Why More (All!) Literature Should Employ Humor

May 21, 2012 § 1 Comment

Because laughing feels good, and I want to do it more.

If this answer doesn’t seem like enough, it’s because we expect our literature to do something more than simply entertain us.  While I think literature would hold a more democratically revered place in our popular culture if many authors focused a little more on being graciously entertaining, I’ll dedicate the rest of this post (and the next few to follow) to the more noble reasons writers should employ humor in their fiction.  Whether you think the sole, true purpose of literature is uplifting our spirits, shining a cold light on dark truths, giving audience to under-represented voices, or toppling the bourgeois hegemony, humor can only help in accomplishing these goals.

Humor is a tool, like characterization or dialogue, and it is foolhardy for any writer to rise to the impossible task of communicating the unspeakable with less than all available tools at their disposal.  Why, then, do some people try to write about parenthood or cancer or vampires without a large box of jokes at the ready?

I wonder if some associate humor with the genre of comedy, a narrative arc which I think literary authors are right in distrusting.  Every element in strict comedies must conform to a path—the protagonist falls further and further before triumphing in the climax— which is much neater and straighter than reality.  In trying to say something astute about life, literary authors need to be looser and subtler, free to let the plot follow the subtext.

But I don’t see why this should keep anyone from using as much humor as their structure allows; no author would think to write a novel without setting because of her distaste for the post-colonial trappings of commercial travel literature.  Nor would she do without a plot because Robert Ludlum could do it better by focusing on plot alone.  There are literary novels that have done so as noble experiments or self-absorbed stunts, but no one except the most fevered manifesto writers (which is probably the farthest one can get from being a fiction writer) have ever suggested that one of these elements is actually a distraction from the story and should be kept out of fiction forevermore.  Why then isn’t humor seen as a necessary element of fiction?

From another angle, humor isn’t a tool but a sense.  We all think of it this way—one’s “sense of humor”—and it is a common admonition in introductory creative writing classes to engage all the senses: the only chance you have of making the world of the story come to life is by stimulating every input the reader has.  A teacher of mine once encouraged the class to revise the first page of a story so that it included at least one concrete detail for each of the five senses.  Why not also engage the sense of humor?

Again, I hope a substitution illustrates my point: it should surely change the story if the narrator were unable to touch the world in a tactile way or if she were fully blind, so it is only a very specific narrative point of view that should ignore humor fully. Full humorlessness, though, seems almost past disability: the man who enters the cancer ward without holding tight to some sense of humor seems as monstrously disfigured as the sociopath who enters without a sense of sorrow or empathy.  While it may be useful to explore characters with these emotional blocks through literature, I fear most of our self-important writers choose to write without humor because they take their own thoughts too seriously.  As a result, their work ends up being evidence instead of an elucidation of this blindness.

Anyhow, that’s probably enough for this week, but I promise there’s more to come soon about humor as a sense and an essential element of fiction.

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