Turning to the Literary Book Blog Hop first, this week’s question is:
“Can literature be funny? What is your favourite humorous literary book?”
I was a little non-plussed when I read this question. My immediate response was to slap my forehead and shout, “Well, yeah! Of course!” at the computer screen. A roll-call of names such as Saki, Wodehouse, Sharpe, Swift, Twain, Sedaris, Adams leap from brain to fingers to blog post draft without so much as a furrowed brow or a single hum or ha.
Then I jotted down the name of Terry Pratchett and it suddenly dawned on me that the question isn’t about humour after all. It’s about what counts as literature. Terry Pratchett has sold millions of copies of his books. They have made millions of people laugh. They are, without doubt, funny. They are also cleverly funny, sometimes even just plain clever. But are they “literary”? Probably not, although I think they have literary merit. I suspect, however, that most people would not term his books as “literature”. Part of this may be genre snobbery. Or just maybe, we like our “literature”, our “classics” to be serious. To wear, metaphorically, spectacles and an academic gown. To deal with BIG issues in a grown-up way. Maybe we are a little bit too snobby to allow that humour can be literary.
If so, of course, the question makes absolute sense. Can deep and meaningful literature really be funny? Can it make us laugh? On this basis, we have to discount all of the authors referred to above together with all authors who set out to be funny. Evelyn Waugh? Sorry, not literature. Laurence Sterne? Sorry, Penguin Classics shouldn’t have included Tristram Shandy in their list. Shakespeare? Should have stuck to histories and tragedies? Oscar Wilde? Pah! Voltaire? Shouldn’t have bothered with Candide, which even made my cynical and sullen 16-year old self laugh. I could go on. And on. And on. All of these authors are, without doubt, “literary”. And deliberately funny. So I have to conclude that, as I thought, literature can be funny.
There is a point to the question, though. I think that, because we associate being funny with being happy, with being light-hearted, we may find it more difficult to apply our judgment to the issue of whether humorous books are also “literary”. To try and illustrate this and provoke some thought, I list below three authors that I find very funny. I personally think they are “literary” but others may disagree:
1. Jasper Fforde. Both the Thursday Next series and the Nursery Crimes series are funny. They are also very clever. To be fair, some of the plotting doesn’t stand up to a good prodding and some of the internal logic is weak but they are nicely written and they also deal with interesting issues of identity, time and space and the nature of literature. But they are set in an alternative reality. They verge on being genre fiction. Are they “literary”? I think so but many wouldn’t. If you have read him, what do you think?
2. Roald Dahl. Forget his children’s books. They are funny and clever and classics but they don’t have a bearing on this discussion. Instead, I present you with My Uncle Oswald. If you haven’t read this yet, for the love of God (or Richard Dawkins or whoever else you choose to revere) get hold of a copy quickly. In this book, the title character discovers the most powerful aphrodisiac in the world and, with the aid of a female friend, makes his fortune by stealing the semen of
Europe’s artistic and social elite and selling it to women. Is it “literary”? I’m not too sure but do think it is very well written.
3. Kingsley Amis. Lucky Jim, the story of provincial university lecturer Jim Dixon, is the book that made his name in the ‘60s. It is very funny and biting. Is it “literary”? Definitely. But is there really that much of a difference between this and the others?
Turning to the Book Blogger Hop, this week’s question is:
“Who’s your all-time favourite book villain?”
So many too choose from. Sauron? Voldemort? Bill Sykes? Cardinal Richelieu? Iago? Blofeld? Moriarty? Bertie’s Aunt Agatha? Steerpike?
It’s an almost impossible task to select one prime nasty. One of the hallmarks of much good writing is that the villains are usually not pure black archetypes of evil. There is usually some grey about them, some hint that there badness is not absolute. Often their counterpoint hero is not totally good either and, in some extreme cases, it can even be difficult to spot who wears the white hat and who wears the black. I can’t help thinking that for this particular accolade, we are looking for someone really dreadful, a monstrous character who thoroughly deserves a good hissing. And so, please give up some boos for:
Cthulhu from the Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft. He’s the high priest of the Great Old Ones. He’s a cosmic presence. He’s the focus of doomsday cults. A statue of him is described as having "represented a monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind."
To top it all, he is coming to eat the world’s soul. Not nice. Not nice at all. In fact, I bet Voldemort would pee his pants at the mere sight of Cthulhu.
Honorable mentions are due to Count Dracula,
’s Satan and the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Milton