When I finished my last graduate class last semester, I had my mom take a picture of me surrounded by all the books I read during my two and a half years in the program.Most were nonfiction and most of those were memoirs.The books covered topics such as blindness, racism, mental illness, genetic disorders, poverty, abuse, sexuality, substance abuse and addiction, adoption, lying, death, and neglect.There was a book about bullying and divorce, another about sex and the color blue. Each book had a different structure, tone, and tempo, and each one succeeded in causing me to feel something: anger, hurt, relief.But, although some of them handled moments of levity with as much deftness as they tackled tougher topics, not one made me laugh out loud. In fact, the only book I remember causing me to snort when I read it was a book for my spy novel class, and even then I felt like laughing was somehow illicit in graduate school.Dirty.Less valuable than writing about tragedy. Humor, it seems, has no business in “literary” writing; in the words of Rodney Dangerfield it “get[s] no respect.”But, as much as I appreciate debating the finer points of truthfulness in CNF and exploring the musicality of the lyric essay, I can’t help but feel as though part of the discussion is missing, particularly surrounding well-written, genuinely funny nonfiction.
This isn’t meant to disparage the books I read, and I do appreciate the depth of writing my professors exposed me to during my time in the program.I see it as a failing from the ground up: if we don't study humorous books, less people will write them. They won't get published as frequently as those about heartbreak and despair, which makes them less likely to make it on a syllabus, therefore making it harder for those of us who write humor to study humor writing. I wonder if this has caused people to steer away from writing humor and stick with darker subjects. Is it schadenfreude? Morbid curiosity about the worst? When my memoir class tried to come up with “funny” memoirs that could have been included on the syllabus, aside from David Sardonic (I mean, Sedaris) we couldn’t come up with a single one. And even Mr. Sedaris has a dark, serious edge to his humor. Only after class did I remember Haven Kimmel’s A Girl Named Zippy, but I felt embarrassed bringing it up, worrying that people wouldn’t consider that literary.
This leaning towards pain, darkness, and the dramatic is hardly limited to literature.One glance at tonight's Oscar nominations reveals a similar bias in film.Of the nominees for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, and Supporting Actress, only one, Melissa McCarthy, comes from a comedy (Bridesmaids), and I think I would fall off my chair if she actually won. Only one film classified as a comedy, Shakespeare in Love, has won Best Picture in the past 30 years (that is, if you count Shakespeare in Love as a comedy; I find the ending quite sad).I understand this bias to a degree; you can’t really compare the breathtaking cinematography of Pan’s Labyrinth with the cringe-inducing slapstick of Meet the Parents.But here’s the thing: I pre-ordered Bridesmaids the day after I saw it in theaters and have already watched it half a dozen times; while I remain haunted by the story in Schindler’s List (no doubt the desired effect), I will probably never watch it again.Requiem for a Dream, while beautiful and disturbing, will never make it to the top of my Netflix queue, but I return to Wayne’s World, Tommy Boy, and the comedies of the Farrelly brothers over and over.These are the movies I watch when I’m sick.Or sad.Or just want to feel good for two hours, with everything depressing that’s going on in the world.
It’s the same with nonfiction books.I have re-read works by Mary Roach, Sloane Crosley, Patrick McManus, and yes, even Dave Sedaris.Tina Fey’s memoir has the same ability to evoke emotion that Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club does, so why is one (laughter) less valuable than the other (extreme discomfort)? Certainly Tina Fey is a writer, just like Mary Karr, and a pretty good one at that.
A fellow humor writer in my classes expressed frustration that her voice wasn’t represented by the required reading, and I have to agree. Of the 16 people in our memoir class only three wrote pieces with a humorous leaning, and with my own piece the feedback I got was to hone in on the more serious parts that I tended to avoid. Laughter helps us cope with pain, so if it has the ability to trump tragedy in life, why don't we consider it worthy in writing?Writing humor is no less personal than writing pain, and writing a truly funny piece certainly takes as much skill as weaving a tale of regret and redemption.
If the desired effect of literature (any genre) is communicating with the reader in the hopes of eliciting some kind of emotion, then we owe it to ourselves to include the range of emotional experiences in our selections as readers and writers. And as readers and writers of nonfiction especially, for what is funnier than a ridiculous true story well-told? If you head to AWP this coming week, consider hitting up one of the (very few) funny-focused panels.You will probably find me there, taking copious notes with a giant grin on my face.