Or something like wit. This is the 23d post of this blog which is mostly about writing.
When I’m feeling defensive, which is not seldom, I say that my writing has “a serious purpose in a frivolous genre”. I mean that, but it would be possible to say that thrillers aren’t “frivolous” in any but a “not truly literature” sense. After all, they deal with death, with intrigue, with crime and sex, and those are pretty serious topics. What people mean when they say the genre is frivolous is only that the plots, and the characters are “stock” and fit into a formula, a format, that is shared with other thrillers.
There are other frivolous ways of being serious however – take Tom Sharpe.
For those unaware of him, Sharpe is an English satirical novelist; he manages to be viciously funny with an underlying serious intent, and because his novels are comic novels they are “by definition” frivolous. His first two novels were set in apartheid South Africa – he had been deported for “sedition” – and hilariously pull the regime to pieces. Some people say these were his best two books, but my favourite is The Great Pursuit, a novel that takes the stick to pretentious literary analysis and criticism of the F R Leavis variety. Possibly Sharpe was irked at not being taken seriously – if so, I understand that completely.
Well, whether he is a great novelist or not, Sharpe can be pretty funny. I’m envious of this wonderful talent that has an entirely different way of going about being “serious in a frivolous genre” than I have. I keep saying to myself that I should write a witty book, whether or not it comes up to the Sharpe edge of things, or has a different way of expressing what I have to say. But so far – I haven’t. And Kaos, the book I’m working on now, doesn’t seem to be making much room for the odd laugh. I’d like it to do that, but I find that sitting down and thinking up funny is entirely different from just being funny. The context of wit makes wit witty, and when I’m writing a novel, that context is usually not there.
Of course there are ways of going about this, and maybe that’s what I’m trying to get at: just dropping the way I do things now, and adopting those ways. Raymond Chandler’s advice in writing was “analyse, and emulate” and if one reads his books in that light, it is possible to see the emulation, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Having influences is fine – writers and other artists don’t just create out of their heads; they live in a society and respond to what is around them, and other writers are among what is “around them”.. Tracing that interaction is part of the joy of understanding them. Shakespeare had a huge range of influences and sometimes more or less copied them – he put slabs of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives in the North translation into his plays, just rendering them into blank verse from prose. He did the same with Holinshed’s Chronicles. Yet somehow the copy outshone the original..Shakespeare couldn’t be pinned down. He could write it sad, he could write it mad and bad, he could make you smile. It is not easy to defy categorisation in this way as J K Rowling is finding out.
Where was I? Oh, yes, funny. The Russian writer Gogol supposedly said that he laughed so he wouldn’t cry – the Russia of his time being a pretty depressing place. As a teenager I loved his short story about a nose that left its owner (who’d complained because there was pimple on it) chasing it round as it leapt from face to face. How I laughed! But there was more to this than a teenager might have noticed, that a writer a few years on does: that nose’s journey revealed Russians, Russia, real life masquerading as absurd, and while the nose raced around its catalogue of faces, the censor was avoided…
Well, Gogol even as a humorist was treated as a serious writer. Sharpe is not. My sex thrills and chills romps are not either.
I set out to write thrillers as a means of writing about serious subjects for people who don’t usually read books with serious subjects in mind. I took this cue from er Shakespeare actually, who put bums on seats with tales of bloodlust, lust, intrigue, laughter, nastiness, wit, broad humour, and more. People paid the price of admission to have a good time, and they got it. Shakespeare was competing not just against other dramatists for the public’s shilling, but bear-baiting and similar amusements. He had to deliver, and he did.
Nowadays he is regarded as an untouchable icon but in his own time he was feted – by Francis Meres for example – because he could do what I would like to do: deliver serious themes in “frivolous” dress. Others were writing “serious” at the time, aimed only at the educated classes. Shakespeare showed he could do it with his sonnets. But what we remember him for was in principle always accessible by anyone.
That’s the attraction of humorous writing to me too: that you can treat quite serious, even complex, subjects, in ways that are accessible to people who wouldn’t want to know otherwise.
Ben Elton has written a number of books like this, but unlike Sharpe, I think his books – the ones I’ve read – are failures. They betray their seriousness too much, and end up not being really funny. Then the focus is on the argument, and the argument can’t be as well-put as a non-fiction argument, and it’s just a bore anyway. Sorry, Ben. Fiction needs to affect to be convincing, not convince to be effective. There are (non-humorous) exceptions to this, at least in their own time – Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward is perhaps the most notable, though a contemporary novel of the type is The Celestine Prophecy, a book I have never been able to bring myself to read.
So as I struggle away on Kaos, a book that is too serious by half, I would like to put some humour into it, to make people smile and even laugh. It would be nice to do that. But underlying that always, my “serious purpose in a frivolous genre”.