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Joanna Kavenna
Joanna Kavenna

Joanna Kavenna grew up in various parts of Britain, and has lived in the USA, France, Germany, Scandinavia and the Baltic States. Joanna won the Orange Award for New Writing for her second novel, Inglorious, in 2008 and was longlisted for the Orange Prize for her third novel in 2011. Her writing has appeared in the New Yorker, London Review of Books, Guardian, Observer, Times Literary Supplement, International Herald Tribune and the Spectator among other publications and she is one of the Telegraph’s top 20 young writers. She is currently Writer-in-Residence at St Peter's College, Oxford.

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The Sin of Laughter

A few years ago I participated in a discussion at the ICA.  The subject was the Wild, had we lost it, where had it gone if so, could we find it again and would we know it when we saw it, etc? The panel included Jay Griffiths, Tom Hodgkinson and Neil Boorman.  I had come down for the day from the Duddon Valley, Lake District, where I was living at the time in a crumbling rented cottage.  The debate was well-chaired by Hodgkinson, we cracked a few jokes, we debated notions of wildness in literature and philosophy, someone talked about Hesiod, someone else was rude about Wordsworth (alright, it was me) and then Hodgkinson turned to the audience to see if they had any questions.


One question went something like this: ‘I thought this was a serious debate and you just keep making jokes and generally being frivolous.’ As the guy spoke, a few other members of the audience murmured in agreement. They thought we were mocking them by mocking ourselves, or (mea culpa) by mocking Wordsworth. To these sections of the audience, fooling around was merely foolish, and nothing else. In response, I think we ended up talking for a while about the venerable tradition of satire, in which you joke about what most concerns you, you joke to reveal the state of unknowing in which we live, you joke to expose the arrogance and hypocrisy of those who sit in authority over others.  Perhaps we mentioned some great comic writers: Socrates, Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Jonson, Swift, Sterne, Austen, Dickens, Twain, Woolf and Waugh, to name a few. Still it was significant that the man made the remark at all: it suggested a profound distrust of the comic, a sense that comedy was an inferior mode and even rather insulting to an audience.


As P.G. Wodehouse said, the ‘intelligentsia’ traditionally looks down on comic writing.  Howard Jacobson has described the ‘fear of comedy in the novel today:’ ‘When did you last see the word "funny" on the jacket of a serious novel?’ In 2010, Jacobson became the first comic novelist in 42 years to win the Booker, with The Finkler Question.  The chair of the judges, Andrew Motion, explained that Jacobson ‘knows something that Shakespeare knew - that the tragic and the funny are intimately linked.’ Shortly afterwards, Jacobson wrote a robust apology for the comic novel: ‘Comedy breaks every trance – that's its function. Comedy is nothing if not critical. From the very beginning the comic novel set out to argue with everything and to set us arguing with one another. The need for such a form has not gone away: consensus is still a curse; we are no less pious than we ever were, for all that our pieties have changed their object; we remain sanctimonious; and we have relegated reading to a sort of sleeping, praising books whose pages we cannot stop turning – as though the automatic act of moving forward is a virtue in itself.’ I’ve quoted him at length because when someone puts something really well, you might as well let him run on. 


Jacobson has another great phrase in this article (here, you might as well read the whole thing) where he describes the ‘great disquiet’ that comedy creates. Comedy isn’t trammeled with realism in the same way as the earnest social realist novel, which represents some general notion of ‘reality’ using a convention of ‘realism’ – a convention Barthes describes as filling your pages with dense detail, meticulous observation of what is around you, so the reader is forced to linger, so s/he feels replete, as if s/he has been experiencing events in ‘real time.’   This sort of obsessive observation is fair enough, writers should do whatever they like so long as it’s mostly legal and not harmful to others, but for one convention of reality-observance or reality-construction to be venerated as more ‘grand’ or ‘significant’ than every other is clearly…dull. Comedy is an escape from the dictates of literary realism; it is more usually hyper-real, it thrives on hyperbole, on taking something plausible, ordinary, and pushing it to an extreme. Terry Jones’s frightful harridans are not ‘realistic’ portrayals of frightful harridans, they are extreme hyper-real versions, but they refer back to a type we may recognize. Or, the character of Howard Moon in The Mighty Boosh exaggerates the familiar sanctimonious bore, until he becomes funny. 


Also, furthermore - a comic writer doesn’t have to spiel out poetic humbug, that floaty sub-everyone-you’ve-ever-loved prose that often gets mistaken for ‘fine writing.’ You know the stuff, when it drapes itself all over you, smothering everything in ‘poetic’ earnestness, committing ‘now was the evening spent in quietude’ Yoda-esque inversions of sentence structure in order to proclaim just how poetic it is…(Or should that be ‘now the evening spent in quietude was?’)  Comic writing is irreverent, it does not abide by other people’s rules.  Take Twain, one of the most socially outraged of writers, converting his ire into idiosyncratic comedy. (Read A Tramp Abroad and you will never play the tourist in quite the same way again…) Or, take D.H. Lawrence, who gets written up as a working class soft-porn king but is more usually wry and hilarious (‘Fantasia of the Unconscious’ contains one of the funniest tirades you’ll ever read), or the Russian Absurdists, eviscerating Stalinism while holding up their hands, ‘Oh, it’s just comedy, nothing important, don’t you worry…’ Or Austen, nodding at some drooling old git while pouring him tea, nodding as he expounded his adamantine self-love again and again, nodding politely and then going to her desk, sharpening her pencil, avenging herself in a few ironic phrases…


So I suggest there is a whopping misconception about the unseriousness of comedy, the insignificance of comic writing. This is a shame for readers, who get deprived of comic writing by grim-faced publishers and are forced to wade through another few thousand ‘dark fell the dusk as came the wind in’ novels.  It is a shame, too, for authors, who may write a comic novel about something they care deeply about and find themselves being ticked off like naughty schoolchildren - ‘What is this? Just what do you think you’re playing at? It’s not…Christ, it’s not….actually…comedy is it…?’ I speak not merely in the abstract - I once wrote a satire of vanity and the super-thin which got damned with the words, 'You can't be funny about eating disorders,' and my latest novel Come to the Edge, a satire about social injustice, rural Britain and the widening gulf between rich and poor - caused a few normally friendly editors to spit and wail before finding a home. I suspect this is a common experience for all those who walk the tightrope of mainstream publishing. Deep deep is the abyss beneath, and the depths are most likely packed with writers of comedy…


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