ones around me, and for a while not fully belonging with either, that caused the sharp lump-in-the-throat sensation. It was the very understanding that the emotions prompted by the imagined world weren’t allowed in the real one that forced them to show themselves. If there’s one way to guarantee something, make it just a bit against the rules.
Being stabbed in the feelings by fiction is often seen as silliness (I mean, you’re an adult, don’t you know its not real?), but this presumes that our normal, everyday world should always be taken seriously – that to be a grown up is to not let yourself trip up into emotions and imagination. ‘Weepies’ provide a safe space for these usually regulated emotions to emerge for a while, but books, and their ability to hold you in multiple spaces at once, make you question the rules of reality you usually find yourself in. Maybe the brave faces can only be unmasked if café society hosts a few more involuntary, but not unnatural, ‘silly’ tears