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Has fiction lost its sense of humour?

According to the judges of the Wodehouse prize, this is the worst year for comic writing in the awards 18-year history. So why the long faces? Sam Leith explores the funny side of fiction

Is the comic novel dead? This outstanding instance of a QTWTAIN (Question To Which The Answer Is No) greeted the news of the non-awarding of this years Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for comic fiction. The prize traditional bounty: a pig named after your book wasnt awarded because, according to the judges, not one of the 62 novels submitted for the prize was funny enough. This struck a lot of people, including me, as funny. The fact there was a rollover prize mooted for next year, in the form of a bigger pig, seemed even funnier.

A more interesting question might have been: was the comic novel ever alive? Is there something distinctive you can point to that can be called comic fiction? And are those two questions, or a different way of phrasing the same one? The late Philip Roth was rightly praised for his humour David Baddiel said he was funny in the way a standup was funny but none of the obituaries called him a comic novelist. Edward St Aubyns Patrick Melrose novels are very funny, but you probably wouldnt call them comic novels. AL Kennedy is extremely funny, but, again, doesnt seem to merit the label comic novelist. Others seem to travel more in that direction, but its a matter of fine judgment where the line is crossed. Anthony Powell? Evelyn Waugh? Ronald Firbank? Malcolm Bradbury? Vladimir Nabokov? Stella Gibbons?

The besetting problem with talking about this subject is that being funny is very far from a monopoly held by the comic novel. The critic James Wood raised a red flag over the whole idea of the form in his slighting review of one book he considered an example:

There is comedy, and then there is something called the Comic Novel, and these are related to each other rather as the year is related to a pocket diary the latter a meaner, tidier, simpler version of the former. Comedy is the angle at which most of us see the world, the way that our very light is filtered. The novel is, by and large, a secular, comic form: one can be suspicious of any serious novelist who seems entirely immune to the comic. But the Comic Novel flattens comedy into the bar code of the joke a strip of easy-to-swipe predictability. The Comic Novel might imagine itself descended from Cervantes and Fielding, but it is really the stunted offspring of Waugh and Wodehouse, lacking the magic of either.

That deprecatory note is a common one: the Comic Novel as the revolving bow tie, the novelty Christmas jumper of fiction. Not many writers self-identify unhesitatingly as comic novelists. I dont sit around all day thinking of a label to attach to myself, Tibor Fischer says. But people do seem to be laughing at me. Marina Lewycka says: Its a label thats stuck on me whether I like it or not. David Nobbs (of Reginald Perrin fame) asked his publishers to remove the endorsement probably our finest postwar comic novelist from his paperbacks not because he was irked by probably but because he was irked by comic.

If I read him right, what Wood is effectively saying is that the Comic Novel is a tautology presented as a unique selling point. Comedy is central to fiction because fiction shares the mechanisms of laughter itself. Most theories of humour stress surprise, or unlikely juxtaposition. Fiction is all about surprise and unlikely juxtaposition. The whole form is comic at its root not only in its reliance on coincidence but in the basic novelistic idea that you see characters both from the inside and the outside. There is a binocularity of vision implicit in the novel, in other words: the same multiple perspective that elsewhere provokes laughter. Heres Woods way that our light is filtered. The novels worldview is comic. Another word for it would be in its large sense irony. Youre invested in a characters personal struggles; but you also see how absurd they are sub specie aeternitatis.

Adam
Adam Driver, left, and Jonathan Pryce in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2018). Photograph: Allstar/Amazon Studios

According to one old definition, comedy is unimportant things happening to unimportant people and tragedy is important things happening to important people. The territory of the novel is the former, even when its the latter. Or an alternative definition: tragedy is when I cut my finger; comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die (Mel Brooks). Novels have it both ways. The novelist David Mitchell told me years ago, and I think hes right, that the difference between great writers and very good ones is that all the great ones are funny. Samuel Beckett: nihilist or barrel of laughs? Chekhov: tragedian or comic playwright? (Fun footnote: when George and Weedon Grossmiths The Diary of a Nobody became popular in pre-revolutionary Russia, the Russians are said to have thought it was a tragedy in the Chekhovian mould.) The novels very origins are, famously, comic: head back through Charles Dickens to Jane Austen and Laurence Sterne and Tobias Smollett and Henry Fielding and Jonathan Swift and the picaresque bits of Daniel Defoe in the direction of Don Quixote; wave at Geoffrey Chaucer (we can argue over Samuel Richardson I think hes very funny but there is a case that hes the inventor of the non-comic novel in English and therefore something of a mould-breaker).

But whatever the underlying place of humour in the mechanics of the form, its fair to say there have been swings back and forth in the extent to which humour is foregrounded in the material. Fischer argues that until the late 19th century when the French and Russians came in and made the novel the premier vehicle for the expression of the soul, the novel always had something of light entertainment about it. It wasnt seen as serious literature till you got to Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy and Flaubert. And to each action, a reaction. Perhaps until the novel started being serious there wasnt any need for the Comic Novel as a distinct entity.

Ian
Ian Carmichael in the 1957 film adaptation of Lucky Jim Kingsley Amiss novel set the template for much that was to come. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive

But, for a while, an entity it became. A few years back, Jonathan Coe argued that the modern comic novel started in 1954, with Kingsley Amiss Lucky Jim and that it set the template for much that was to come. Coe pointed, in particular, to the blokiness of that book; its declared interest in difficulties with girls and noted lack of interest in difficulties suffered by girls. Thats worth attention. When comic novelists are discussed, most of the names that come up are men. Helen Fielding and Lewycka have been the only two outright female winners in the 18-year run of the Wodehouse prize (Hannah Rothschild, joint winner in 2016, makes it two and a half), and though 2003 had a two-thirds female shortlist the winner was a man: DBC Pierre. Marian Keyes said at the Hay festival last weekend: The one thing I have a grudge about is the Wodehouse prize for comic writing. I have never been shortlisted. Say what you like about me, my books are funny, they are comic. What else do I have to do to qualify?

You might think of Keyes, Nora Ephron, Beryl Bainbridge, Sue Townsend, Nancy Mitford, Richmal Crompton, Alice Thomas Ellis, Nicola Barker and Nina Stibbe when you think of comic fiction. But it is more often male writers who are cited as being squarely in that tradition: Mark Twain, James Thurber, Carl Hiaasen, the Grossmiths and Saki, Steve Toltz and Pauls Murray and Beatty, Joseph Connolly, Christopher Brookmyre and Tom Sharpe, Ben Elton and Stephen Fry, Douglas Adams, Jonathan Ames and both Amises, Howard Jacobson and Michael Frayn, and so on and so on.

The long-standing domination of literature by men and the male point of view is (thank goodness) on its way out, Coe says now, and I think that may have something to do with why the comic novel seems to be fading: the term somehow carries a whiff of the bar room and the gentlemens club it all feels too gendered and out of date. But Im sure comedy in fiction will be perhaps is being reinvented, and women writers will play the leading role in that.

As well as sexual anxiety, a lot of the mainstream of comic fiction has been about social anxiety. The Lucky Jim strand is, as DJ Taylor puts it, one that foregrounds what he calls Richard Hoggart man: These characters are making their way on brainpower but find themselves in situations where brainpower isnt enough and the comedy arises from their rage at being socially inferior and intellectually superior at the same time. Here are the grammar school generation fallen among idiotic old duffers; Funny Young Men. And the mid-to-late-20th-century social setup that gave that generation its rocket fuel has changed. Yet of course Fielding, Austen, Thackeray, Trollope, Dickens before they knew they were writing comic novels also made social anxiety and class ambition engines of comedy.

Benedict
Benedict Cumberbatch as Patrick Melrose Edward St Aubyns novels are funny but not comic. Photograph: Patrick Melrose Photograph: Justin Downing/SHOWTIME

And there we return to the difficulty of definition. The comic novel might be one of those things, like a highly reactive element never found in its pure form, that you cant isolate many unalloyed examples of but you can detect everywhere in admixture. Wood may not think the victim of his review did it as well as Waugh or Wodehouse, but he admits that those writers have something imitable in common and that done well it can be magic. What are its elements? Id suggest they are a nudge northwards on the sentence-level chuckleometer, a more than usually hectic way with plot; and a more than usually cartoony way with characters, or at least a willingness as Dickens did to splice two-dimensional characters in with their more rounded counterparts.

There is an associated quality that flows from this, perhaps, to do with the extent to which you see the author pulling the strings. If one pole of literary endeavour can be seen as a sort of extreme naturalism contriving to present characters and situations with the illusion of an author reporting on, rather than creating, a situation comic novels inhabit the antipole. You delight in (or, if youre James Wood, grind your teeth at) the presence of the author: the unlikeliness of the situations, the showy dance moves in the prose. Coe talks of the comic novels wilful artificiality; Taylor talks of stage management. Done badly it descends into jocularity and contrivance; done well it is, indeed, magic.

And as if in rebuke to the Wodehouse prize, the Pulitzer this year found just such magic in Andrew Sean Greers Less. Finally, a comic novel gets a Pulitzer prize, announced the Washington Post.

But is that an outlier? Are the times simply too dark and too absurd in themselves for comic fiction to flourish? Is it impossible to make bad taste jokes when the news is a bad taste joke? There is a final canard to add to our duck soup: that comic novels are generally light or escapist. That is a drastic under-reading. Thomas Pynchon wrote a comic novel about the V-2 bombardment of London. Kurt Vonnegut wrote a comic novel about the firebombing of Dresden. Joseph Heller wrote a comic novel about the futility of war. Apartheid-era South Africa was what got Tom Sharpe started. For Fischer, it was Hungarian totalitarianism. Lewycka took on Ukraines Holodomor. Shalom Auslander took on Anne Frank. Ian McEwans most ostentatiously comic novel, Solar, had the prospect of planetary extinction as its backdrop. And, of course, depressions and recessions of every kind are fertile ground for comic fiction. Coes breakthrough What a Carve Up! made hay with the dark side of the Thatcher years. The Great Depression gave us Nathanael West and Damon Runyon among others. And Miriam Toewss wildly, sob-makingly funny All My Puny Sorrowswas a comic novel about her sisters suicide. We can already see comic fiction responding to our own era Jacobson transposing Donald Trump into fairytale in Pussy, for instance, and Coe working on a contemporary novel in his Rotters Club series.

Of course, comparisons are odorous. And the most odorous of all is perhaps Wodehouse himself. As probably our languages pre-eminent comic novelist, it may be natural that he should give his name to a prize for comic fiction but he is a bit of a red herring in the history of comic writing. Hes close to sui generis. He doesnt seem to articulate, except glancingly, the political satire or the social anxiety that fuels most comic fiction. Theres pure sunshine in Wodehouse. Taylor calls him a one-off: He created a world of his own. Coe calls him the elephant in my comic room. As Fischer says: Wodehouse was a particular sort of light comic novelist a sort of good-natured comic sensibility and I cant think of anyone who still does it in that way; Pratchett, maybe, but hes gone, and Douglas Adams, perhaps. Most comic fiction uses darker and crueller jokes. He adds: Just because youre funny doesnt mean youre not serious.

So to see comic fiction as generally escapist or generally Wodehousian is to ignore most comic fiction. It is, rather, more often a slant way of approaching serious things. The Comic Novel may be a faltering proposition, if it was ever a proposition in the first place .But is comic fiction dead? Dont make me laugh.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jun/09/has-fiction-lost-its-sense-of-humour

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