When last week I mentioned P.G Wodehouse and his writing, especially the Jeeves novels, it got a little worm running round my brain. Essentially: what is a funny book? Is it just personal taste, or is there more to it?
My personal likes start with the endlessly charming, laid-back approach of Wodehouse. I don’t find him a laugh-out-loud author, just gently amusing. Yes, before you start, he’s probably politically very incorrect and sexist; although his male characters are always subservient to the women, whether by authority or romantic attachment. Like all writers, he was of his time, but lines like: “if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled” show why he never fails to cheer me up.
Straight away I think of Terry Pratchett, but he cannot be considered as purely a comic writer. His books move people, including me, to tears as well as laughter. Very few books, however, reduce me to helpless giggling as much as his do. This is often to the bemusement of others in the room. Who else would have a character like Cohen the Barbarian, an elderly warrior who, despite sciatica and piles, manages to triumph by sheer experience and cunning?
‘Three Men in a Boat’, by Jerome K. Jerome (great name!) is the story of a Victorian boating trip. Oddly, my father read it to me as a young child. It’s got some parts which seem to me to be very funny, interspersed with travel writing and passages of what used to be called purple prose. It’s probably now outdated for most readers. A follow-up called ‘Three Men on the Bummel’ (that’s a bicycling holiday) is not as amusing. A favourite part: when they try to open a can without a can opener, beat it into “every shape known to geometry” and then throw it away. Sounds dull? You have to read it to get it, I suppose.
I’m already fast coming to the conclusion that humour in books is purely down to personal taste. What I find hilarious may well be completely unamusing to you, especially if there is a big age gap. As an example, there is a book I inherited from my father called ‘It Don’t Cost You a Penny’, the memoirs (allegedly) of an old soldier who became a batman in World War 2. The humour is of its time again: a Sapper Beer is hilariously known as Supper Beer. It would seem pretty racist to younger readers.
Michael Green, author of ‘The Art of Coarse Rugby’ and many others of that ilk, as well as the now forgotten ‘Squire Haggard’s Journal’, was very funny, but I don’t know that you’d want to read his books continuously, in the same way as you’d read a novel. Similar is Peter Tinniswood, who wrote marvellously inventive books of cricket anecdotes, starting with ‘Tales from a Long Room’, allegedly by a very eccentric Brigadier. They are also books for dipping into, although probably short enough to read in one go, and probably books for cricket aficionados of a certain age only. Pratchett, working in the fantasy genre, and Jerome, whose books are at core Victorian travelogues, have more absorbing material: the humour is an integral part of a narrative.
Similarly, Bill Bryson’s books succeed both as humour and as absorbing travel books. He is another author who needs a “Do Not Read in Public” warning on his books, to avoid the embarrassment as you are snorting uncontrollably. I think he is probably more universally appealing than some of my other choices, though of course I have no evidence.
I am obviously attracted by humorous tales about teaching. Gervase Phinn, Jack Sheffield and others have written many of this ilk. I find them mildly amusing, not hilarious. Perhaps it’s all a bit too familiar for comfort. My colleagues and I wrote a brief parody of our workplace towards the latter part of my career. I still find it highly funny, but it’s very much for a niche audience, which consists almost entirely of the authors. I particularly liked:
“…..a bemused group of breakfast club children munching on the ‘Healthy Option’ of bacon, eggs, black pudding, sausages, baked beans, fried bread and hash browns.” Thanks to whichever of us wrote that bit. It might have been me. I don’t remember. (No. that option was NOT part of our school menu.)
I have written fragments of funny writing. (Well, I laugh.) Some of this is on my other blog: Oblique Fictions (Well, I still laugh.)
So, there you have it. As usual, just a gentle ramble. My rather trivial conclusions are that humorous literature is very individual and often confined to its time. Consequently humour can easily become out of date. It’s very difficult to write a book whose only aim is to be funny; it’s much better to write a good story or travelogue and incorporate the humour.