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Thought 1

Howard Jacobson has an interesting polemic about comedy in serious fiction in the Guardian. I was particularly struck by this sentence:

But we have created a false division between laughter and thought, between comedy and seriousness, between the exhilaration that the great novels offer when they are at their funniest, and whatever else it is we now think we want from literature.


6 thoughts on “Thought 1

  1. i agree with jacobson. i think humor can potentially make a piece of writing simultaneously more appealing and more thoughtful/interesting. seems like comedy can cause a sudden recognition of things i feel like i already vaguely knew, or it puts those things in a tragic, absurd, hilarious light. i’ve tried to read a lot of contemporary mainstream literary fiction as well as more experimental lit, either stories or novels, and one of the reasons why i don’t find so much of it appealing is because it isn’t funny or playful (and i don’t mean playful in a sassy, snarky contemporary humor writer kind of way; i guess i mean “open to possibilities, uninhibited, fun and interesting”—by the way, i mean interesting just to me, personally…i’m not interested in this business of “but is this the first time anyone’s done this—is it FRESH? is this INTERESTING or RELEVANT to my graduate thesis on aesthetics in the contemporary blah blah blah”—don’t care about that line of thought). i think a big part of why i like dfw and tl, for example, is because they are frequently very very laugh-out-loud funny.

    1. What struck me in the sentence from Jacobson I quoted was the separation between serious fiction and anything humorous. I think, really, it’s only true of the generation that has emerged since the 1970s. Too many modern novels seem to try to demonstrate their seriousness by being so po-faced it is painful. Yet the truly great works of literature, from Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy onwards, are always and necessarily funny.

      1. I think that I agree, Paul. One thing I can’t really stand in contemporary US fiction is “the serious author who’s going to tell you something serious and true about the world.” This is a big part of the reason why I have little interest in writers like DeLillo, Franzen, McCarthy. I find them all rather pretentious.

        Many, many, many of my favorite contemporary English-language fiction writers (those who have written something since 1970) are funny: Donald Barthelme, Christine Brooke-Rose, Bridget Brophy, John Cheever, Guy Davenport, Philip K. Dick, John Gardner, William H. Gass, Patricia Highsmith, B.S. Johnson, Steve Katz, David Markson, Frank Miller, Daniel Manus Pinkwater, David Rees, Dave Sim, Gilbert Sorrentino, Yuriy Tarnawsky. (I have other favorite contemporary writers, no doubt, but these are the ones who come first to mind.)

        Carole Maso is pretty serious all the time, I suppose. As was Ann Quin, arguably Kathy Acker. (Although Quin and Acker use form comically.)

        I suppose my favorite somber writers tend to be women…?

        1. btw, adam, i came across a probably fairly old story of yours called “more about ninjas” at elimae and liked it quite a bit. seemed reminiscent of barthelme to me, with a dash of salinger in some of the phrasings.

          1. Why, thanks, Stephen! That piece is all that remains of the very first novel I tried to write. (Well, my first “serious,” post-writing program novel.)

            I was reading a lot of Barthelme at the time, and aping him also a lot.

  2. Is this really true though? It seems to me that there are plenty of authors acclaimed as literary who write in a kind of joking, half-ironic style (Juniot Diaz comes to mind), and I’ve seen plenty of novels on the literary shelves pitched as being funny. If anything it seems like the McSweeney’s generation demands stories that don’t take themselves entirely seriously.

    (Personally, I find humour on the page doesn’t really get to me the same way it does while spoken, but your mileage may vary.)

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