Sunday, 25 June 2017

The word ‘funny’

The prizes tend to go to books about grief, or dystopias. Or oppression. Or sexual abuse, or any kind of sexual dysfunction.

‘Light verse’ – about as dispiriting a two-word combination as, for example, ‘conference centre’ or ‘sanitary solutions’ (the latter a sign on a local factory that made toilets, now demolished, making way for luxury flats, add that in, 'luxury flats').

Can I send you my book, please? It will, I promise, be (quote from a recent submission, standing in for many) ‘bleak, confused, disturbing, harrowing’.

I’ll pass. I’ll also pass, of course, on submissions that promise to be uplifting, redeeming, or (another quote) ‘celebrating our common humanity’. Or funny.

‘Funny’ is a word that on the dating sites might well be algorithmically matched up with ‘silly’. There’s a vocab problem here. Funny = makes you laugh. Funny = comedy. And there’s an obvious problem with writers who get labelled, or marketed, as ‘comic’ writers, which is this: I feel I’m being manipulated, I feel buttons are being pushed to make me laugh. So I resist. I’ll decide what I find funny, thank you. Don’t tell me when to laugh.

Pitching a book is one of the more absurd activities that humans engage in. It requires a skill that has nothing to do with the writing of the book and an impossible degree of tact and is almost bound to fail, even though the book itself may not, and awareness of this engenders a kind of daft desperation which often ends up as being, yes, funny.

For the record: misery, dystopia, ‘bleak’, no. Don’t even try. I’m in my sixties, not my twenties. I prefer Shakespeare’s comedies to his tragedies. Tragedy can include comedy but only as a bit part; comedy relishes tragedy because comedy is more inclusive, more generous, more silly, and is about life going on, not ending, and comedy, so far, is winning out, though it knows it’s as doomed as any other way of taking on the world, it takes no pride in this, it despairs, and that is its essence, as comedy. Comedy is stupid heroism.

Writers who do make me laugh include, obviously, Chekhov, Thomas Bernhard, Kafka, Beckett, Cioran, Pinter. They make me laugh, out loud, but how to say this without using the word ‘funny’. Adding in ‘deeply’ or ‘seriously’ gestures, but doesn’t do it. Is there a word in another language – I’m asking translators here – for this? To describe the way in which, for example, the above writers manage being true to human fatuity and at the same time hilarious? Because in English we are not capable. Is an English Hrabal impossible? (There are English Hrabals, but no one attends.)

Bleak. A badge: we’re doomed. A whole aesthetic of this, a very pretty aesthetic, lovely composition, an aesthetic of doom and desolation and decay and ruins and rust and rot. Decomposition. Failure: of, not least, how males and females relate to each other, who populate this planet roughly equally but who very few of them of them have any idea how to sort this.

Failure: authentic. Doom, apocalypse, misery: click-bait, reinforcing.

3 comments:

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Anonymous said...

Reading Robinson now. Only thirty pages in but am greatly enjoyingg it. Wonder if you've read Moretti's ' The Bourgeois'? Some interesting thoughts on Crusoe. Also, as I'm sure you know, Robinson Crusoe is central to the theoretical foundations of exchange theory in economics.

Billoo.

Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear Charles

My poetry is funny which is probably why I've never got anywhere! We've just returned from a holiday up North where we made our annual pilgrimage to Sylvia Plath's grave and left some coins on her tomb as usual. I'm beginning to think that the so-called North/South divide is a bit of a myth. The point that almost no one makes is that northerners can still afford to buy property whereas southerners can't.

Best wishes from Simon R Gladdish