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.