The distinguished author was in a bad mood. He had always been a writer who had presented serious themes with a pronounced comic swing but these days, he said, publishers had decided that it was commercial death to suggest in a blurb that a novel might be humorous. ‘Uplifting’, ‘savage’, heart-breaking’, ‘coruscating’: these were the adjectives which they liked to use. Under pressure, they might just agree to deploy that handily double-faced construction, ‘darkly comic’ but, as a general rule, any book presented with humour was mysteriously diminished in the process. The assumption, complained the author, was that it is not to be taken seriously.
I nodded in sympathy but, in a secret corner of my heart, I was with the publisher. What sensible grown-up goes into a bookshop in search of a rib-tickler, a book whose only reason for existence is to whip up those famous gales of laughter? Presumably most intelligent people recoil in distaste from the zany, the frothy, the effortfully witty. When an author insults the reader, sometimes even on the opening page of a novel, with some ghastly one-liner, creaking pun or joke cliché of a character (usually male, English, middle-aged and hopeless), the only appropriate response must surely be to hurl the book across the room with an oath.
It is not humourless, this – in fact, it may be the opposite. Writers who see laughter as the main point of what they do, who sweat over their jokes, tend to have an uneasy self-conscious to their writing; humour, or the imitation of it, is often a way of avoiding seriousness, a self-concealing defence mechanism. ‘The temptation to put in jokes is very bad,’ as Paul Bailey put it rather severely in an interview. ‘Writers just retreat from the reality of a scene and put in jokes.’
Yet, personally, I like to laugh. In fact, any author who writes without that little spin of irony and wit, that jink in the prose, is, for me, missing something. Humour can be close to intelligence; humourlessness is dull. But the authors who do make me laugh – Philip Roth, Peter Tinniswood, Martin Amis and his dad, Peter de Vries, Joseph Heller, Lucy Ellman, Frederick Exley, AL Kennedy, Dan Greenburg, Lorrie Moore, Howard Jacobson, William Donaldson – are novelists rather than comic novelists. Their humour bubbles up from below the surface of the writing almost as an accidental and involuntary by-product of a character or scene.
People prefer not to be prodded into amusement, a fact of which have recently and painfully been reminded. I had written a story for a young teenage readership. Having started life as a comic idea, it had, I felt, gathered a bit more substance in the writing – although I admit that any book in which a tough 13 year-old boy disguises himself as a girl and discovers that he rather likes the experience is never going to be regarded as exactly Dostoyevskian.
My publishers delighted me with the good news that they were going to promote the book. Their idea, it turned out, was to send proofs out to booksellers in a box which would also contained a pair of underpants, the idea being that the story was so funny that anyone reading it would need a spare pare of undies standing by. I was faintly startled by this approach, but I have been a professional author long enough to know that only a fool asks too many questions about how his book is sold: he’s damned lucky to have any marketing at all.
At first the pants, a pair of male Y-fronts, swept all before them. There were comments in the arts diary of Sunday newspaper. The promotion was noted on a website dedicated to children’s books. Booksellers were so enthusiastic that, as publication day approached, it began to seem as if it were the underpants that were being published with my book as a novelty add-on. The package was sent to reviewers, complete with undies and warnings regarding the incontinence-inducing properties of the book enclosed.
Between you and me, this was a mistake. One critic opened her round-up of new books by attacking publishers who sent her promotional gimmicks – one had sent her a pair of underpants, for heaven’s sake. Presumably, such gimmicks were to distract her from the mediocrity of the product although personally she would not be finding out since the unnamed book (my book) had been chucked out immediately to teach the publisher a lesson.
Other reviews – well, there have not been many of them, to tell the truth. Normal authorial paranoia has been exacerbated by the conviction that reviewers have concluded (as I probably would have in their place) that no book promoted by a pair of Y-fronts was worthy of their critical attention.
It is strange, this question of humour. We want to be amused but on our own terms. Any book that is presented as overtly hilarious is to be distrusted. Perhaps some kind of deep-seated, anti-humour repression is at work here, a version of the English fear of letting go.
My worry is that, thanks to my laudably enthusiastic and enterprising publishers, I have just undergone an image change. I am now Underpant Man. Already I have begun to worry that unrealistic expectations may have been aroused. If I were to follow the golden rule of publishing – give them the same but slightly different – I should now be at work on something that will lend itself to more undie-related publicity – a push-up bra or perhaps something frilly and crotchless from Ann Summers.
No. Solemnity shall be my friend. From now on, if my fiction happens to be comic, I shall make sure that it is dark, or black, or maybe even – a crazy, distant dream – noir.