Sunday, February 26, 2012

Why So Serious?

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.


  1. Right on, Sarah. Well said. I can't wait to read your award-winning literary FUNNY book!

    1. Thanks Wendy! Now I just have to finish writing it...

  2. While these are collections of essays and not proper memoir, both Sarah Vowell and David Rakoff write "real" books that are funny as all hell. (Sarah Vowell's last two books aren't essay or memoir. Making the Puritans and the annexation of Hawaii funny is a category of awesome all her own.)

    1. Thanks for the suggestions, Amy! I am always on the lookout for good funny writing. I read Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation and really liked it; I'll have to check out David Rakoff.

  3. Good topic for discussion, Sarah! I felt that lack of humor, as well. It's not just MFA programs; it's in the bookstores, too. If you look through the humor section, you can find a few great memoirs every bit as wonderful as the more serious nonfiction, but they're considered closer to joke books than literature.

    My sister hates "literature" because, after high school and college, she thinks it's a synonym for needlessly depressing books. She is unhappy that a book that makes her laugh isn't considered serious literature. She would rather read that book; she connects more deeply with that book than she ever has to a piece of classical or modern "literature." She doesn't understand why serious writers look down on funny writers. Is it because people think laughter is cheaper than tears? That it's easier to write humor? (They've probably never tried.) That you can't learn and connect deeply with writing that makes you laugh? Some of my favorite autobiographical stuff makes me laugh and cry at the same time. That's talent.

    I guess maybe the "fool" will always get no respect, but the Fool tends to see things in ways others don't, and the fool can point out the world's foolishness more freely. I think of the way Dave Barry can make me squirm even as I laugh when he's pointing out some of the really dumb ideas and mindsets in America. I think of Shakespeare characters. I think of essay writers who take their lives and their pain and their tears and wring laughter out of it, and I respect them.

    I'm looking forward to your stuff, too.

  4. Love this post! In my nonfiction classes, it was almost always the (rare) humorous pieces that got the most enthusiastic responses. Writing good humor is hard, and I don't think of myself as particularly good at it...which may be why I always appreciate the writing of other, wittier folks.

    Now that I think about it, none of my nonfiction profs really wrote humor. Hmmm. That doesn't seem quite right, somehow...

  5. Mary Karr isn't funny? Really enjoyed this post Sarah.