18 May 2018

Comic Fiction in 2018: Who’s laughing?

Literary Agent, Cathryn Summerhayes
by Cathryn Summerhayes From the Agents, Opinion

Who’s laughing? … Apparently not the 2018 judges of The Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction, as they have announced that the prize will not be awarded this year. We asked Curtis Brown literary agent Cathryn Summerhayes for her views on what this means for the comic novel – and which books are making her laugh this year …

The Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize received 62 entries this year and deemed NOT A SINGLE ONE of them funny enough to find a winner, let alone a six-strong shortlist.  What does this say about the state of ‘comic’ literature?  Are writers with a sense of humour becoming a thing of the past? I remember crying with laughter at What A Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe and reading aloud the grotesque, snort-inducing passages from Martin Amis’ Dead Babies.

Have I really not guffawed at a novel since 1995? Of course I have.  But as we all know, humour is a subjective thing – as my 5-year old son Ernest demonstrates by collapsing in fits of giggles every time he changes the words of a song to make it naughty.  Twinkle, Twinkle Little Poo – HILARIOUS, Baa Baa Black Fart – SIDE-SPLITTING.   What I find funny, you may find in poor taste – and vice versa.

There is gentle humour in the wonderful Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce, puerile and satirical humour in John Niven’s No Good Deed, satire in Pussy by Howard Jacobson, loud and long urination gags in Johnny Ruin by Dan Dalton.

Perhaps, in a world that is currently so unfunny, Trump, Brexit, Grenfell, writers are a little afraid to exercise their funny bones.  I laughed out loud at Manon’s dating disasters in Susie Steiner’s two wonderful crime novels, although making people laugh is unlikely to be their main ambition. Matt Haig makes me giggle, but also makes me cry. The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is bawdy and incredibly amusing but also a literary masterpiece.

Novels can do more than one thing – which is perhaps why this prize isn’t quite hitting the mark.  Most readers don’t just want funny, funny, funny, the end, just as viewers of ‘The Office’ needed the pathos of new love (Dawn and Tim) as much as they wanted Ricky Gervais’ funny and mortifying dancing to feel fully satisfied by the show.

Where readers are finding more laughs these days is in non-fiction.  Adam Kay’s This is Going to Hurt packs an emotional punch – and a political one – but would it have attracted so many readers without ‘the de-gloving incident’ or ‘the Kinder Surprise’? (read it, you won’t be disappointed).  Robert Webb topped the charts with How Not to be a Boy, Caitlin Moran uses humour to showcase her strong-held opinions on everything from feminism to weight-loss, and books like The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k are performing as well as their more serious counterparts.

Perhaps Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse should consider changing the rules of the prize to allow non-fiction – and perhaps even children’s fiction, into the mix – I would challenge even the most cynical of judges not to find humour in the soon to be published Boy Underwater by Adam Baron, or not to laugh out loud at The Book With No Pictures by BJ Novak or the final line of Poo Bum by Stephanie Blake. Cynics may say the judges need to lighten up a bit… I couldn’t possibly comment.

Are you writing a work of fiction that could make us laugh out loud? Or, perhaps a novel with the potential to make readers bawl their eyes out? Then why not hone your writing skills on one of our 6-week writing courses for all-comers: Starting to Write Your Novel, Write to the End of Your Novel or Edit & Pitch Your Novel.

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