Tuesday, 28 March 2017
The English comic novel: not dead, just sleeping it off.
When someone writes a think-piece asking "Is the Novel Dead?" they often mean "Is MY novel Dead?" It's a reasonable question. The people who write these things are usually literary authors with a new book out, who make some of their living by writing reviews and columns for broadsheet newspapers. So, a dying breed. The broadsheet newspapers, I mean, not the authors. Good luck to them, and long may they survive, even if the money from The Guardian dries up.
By the way, when I wrote 'The English Comic Novel' in the title I meant comic novels written in English, not just those written by English people. But I can't go back and change it now. It would put us way behind schedule. We're several lines in, and we want to get to the end of this article before the pubs close. And no, I'm not going to stop for a comfort break. You should have gone before we set off.
"But wait," I hear you whine from the back seat, "shouldn't you define what you mean by a comic novel?" Yes, I'm getting to that. And stop pinching your sister. Okay, by a comic novel I mean a novel whose primary intention is to be funny. That's a different category from novels that are humorous. For example, I think most great English novels have elements of humour, mainly because their view of the human condition is expressed ironically. There's a lot of humour in Dickens, of course; some of Middlemarch is funny, and much of Jane Austen's work is written from an amused – and amusing – perspective. In fact, about the only exception I can think of in this roster of English novelists is D. H. Lawrence, and I'm convinced that's because he secretly thought he was Russian. But otherwise, humour abounds. Personally, I find Beckett's novels hilarious, but I accept that not everyone does.
However, while aspects of life may be comedic to these writers, they're not trying to be funny in the way that P. G. Wodehouse, or Stella Gibbons, or Kingsley Amis, or Helen Fielding, or Douglas Adams, or Tom Sharpe, or Marina Lewycka, or Magnus Mills, or Flann O'Brien is funny. And talking of Wodehouse, here's a question. Why aren't there more prizes for comic novels? At present there's only one to my knowledge: the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction. The prize itself consists of some champagne, an edition of Wodehouse books, and having a pig named after your novel. So, not exactly in the same league as the Man Booker prize. Yes, I know that some allegedly comic novels have won the Booker, but that's not the point. The point is, why don't we take funny writing more seriously? English comic writing, like English comedy in general, is a fine flower of our culture. Not only that, it's alive and kicking, and every time some gloomy author writes another piece about the death of the novel it bursts up through the coffin lid, chortling with demented glee like a zombie on nitrous oxide. Let's encourage it. Give it some love, give it some respect. And some money would be nice.
But all this leaves me with another, very personal question, and one that perplexes me. Is my new novel, Dead Writers in Rehab, a comic novel? I honestly don't know the answer. Never mind, I'll change the question. Is it funny? I don't know the answer to that question either. So, you can decide. And you can do it SOON. Very, VERY SOON! Because the book is coming your way very shortly. I hope you enjoy it, and I want to take this final opportunity before it's published to express my gratitude to everyone who's supported it. THANK YOU.