Humor Fiction Doesn’t Fly
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.