If you have to explain it, it isn’t funny—and it isn’t subtext
June 11, 2012 § 2 Comments
Continuing on from my previous posts on the subject—in which I discussed and provided an example of humor as a literary tool and a sense—I want to get into the meat of my argument today and look at the relationship between humor and subtext. As I hinted at in last week’s examination of Leaving the Atocha Station, it is hard to discuss any literary technique without discussing subtext and theme. This is because the presence of an underlying theme built by subtext is what defines literature and sets it apart from general fiction.
I don’t think anyone has written so clearly on subtext as Charles Baxter does in his short treatise, The Art of Subtext, which I highly recommend and am greatly indebted to. In short, subtext is the content implied but not explicitly contained by the text; it could be a character’s motives, the narrator’s understanding of the world, or anything else the author can’t or doesn’t want to express explicitly. As such, it is literature’s greatest strength; straight genre fiction, depending on the genre, can certainly excel over literature at plot, setting, dialogue, or anything else to quickly satisfy a reader’s desires, but nothing can draw a reader deeper, more permanently into a story than subtext.
For example, if you’re reading a procedural crime novel set in a morgue, you’ll get drawn easily along the surface of a nice plot, and as you’re told what the main character is thinking and feeling, you might grow to like her and learn a few (hopefully forever useless) facts about how to dissect a corpse. Maybe you’ll get so involved in the circumstances as to hazard an informed guess at the identity of the murderer—but unless it is a particularly literary crime novel, you won’t ever have to wonder at the inner workings of the main detective, the emotions that she may be hiding from even herself, or what her struggles imply about the human condition.
It is the mental and emotional work involved in all that implying that turns a lot of readers of off literary fiction, but for those that stick with it, the rewards are great. In helping build the story through active involvement, a reader who picks up on subtext gains a sense of partial ownership of the story as well as a sense of communion with the author. This deeper form of communication is why so many people dedicate their lives to the study of literature, obsessing over single authors or books, while most people won’t dedicate more than $5.99 and a couple afternoons to a disposable paperback.
Humor can work the same way in fiction by building similar bonds and forming another layer of subtext. Both humor and subtext make generous assumptions about the audience’s intelligence, compassion, and attentiveness; an author who uses subtext takes the risk that the reader won’t pick up on it, losing the thread of the story, just as the comedian takes the risk that the audience won’t understand his joke, settling into a serious silence. If you have to explain it, it isn’t funny—and it isn’t subtext.
There are many jokes that play on this risk of misunderstanding, and the humor of Chico Marx is a great example. He’s always playing against the language barrier for a laugh, but while he’s misunderstanding everyone and being misunderstood, our understanding of him as a performer deepens as our laughter effectively says, “We are so simpatico, you and I, that we both understand not just what you said, but what you were trying to say, as well as everything that was implied by the discrepancy.”
So, just as with subtext, the rewards of humor are a deepening bond with each successful communication. We’ve all broken the ice with a joke in the company of strangers and felt a good laugh cementing a friendship. Similarly, humor can act as subtext in literature, deepening the unspoken bond between author and reader by letting the reader share in making the meaning of the story.
Just what this meaning might be is the subject of next week’s post, as we’ll discuss the ways both subtext and humor can express the inexpressible.
Thanks, again, for reading!