Some time ago, I was in a room of thirty or so YA writers, editors and other industry people when one writer declared, ‘I know you’ll all agree with me that what makes a good book is a chance for us all to have a massive cry.’ She was rewarded with enthusiastic acclamation and high fives all around – except for me. I was sitting there gobsmacked. Not just by the statement, but by the total and uncritical acceptance of it.
I understand the pleasure that comes from emotional release like that. So did the Ancient Greeks, and they called it ‘catharsis’. Somewhere along the way, though, the serious nobs forgot that Aristotle et al fully understood that catharsis can come from tragedy or comedy. The purging, the emotional release that comes in those moments of heightened feeling can come from an uproarious laugh as much as it can come from weeping.
The trouble is, there appears to be a false equation in the ranks of book people. That is, serious subject matter = a text to be taken seriously = a valuable and worthwhile text.
I call bullshit on that.
The converse, and generally accepted view, is that books that inspire laughter are lightweight, trivial, not to be taken seriously – therefore not valued. The accepted view appears to be that there’s nothing to be learned from laughter and lifting of spirits and that books that explore defeat and disaster are more worthy than books that end with triumph.
This stance is standard in literature circles, and YA literature isn’t free of it.
Bart Simpson once said ‘Making teenagers depressed is like shooting fish in a barrel.’ Too easy, in other words. Want to try something difficult? Try writing something that makes readers laugh, that lifts them up, that gets them seeing that the world isn’t thoroughly black, crushing and defeated. If it’s a choice of outlooks between the nihilistic and defeatist Rick Sanchez and the effervescent optimism of Joy from Inside Out, I know which one I’d choose.
‘But the world isn’t like that!’ I hear you say. ‘The world is full of despair and crime and horror and so books that reflect that are more true!’ Again, I call bullshit on that. The world is not full of darkness. Darkness is there, but so is hope, love, laughter, mistaken identities, puns, and triumph. An unrelieved rollout of texts that solely concentrate on the darker side of life is a fundamentally dishonest representation of life because, let’s face it, typical everyday lives are far more likely to contain laughter than death.
So what’s going on here? Why are books full of darkness and despair anointed as more worthy than those that are full of comedy and wit? Why is there a view that ‘resolutions that provide uplift do not necessarily reflect the complexities of life’? It’s simply a matter of siding with convention, I suspect – and, perhaps, a lack of knowledge and understanding of the alternative. For instance, I defy anyone not to see the labyrinthine complexities of life explored, uproariously, in Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal, with its pointed and insightful commentary on bureaucracy, greed, family relationships, technology and human frailty. Gut-busting, erudite, poignant, eye-opening, dazzling and trenchant all at the same time, it’s an examination of the human condition that leaves you with a smile on your face instead of being crushed.
Which is apparently not a good thing.
Perhaps there’s some sort of snobbery at the bottom of it (bottom – heh). Is comedy seen as coarse and common, while other aspects of humanity such as suffering and misery are loftier? Of course comedy has fart jokes, but it can be so much more than that – even if a well timed fart joke is a side splitter.
I implore you, don’t neglect funny books. I maintain that the best of them are just as important, just as valuable and just as insightful as the best of other books, the ones more traditionally deemed as worthy.
And, of course, ‘worthy’ ends up as being a synonym for ‘acceptable to study’.
Some advice here, though. Please, don’t do the reluctant and half-hearted thing and tentatively step into comedy via earnest dark comedies, those already awarded the status of ‘nearly suitable for inclusion in a serious person’s reading list’. Most of them are dire and unlikely to get you laughing out loud. They’re often dealing with a serious subject and using ham-fisted comedy to make a point.
Instead, go for something without pretensions. Look for books that are genuinely trying to make you laugh, the wild, the off-beat, the outré and the bizarre. The skill involved in writing this is extraordinary, and the craft is thoroughly worth analysing and appreciating. It could be outright farce, it could be black comedy, it could be satire, it could be parody, it could be romantic comedy, whatever. Look at the writer’s technique in creating the moments of laughter, and you’ll find it’s as rewarding as looking at any downward character spiral.
Explore the great comic characters, too. What makes them so memorable – and it’s not always because they’re fools or that they’re a clown that cries. Look at Bertie Wooster, look at Harry Flashman, look at Mia Thermopolis. Why do they make us laugh so much? Why are they so memorable? Why do they get us returning to re-read their exploits again and again, even if we know every punchline?
And, above all, look at Terry Pratchett. Profound, humane, moving and very, very funny. He makes you laugh, and we need more laughter in this world, after all, not more crying.
Look, I know and accept that a book can make us cry and make us laugh. That’s not the point of my essay above, so let’s not get into that topic right now, okay? Another time, maybe.