Friday 23 September 2016

H is for... Humour!

Funny, isn’t it, the way things work out sometimes? There I was, planning a post on humour, and the challenges of getting anything amusing published, when I received an email telling me one of my more bizarre stories had been shortlisted for Christopher Fielden’s Humorous Short Story Competition. I’m very pleased about that, as it means that even if it doesn’t go on to win a prize, Feeding the Creatives will be published in an anthology along with the winners and the other shortlisted stories.

So while that’s undermined my point a little, I still think it’s worth lamenting how rare it is to find good examples of humour in mainstream short stories. Year after year, the judges' reports for places like the Bridport Prize plead for stories with a lighter touch. Reading an anthology from a 'serious' competition can be a dispiriting slog, as all too often a story about death will follow a story about a relationship breaking down, which in turn followed a story about a parent suffering senility (and, probably, then dying).

My take on this is that there's a general feeling that when it comes to short stories, bleak is best. Trying too hard to be funny can mean the characters become cartoonish, or the plot is simply a mechanism for delivering the punchline. Besides, thinking about competition entries, it's much easier to make a story "powerful" if it's designed to make people feel sad. Mainly because things that make people sad are more universal than those that make them feel happy. Create a character people can relate to and have bad things happen to them. Take away someone they care about, threaten their safety, or deprive them of something they've worked hard for. Boom! Instant sadness, literary success, awards, etc.

But misery is only part of life - and, one would hope, as small a part as possible. Stories that focus entirely on the dark side fail to capture the truth about life, with all its funny quirks, contradictions, and absurdities. Who could argue against the idea that making somebody laugh is better (and, potentially, harder) than making them feel sad? So why is there this persistent sense in writing competitions that for a story to be "good" it must be deadly serious?

Some writers master this balancing of humour and proper grown-up emotion, and their stories are all the better for it. For instance, A L Kennedy, whose writing often leans heavily upon darker themes, tends to sprinkle amusing one-liners through her work and these - like seasoning in a meal - add a piquancy that lifts stories that otherwise could feel oppressively bleak. I've written before (ages ago!) about Rich Hall's story "Circadia", taken from his collection Magnificent Bastards. Here the humour comes from the characters and the strange situation in which they find themselves. It manages to be both funny and poignant, and I think each of these amplifies the other - to the extent where it remains one of my all-time favourite stories.

So those are just a couple of examples of stories that manage to be both "funny" and "good", but I'm always on the hunt for more. Can anyone suggest any others?

Incidentally, humorous novels don't seem quite so hard to track down, which makes me wonder if the rules are slightly different for longer stories.


Susan A Eames said...

You've highlighted something I've often thought, Dan. It's all too frequent that winning entries in literary competitions like the Bridport, Fish and Bristol are serious rather than humorous. But I also noticed the same thing when BBC Wildlife Magazine used to run an annual Travel Writer of the Year competition. I was short-listed four times for this competition with entries which included a bit of humour but was always pipped by serious entries. Last year my humorous entry in another short story competition was runner-up to a serious story. Trouble is - I prefer to write with a touch of humour, so I guess I'll never win these sort of competitions!

Susan at
Travel, Fiction and Photos

Anonymous said...

Hi Dan - Good subject for a post and a good post. I think you hit the nail on the head with, "things that make people sad are more universal than those that make them feel happy."

I think there are lots of great short stories that are funny because there's a strange situation or an awkward situation and the story becomes funny because of that (I'll have a think of some examples).

I'm not sure having actual jokes with punchlines really works in a short story (but there's probably someone out there with a way of doing it to prove me wrong) and I actually find the approach of sprinkling one liners through an otherwise unfunny piece a bit grating sometimes (which might just go to prove your point about finding different things funny).

How about... Don't You Blame Anyone by Julio Cortazar - five pages of a man getting stuck whilst attempting to try on a jumper (very little else is mentioned). It might just be the audacity of writing such a thing or the fact it goes on so long, but I found it funny.

Patsy said...

There does seem to be a belief among many people that anything at all amusing or entertaining is inferior to gruelling or disturbing fiction. I have no idea why that should be.

Dan Purdue said...

Susan, that's something I've noticed too - in competitions where a humorous story has done well it will usually only have made it as far as the shortlist or - at the absolute most - second place. It's like the judges recognise the writer's talent but can't quite bring themselves to award the story top honours. Like you, I feel far more comfortable working some humour (even if it's very dark) into a story, so I'll keep doing so and keep hoping the judges will appreciate it!

Ric - I've done A L Kennedy a disservice there, as it's not like she just randomly shoehorns witty asides into a story, it's far more skilfully done than that. It's all about tone and context, I suppose. Thanks for the Cortazar recommendation, I'll make a note of that.

Patsy - yes, there's definitely an element of "worthiness" about it. It's a shame, as it means there's generally less variety on a competition shortlist than there should be.

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