Friday, September 24, 2010

In Defense of Humor Writing

In Defense of Humor Writing

Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk syndicate
Copyright 2010

It's the killer question that every writer dreads:

"When are you going to write your novel?"

Novel? Do people still even read novels? It's like we're not real writers if we haven't written a real, big-boy novel.

Never mind that I've been a newspaper columnist for nearly 16 years, that I helped write Twitter Marketing for Dummies, or that I have a second social media book that will be published in December (by a real, big-boy publisher). Never mind that I'm a paid professional writer who gets money for stringing words together.

"So you aren't writing a novel then?"

Mignon Fogarty, author of Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, said she's frequently asked when she's going to write her novel. She's not, she says, because she's a nonfiction writer.

A best selling nonfiction writer. A New York Times best seller list nonfiction writer. But she's not a novelist. Fogarty says it's like people pooh-pooh her accomplishments, because she's not a novelist.

I can't get any respect because I'm a humor writer. I'm the guy who giggles like a 12-year-old when someone says "pooh-pooh."

But it's worse because I'm also an aspiring novelist

"Oh really? What are you writing?"

I can hear it in their tone. They know what I write already. I'm not writing a coming of age story, or a love story, or a treatise on man's inhumanity against man and the futility of war.

"It's a humor novel," I say.

They hesitate for a brief second, but it's long enough for me to hear the condescension, then "Oh, that's nice," followed by a pitying smile. Like I'm the slow kid who just showed off his very first finger painting.

What is it about humor writing that makes us the bastard child of literature, journalism, and creative writing? What makes us the slackers of the literary set? People seem to think that if the end product makes you laugh, then a) the process wasn't very hard, and b) we probably had fun doing it. Both mean it's not "real work."

Surprisingly though, it's not the readers who are the problem. Most readers enjoy humorous writing, and once they have a favorite, they latch on to them forever (thanks, Dad).


No, it's the other writers who look down their noses at us. We're just not good enough to be in their little club, because we don't write about life and angst and lost love.

The literary writers believe they're serious people who write serious things and wear their serious black turtlenecks, while they think we're goofballs who write fart jokes and wear Hawaiian shirts and propeller beanies. I find this attitude rather offensive, because they don't make propeller beanies in my size.

Frankly, I don't see what the problem is. I think most journalism is dry and boring. Most creative writing is emotionally overwrought and pedantic. And most literature is decidedly unfunny. With a few exceptions, nearly all of it is unmemorable. Not because it's not good, but because no one has written anything worth remembering. So it's not like we're the problem here.

No one says to a friend, "do you remember that piece Charles Krauthammer wrote for the Washington Post on Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court nomination?" They don't ask because the piece was as dry as week-old toast, just like every other op-ed piece for or against her nomination.

But ask your friend if he remembers Dave Barry's column about his first son being born, or Patrick McManus' "Deer on a Bicycle" story, and he'll hoot at the memory, then launch into a precisely-remembered recitation of the entire piece.

That's because humor is memorable, and regular writing is, well, not.

That's not completely true. There are a lot of stories that are worth remembering, that stick out in our memories, like that John Grisham book about the young lawyer. You know, the one where he gets in over his head, and he becomes the lone voice for justice in an unjust world? The one they made the movie about? Yeah, that one.

Don't get me wrong. I like regular writing. I have my favorites, authors whose books I pounce on when a new one comes out, stories I'll stay up well into morning for, because I lose track of time. But they're the humor masters — Douglas Adams, Jasper Fforde, David Sedaris, Christopher Moore, and the old master, P.G. Wodehouse.

These are serious craftsmen who don't need to resort to Hawaiian shirts and propeller beanies to create their humor.

But a good fart joke is the hammer in any humor writer's toolbox.


Update:
Randy Clark tried to leave a comment for me, but it didn't take. Plus he also sent me the link to an adult-sized propeller beanie hat from HatsInTheBelfry.com, so I included it here. I think I may have to get one for my next professional headshot. Maybe I'll wear it on the back jacket of my humor novel. Suck on THAT, James Joyce!

Writing serious humor is not funny! It takes hard work and dedication. It is a commitment to hours of research, study, and practice. On top of it all, there are expectations of a humorist. To be truly accepted, as a humor writer, requires attention to many things including dress. Here's the site for the prerequisite required adult beanie propeller hat.



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3 comments:

  1. I have been working on my novel for three years. Granted, I have only been writing seriously for that long, but I began my career as a writer (even though I don't make much money doing it) with the intent to writing a novel. I still have the first draft of the first book, and it is roughly 1/3 of the way done. I judge my length based on the word count that is said to produce a 300 page book. No book is worth reading unless it is 300 pages or more. I mean, Look at Moby Dick!

    Regardless, I want to write that first big-boy novel, but I am not sure working as much as I do, and writing as much as I am for the blog that I have time anytime soon. I have thought about posting chapters as blog posts and letting the book flow that way, but it has never happened. One day I will, and I will get it published whether through a house or through my own pocket. But I can't leave this world without writing a novel.

    Great read, as always. Thanks for sharing!

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  2. You know what you like and what you don't like, so start writing that. You'll probably find there are others out there who feel the same as you do.
    I like a literary novel - one that resonates way beyond the mere story - but only if it's got guts. And only if it intends to really engage me with the characters and the story. I can't stand beautifully written but dreamy meanders that go absolutely nowhere, or writers who say, 'but the story isn't meant to tie up' or 'but it's metafiction'. I want a darn good ride, darnit, as well as something for my brain to engage with - so that's what I write.
    BTW it may amuse you to know that the critic FR Leavis considered that Charles Dickens wasn't a proper writer because he had 'too much story'. And I don't find it hard to imagine that Leavis might also have disapproved of Mr D's panache and sense of fun...
    A lot of readers want spark, passion and honesty. Write that - and let the turtlenecks moulder in their own dust.

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  3. Thanks Ricky. I wouldn't worry about length of the book. Just write it until it's done, then look and see if it's "long enough."

    @dirtywhitecandy, I know what you mean about airy-fairy metafiction. Not a fan, and unfortunately, that's what I associate with most "literary" novels. Not that it's actually the case, but in the few times I've tried reading literary novels, that's what I've found.

    I'm more of a fan of mystery fiction and humor novels. (I LOVE British police detective mysteries, and have a few favorite authors I always return to -- M.C. Beaton, Caroline Graham, etc.)

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