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Humor Fiction Doesn’t Fly

October 8, 2013

Lucky-Jim-Amis

Carl Hiaasen doesn’t have this problem. He’s an exception. There’s always an exception to every rule. And exceptions usually get paid. In general, though, and with all handsomely paid exceptions aside, humor doesn’t seem viable in fiction anymore.

Sure there are plenty of humor writers. There’s even classic humor novels like Kingsly Amis’s Lucky Jim, Joseph Heller’s Catch -22, or John Pendelton Kennedy’s A Confederacy of Dunces. These days, there’s David Sedaris and Tina Fey.  Like them, most humorists writing now write essays not fiction.

It’s almost as if there’s an unspoken rule. While a good novel can be funny, an exclusively funny book ought to be a collection of essays or a memoir. Not a novel. Unless of course we’re talking about young adult or children’s literature. Then humor is perfectly fine as a primary mode or style. Otherwise, humor should be merely the spice of adult literary fiction rather than the whole cuisine.

All of this is fine and good so long as you are not the chef cooking up funny fiction.

If you are, you might have been that guy I saw having a minor fit during the QnA portion of a well-attended panel at the AWP in Boston.

In front of three agents assembled to tell the packed, panicky room how to publish their novels, one surly humorist raised his bony hand. Without being officially called upon, he stood in a recognizably unfunny way and asked one bummer of a question:

“Is humor writing dead for literary fiction?”

I thought the agents would give him that pinched smile. The kind that people make when they picture you being dragged away by a security team. In a flash, I imagined men in white coats armed with huge nets on long poles, storming into the room and hazarding swift passes with their poles at the gnarled but slippery “jokester.” Benny Hill music would play and the grizzled novelist would suddenly explode with antiquated gags: spilling banana peels onto the floor (it was carpeted), shaking random hands–electrifying them with buzzers as he hurdles chairs in chase, opening cans of peanuts as he goes, releasing springs in old socks painted like snakes.

Strangely, only a couple of the agents gave him that pinched smile. One agent, in fact, nodded phlegmatically and responded in the affirmative.

“Yes,” he said while the other two looked uncomfortable. “Humor can be a tough sell these days.”

Satisfied, Ebonezer Stooge took his seat and the regular stifling session of neurosis marched on as usual–various speakers from the audience attempted to lead us on “ME and MY BOOK” parades camouflaged behind a rainy day of dumb questions.

I was bored. Although I could not entirely relate to the wizened veteran who asked the question (and whose writing jacket was no doubt adorned with a squirting boutonniere), I was still that guy twitching in my seat at the mention of humor fiction’s demise. You see, taking up a cool sixty thousand words worth of document memory on my laptop at that very moment was a humor novel. You Will Not Fit in the Overnight Book Depository is about a crazy librarian who runs amok in Cleveland, collecting overdue fines in a hilariously para-military fashion.

I was and am the writer of humor novels, so if they are dead, I’m taking my football and I’m going home.

Now that I’m back home and the AWP is many months behind me, I’ve returned to the feeling I had in that session. It occurs to me that many writers and creative types are drawn to hybrid areas. The same drives that make us want to stay up late and write stories make us less willing to write the kinds of stories that we know publishers and agents want. We’re generally disinclined to write what we know will sell. By our very natures we like what is new so much more than what is tried and true. Book sellers, on the other hand, want both.

Now that I’ve written and polished my weird, sensational little masterpiece of one-liners and incredulous absurdity, I’ve turned glumly hypocritical.  I’m sore that the commercial world won’t tear down its walls to welcome me in. I’m sore about it, and yet I knew what I was getting into all the time.

I think many of us writers are like this. We knowingly pursue a cross of genres, even though such crosses are all but unheard of. That the cross-reared result is an original monster of verbal conglomeration, indeed, is one of the main reasons why we’re drawn to snap the jumper cables to its bolts and scream “It’s alive” in the first place.

I’m going to give my freaky manuscript a few more laps around the agent’s runway, strutting its stuff to see what interest it might garner. But failing that, I’m just going to bring my beloved freak home and maybe post the whole weird experiment on my blog.

That way all of you can enjoy the jokes and the oddity for free without all the middlemen mucking up the joy. And I’ll go laughing all the way to the…grocery store, the park, the place where I work. Who needs to laugh at a bank? I’d rather be the guy who could laugh all the way to a hospital.

From → writing tips

33 Comments
  1. Humour Fiction Dead?? Please don’t allow it to be true. How can humour not sell? We all need a laugh. A big laugh, a continuum of laughter, a roll on the floor with laughter book – surely – surely would sell.
    If the agents do not get it published, then perhaps self-publishing may be an option: Amazon e-books and other such new ventures do quite well.
    So don’t abandon hope all ye’ who enter here: just polish it up and upload it on Amazon (or equivalent) at a competitive price and let the laughter begin!
    Luckily, new writers are no longer at the bequest of literary agents and publishers alone 🙂
    Although I still hope that there will be some means of getting your work published via the traditional route too.

  2. Humor isn’t a genre. Books that try to be funny aren’t. Well written books by serious authors often are, at least to a reader with a sense of humor. A sense of humor is not simply something you have or lack. The ability to see doesn’t assure appreciation of great art. The ability to laugh doesn’t mean you get the joke.

    • I agree with the last three sentences of your post but not the first couple.

      Genre is a term that has historical debates written into it. Commercial pressures define it one way, authors and readers another, and literary critics still another. Functionally, humor is a genre for many of us and not merely a mode or a style. It can be that too, but it also names a type of novel that no longer has the traction in literary fiction as it used to have. Sadly.

      Also, I think Amis’s Lucky Jim is trying as hard as any book ever could to be funny on every page. To me, it succeeds.

  3. This is something I can’t understand. If the world needs anything, it is to laugh. I think a good humor novel is a diamond in the rough; or a squirting boutonnière on a plain, drab, gray jacket lapel.

  4. Michael Andreoni permalink

    I agree the purely funny fiction article or novel is dead for now. I don’t know why it’s so–maybe too much supply, maybe our society has become fragmented and we can’t agree on what’s funny–but as someone who regularly submits humorous fiction, the stories I’ve sold are the hybrid creatures you refer to. The humor is simply a plot device. Sad but true. And it’s a damn shame how bad the money is!

    • Well paid or not Michael you are still an exception to the rule. Keep at it and perhaps the remuneration will grow as well. I’ve had the pleasure to discuss this topic with other exceptions who predict a sea-change on the horizon. There’s better weather ahead.

  5. You are right there did seem a time when humour was a more mainstream genre. P. G. Wodehouse is one of my faves and I understand Terry Pratchett is very amuzing also, but, as you also point out, they are and are marketed as fantasy. Douglas Addams was another but again he’s not contemporary or not any more. Funny authors of our times I think of Bill Bryson, but as you say that’s non-fiction. I guess all you can do is suck it and see. As you say yourseld there are *always* exceptions and if it’s good writing and a good story, I can’t see it not having a chance

  6. I was at a Faber Academy course last month where an editor and agent discussed this question (the course was on next steps after completing your ms, and at least one person there had written something he considered to be a humorous novel). Their take on this was that humour is fine, describing your book as humorous isn’t. That doesn’t have to affect the content, just the pitch.

  7. We humans are fickle, humour novels will absolutely swing back around. In a world like ours, we need good humour to pull us up from our knees or away from the news. The world is a sad place, how many of us will still wholeheartedly watch a Chaplin piece or pay to see stand up? Humourous books are needed for the very same reason we will watch some silly clip on utube of a ploke falling down stairs.

  8. ploke=bloke 🙂

  9. Great post. I’m of the opinion that we should write what we want, what we’re good at, without consideration of publishing trends or opinions. My novels are funny (in the context of a greater story) because my characters are funny. I cannot stop that for the sake of publishing. I write what I want to read, no matter the consequences; it’s the only way I can sleep at night. Will they have a chance at publication? Maybe. In any case, I’m happy.

  10. I was just about to put my two penn’orth in, and then I noticed jcollyer had said it all for me. You’re so right Michael, there just don’t seem to be that many humorous novels these days. It’s a bit like the fact that a comedy film never wins the Oscar for best film (except Manhattan, and that was years ago) and I think the same sort rule applies; to write a really successful humorous book, these days, you have to write something that appeals to people on all sorts of other levels. Alan Bennett is a really good example of this.

    • That’s right. Humor can’t be its own draw anymore. It can’t stand on its own like it used to anymore. People are wrong to think that’s because it can’t. It’s only because tastes have changed and shifts in the market tend to normalize those changes as if they’re natural.

      Why can’t I just read well-written jokey situations in a novel? Why does humor have to be embedded in a parodic murder mystery or a zombie-pocalypse? Something I love about comedy narrative (whether in plays, film, or novels) is the way that it eschews cause-effect plot in favor of the episodic. An episodic comedy doesn’t lend itself to the standard boardroom pitch–It’s Jane Eyre meets Dawn of the Dead only with comedians.

      • You don’t really get stand up comedians who tell strings of jokes any more, either. It’s all observational, which I must admit, I prefer.

  11. Of course if marketed correctly the Humor Novel can be the “next new thing” — and the thing that everyone else chases. 😉

    • So should the marketing gimmick be part of the humor? Instead of calling it satire, would it stand out enticingly if hawked as farce. or something ironical, say “chilled irony” or “faux noir”, with the pitch deadpan, not so much as hinting there might be something even remotely laughworthy in the novel? This post, btw, could save me from the cyanide capsule, as humoresque is what I do. What I do…

      • Ha! Mathew, don’t eat that capsule! I like both “chilled irony” and “faux noir”!!!

        I think you are on to something here!!!

      • I was just about to chime in to say the same thing. I love the concept of “chilled irony.”

  12. Thanks, guys, especially you, Michael, for daring to broach, and with incisive wit, a topic that might explain why most agents I approach don’t waste the finger exertion to reply to my emailed queries. Grappling with this looming realization a few months back I did a little rif trying to make a case for “farce” as the neglected and forsaken genre. Here ’tis (I haven’t read it lately, so I hold my breath in the hope it hasn’t lost its coherence since then): http://tinyurl.com/pneslt4

  13. ps Michael, if you get any RUDE emails from me, I did not write them. My email was hacked.
    (I don’t have enough going on in my life I suppose)

  14. Dear Michael, you wouldn’t happen to have a humorous short story or anecdote you would consider contributing to Project R by any chance? I’m running this project (on relationships) on my blog until the end of October. It is to help a friend who has recently come out of a rough relationship and going through a tough time. I really think an injection of humour would do them a great deal of good, so if there is any way in which you could help with this, I would be truly grateful, and repay in kind should you ever require a contribution, or a reader/feedback for work in progress.
    Do let me know. It would be amazing if you could help. Thank you xx

  15. Strange. I just wrote a post about how much trouble I’ve been having getting a humour story published – I even linked to your “getting published” tags because I find them so useful – and I didn’t even realise you’d written this. The final lines of this post struck me the most, very true.

    • Totally sympathize. One of my favorite short stories is still sitting on the metaphorical shelf because it is chock full of situational gags and verbal one-liners that have the dangerous potential to simply put off any editor not actively looking for that sort of thing–and even a good portion of those who are. In general, though, I’d trust my soul with the folks over at HOBO PANCAKES–one of the best humor-driven lit mags around.

      • You even offer your services in the comments. Fantastic. Will give them a go.
        Comedy writing is one of my favourites, not necessarily pure comedy, but comedic drama stories, whatever you’d call those. Nothing like a good laugh and a good think within the same story.
        Thinking about subbing to duotropes, do you recommend?

      • Depends. I use it constantly, so the investment pays for itself. I also get inspired creatively (as odd as it sounds) by scrolling through the listings of various markets–some I may never send to, but which inspire me nevertheless.

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