Tuesday, 8 January 2019
Unbound - Leading the Comedy Charge
There's been some great news for authors and readers this past week. Book sales were up again in 2018 (and physical books were on the rise too). And it was a bumper year for independent bookshops with many new ones opening.
But, for those of us working in the humorous novel world, the news hasn't been quite so good. The Guardian's influential Books to read in 2019 list features just one novel described as a comedy. The same list also mentions the various literary prizes up for grabs but, for some reason, fails to mention the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize; the only national literary award for comic writing. The prize has been awarded since 2000 but last year it wasn't because the judges, apparently, couldn't find a book funny enough to award it to.
And then there's the Chortle Comedy Book Festival which takes place this coming weekend at the British Library. It looks to be a great day out - if you like comedians talking about their books. Speakers include Robin Ince, Sofie Hagen, Alex Horne and Adam Kay who will talk about their funny, but non-fiction books. The only novellist to appear is Jonathan Coe whose darkly comic books like The Rotters Club and Middle England are flying the flag for humorous fiction.
(Interestingly, you don't find many comedy novels written by comedians. Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie have both written them. So have Ade Edmonson and Dawn French. But they are a rarity. Most comedians' books are reworkings of their live acts or observational non-fic. Odd that. But they do get the book deals, of course, because they're on the telly and have fan bases.)
I've written before about the terrible state of British comic writing. Yes, I know that comedy is tribal, personal and difficult to categorise, much like art;. There's no good comedy or bad comedy; there's just what people like and what they don't. Consequently, it's a difficult sell to a publisher because the potential market is unpredictable. You write a book on the history of hovercraft, or Manchester United, or PIcasso and you know that there's an audience there. But 'comedy' is such a broad category and, within it, are things as diverse as Shakespeare, Monty Python, Mrs Brown's Boys, Sheridan, Roy Chubby Brown, Benny Hill, The Young Ones and Absolutely Fabulous. It would be a rare individual indeed who laughed at every comedy they watched or read.
Which is why, in our current climate of risk-averse publishing, the mainstream isn't publishing comedy novels. We've lost a great many comic writers in the past two decades - people who were guaranteed bestsellers - and they haven't been replaced. I recently made a list of funny, but deceased, British writers whose books are on my shelves and it's depressingly long: Douglas Adams, Kingsley Amis, Beryl Bainbridge, Ronnie Barker, H E Bates, W E Bowman, Eddie Braben, Anthony Buckeridge, Graham Chapman, T E B ‘Tibby’ Clarke, Peter Cook, Alan Coren, Richmal Crompton, Roald Dahl, Les Dawson, Mary Dunn, Marty Feldman, George MacDonald Fraser, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, Stella Gibbons, George and Weedon Grossmith, Alan Hackney, Jerome K Jerome, Carla Lane, Compton Mackenzie, J P Martin, Spike Milligan, John Mortimer, Neil Munro, David Nobbs, Dennis Norden and Frank Muir, Michael Pertwee, Stephen Potter, Terry Pratchett, Frank Richards, Talbot Rothwell, Willie Rushton, W C Sellar and R J Yeatman, Tom Sharpe, Ned Sherrin, Larry Stevens, Eric Sykes, Leslie Thomas, Barry Took, Keith Waterhouse, Evelyn Waugh, Leonard Wibberley, Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, Kenneth Williams, P G Wodehouse, Victoria Wood ... and there will be many more.
Yes, there are some very funny writers out there working hard to keep the laughs going. There's Simon Brett, the aforementioned Jonathan Coe, John Niven, Helen Fielding and Jonas Jonasson for starters. There's some good science fiction and fantasy comedy still being produced by people like Jasper fforde, and there's gentle comedy to be found as a sub-genre of romantic fiction. But finding a comic novel these days is tough; they're as rare as hen's teeth. Traditional publishing has created a Catch 22 (another great comic novel) for itself:
They don't publish comic novels because there's no market for them. And there's no market for comic novels because no one is publishing them.
Which is why Unbound has the opportunity to break the impasse. In the past few years, it has published some great humorous novels. We've had Laurie Avadis's Ex, Auriel Roe's A Blindefellow's Chronicle and David Quantick's The Mule. We've had Patrick Kincaid's The Continuity Girl, Kevin Parr's The Twitch and Andy Hamilton's The Star Witness. And there's been James Ellis's The Wrong Story and Niall Slater's The Second Death of Daedalus Mole, Brandon Robshaw's The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers, and Katy Brand's Brenda Monk is Funny. And there are more, all worth a read.
(And, of course, there's my own modest efforts in the form of A Murder To Die For and the forthcomng The Diabolical Club.)
Unbound really is leading the comedy charge. And why? Because it's not faceless accountants that are deciding which books get published. It's readers; readers who want a break from the tsunami of grip lit and misery porn novels that dominate the market. Readers who want a laugh on their commute to work and last thing before bedtime. Readers who are saying 'we want some humour in our novels'. And goodness knows, with everything that's going on around us socially and politically, I couldn't agree more.
We could all do with a good laugh.
P.S. The Diabolical Club has just gone through its structural edit. Next stop - the copy edit. We're nicely on track for a July release. Though, as subscribers, you should get yours a bit earlier.