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Why So Serious?

Published 14th May, 2018 in MRP Guest Blogger
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Did you hear the one about the writer who submitted a funny story to a publishing house, and the work was swiftly and enthusiastically published?

No, me neither. Where is the humour in Australian literary fiction?

I’ve just started Rubik by Elizabeth Tan, and last night I read a scene where children, dressed up as over-sized items of fruit for a school play, tottered around the stage, bumping into each other and falling over. It was good, clean slapstick, beautifully and succinctly rendered, and I LOLed—that is, I chuckled, audibly. My partner asked me what was wrong. I guess you don’t expect to hear someone laugh when they’re reading a novel.

Isn’t that strange? Frequently, life is funny. People’s speech, thoughts and actions are funny, not only in gently ironic ways, or complex, underscores-a-serious-issue ways, but also in low, guffaw-inducing ways; vulgar ways; absurd, silly ways. This is true even in (sometimes especially in) moments of stress, grief and vulnerability. Some bloody funny things happen by the sides of hospital beds, but this is seldom reflected in our fiction.

Are we to understand that there is serious, worthy, literary writing, and there is…other writing; and anything that is funny necessarily falls into the second category?

Art isn’t that binary. A view that can’t recognise competing qualities within a single work doesn’t give a good account of, say, the despair inherent in the satire of the late, great John Clarke. Or Roald Dahl’s short stories written for adults, in which the humour is often inseparable from a certain gleeful cruelty.

In the United States, writers like Michael Chabon (The Yiddish Policemen’s Union) and Paul Beatty (The Sellout) mine seams of humour in grim subject matter. Back home, writers of excellent commercial fiction (I’m thinking here about Max Barry, author of Lexicon, but there are many others) aren’t afraid to leaven their work with lighter moments. And in television and film, audiences seem perfectly willing to accept blended forms like the dramedy, as well as satire dealing with the mundane and the historic: Utopia, The Death of Stalin.

To me, the problem seems most acute in Australian literary fiction. Pick up a recent Australian lit journal at random. You might find interviews and essays that’ll have you rolling on the laughing floor (as the kids say these days). Maybe even some gentle puns lurking in the poetry section. But I bet that the fiction department will be the domain of excellent—but uniformly Very Serious—writing. (I am happy to be proven wrong about this: tweet me if you can think of recent counter-examples.)

Humour is the thylacine of the Aus-lit landscape, and I’ve got a theory that might explain the dearth of credible sightings. When writers are starting out, when they are inexperienced and unable to self-edit, they may use humour as a crutch, to prop up a passage or interaction that can’t support its own weight. It’s the sort of joke-making born of desperation that makes you cringe rather than laugh. You may have read this kind of stuff. You may, in your formative years, have even perpetrated some of it (as for myself, I admit nothing). Humour can be a way into writing. And so, yes: in many cases, there probably is a correlation between allegedly “funny” writing and poor writing.

I suspect one consequence of this is that a lit journal editor, toiling to clear a slush pile, will see any attempt at humour as a red flag, an indicator that the writer is an amateur, and unserious about their craft. Besides, humour, even done well, can be polarising. A certain proportion of readers will always respond with an emphatic harrumph! So, if you’re running a journal reliant on subscriptions, it’s risky to publish a funny story.

But let’s not be glum: there are signs that things are changing. Australian writers like Julie Koh (Portable Curiosities) who know what they’re doing—who no one would accuse of resorting to humour to mask sub-standard work—are writing clever, beautiful stories that also happen to be funny.

And there are a few competitions, like the Russell Prize and the Betka Prize, for writing that is, first and foremost, amusing.

What I hope for most of all is that a story that is many things—moving, engaging, true, and also funny—can be recognised as such, and as worth a reader’s time.

Andrew Roff is a writer based in Adelaide. His work has appeared in Overland and Antithesis Journal, among others, and his first novel was shortlisted for the Wakefield Press Unpublished Manuscript Award at the 2016 Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature. In March 2018 he undertook a residential fellowship at Varuna House to work on a short story collection. He tweets at @roffwrites and you can read more of his work at www.roffwrites.com.

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