There was a really interesting piece in The Huffington Post yesterday on “what makes a good short story”, by Heidi Pitlor. Heidi is the series editor of the mighty annual Best American Short Stories anthology, so she can safely be taken to know a little of what she writes. There’s plenty of excellent advice in there, particularly this paragraph:
Here are some things I’m always glad to read: loathsome, despicable characters (who says we readers all crave likable characters?); bone-scraping emotional honesty; a strange, off-kilter voice; unreliable narrators; surprise; a solid command of language; a story written with urgency and profundity; great, weird titles (titles matter); the assigning of language to something I have never thought about but should have. Humor.
It’s that last word that leapt out at me – especially as it wasn’t the first time she’d used it in her piece. Here’s an earlier paragraph:
Here are some things I wish I saw more frequently: humor, genre-bending, humor, risk-taking, a more direct addressing of real world matters, humor.
This reminded me a little of the time when Tracy Chevalier was the judge for the Bridport Prize and reading her report, you could detect a bit of a cry for help, having been given a final list to choose from whose subject matter was almost exclusively pretty grim. I hasten to add that most of the stories were excellent (most especially Vanessa Gebbie’s “I Can Squash the King, Tommo” and Toby Litt’s “The Fish”, an extraordinary piece of weirdness that somehow snuck in undetected), but having read the anthology, I can sympathise with her comment here:
It was fascinating, if not a little dispiriting, to find out what subjects people choose to writing about these days. Certain themes recurred with almost monotonous regularity: aging and problems with elderly parents, suicide, road kill (yes, really!), illness, religious faith.
and especially this:
If only writers could be a little, well, jollier about it! Sorely missing from the entries was humour, with the honourable exceptions of “Ghost Lights,” which made me laugh aloud, and “The Fish,” with its surreal subject matter and bravura style (there is only one full-stop, at the end of the story). Otherwise, reading the stories made me more and more depressed. While I’m not in a position to chastise – I myself am not known for many laughs in my books – I would like to make a plea to future writers: humour is good! Not only that, but a funny story is so much harder to write than a sad one. Let it be a challenge to us all. I will if you will.
Judging by Heidi Pitlor’s remarks, there still aren’t enough short story writers around who have accepted that challenge. I wonder if it’s because if you write humorous stuff, you don’t get taken as seriously. There haven’t been many out and out funny stories in the shortlists for the BBC NSSA award, for instance, although Julian Gough’s wonderful “iHole” from last year’s shortlist was a rare exception (and this wasn’t the first time he’d made the shortlist – he won in 2007 – so perhaps he has some kind of pass :)). Is it simply because, as Chevalier says, it’s more difficult to write a funny story – or is it because the primary stage readers are trained to weed out that kind of thing before they get near the judges?
Why does this matter to me? It matters personally because there I think humour is massively important as a storytelling tool, and most, if not all, of my stories have an element of humour in them. I can’t see that changing, frankly, because that’s the way I am. I’m incapable of staying serious for very long. So does that mean that, however much I improve as a writer, I’ll always be regarded as a bit of a lightweight? And should I care?
You are so right, Jon. I think humour is very important. I often write funny stuff, it’s just how my mind works I think, but I do worry that by not always being moody and gloomy I won’t be taken seriously.
In the end, I’ve decided not to care.
I think that may be the best response, Calum 🙂
Good piece, Jon. I don’t think humour – i.e. flat-out LOLs – is as important as some kind of evidence of a sense of humour – i.e. some kind of personality and perspective. One of my main problems with 90% of literary short fiction is its desperate, affected humourlessness. Humour is a key strand of our humanity; no-one who neglects it – wilfully or otherwise – can be a really great writer, in my opinion.
Thanks for dropping in, Richard. Good phrase that, “desperate, affected humourlessness”. Spot on.
I can’t help thinking that if you send a humorous story in for a competition, you’re always going to be taking a bigger risk than if you play it straight. As you suggest, Jon (and Calum), it’s hard to shake the impression that, generally, funny stories are seen as less impressive, less worthy than serious ones. Which is strange, because it’s much harder to make somebody laugh via text than it is to make them feel sad. That said, the best, most effective writing does both, I reckon.
Maybe the problem is that good humour is so much more subjective than ‘straight’ prose. And it’s not like humour is a genre of its own – it ranges from saucy innuendoes to bizarre surrealism, or you could dazzle with clever wordplay, go for vicious satire, or pepper your story with witty, erudite one-liners. Some of these will work for some people, and not for others. So the multiple-reader filtering process of a big competition will probably weed out most of the humorous stories. After all, there’s not much less funny than something *trying* to be funny.
I’ve had a couple of successes with funny stories, so I’ll keep writing and submitting them. But I think I’ll always feel my more straight-laced stories are the ones that stand the better chance of getting somewhere… which is why it’s always so frustrating to read about judges wishing for more entertaining pieces.
Good point about multiple readers, Dan. So maybe the ideal target for a humorous story is something like the Sean O’Faolain (add your own accents, I can’t remember where they go), where the single judge reads the lot? In those circumstances, I’d guess they’d be gagging for something funny to lighten the mood.
Quite agree Jon. As the brilliant (and very funny) Sparks said a couple of albums ago: ‘Lighten Up, Morrissey!’ – Good advice.
Please don’t get me started on Morrissey, Dave 🙂
What a refreshing and – yes – cheering post. I’m editing my second novel now, which I hope will make people smile. It’s always impossible to describe one’s own work as ‘funny’ without coming across as an earnest twerp. The funny is always for others to see. Also, any agent I’ve asked about this says (without reading any) that humour is very subjective and hard to sell. It’s a bit like the embarrassing relative of literature you can’t take to swank parties in case it pokes fun at the host.
Thanks for dropping in, Isabel! Yup, it’s a well-known publishing fact that you’ll NEVER find a publisher for a humorous book. Ditto short story collections…
Forgot to add: Good luck! As Tracy Chevalier tweeted me yesterday (she really did), “I still feel same about humour – there’s not enough of it in contemporary writing”
Hi, Jon. Excellent post. You’ve elicited some interesting observations too. I’d spotted and made copious notes from Heidi Pitlor’s piece in HP (reasoning on a similar basis to you that she should know her stuff). Aside from the noted competition problems, it’s a devil’s own job to find sale markets for humour. Duotrope doesn’t even have a primary ‘humour’ category. Looks like we really must get more misery into our work. Funny old world… not. 😉
Thanks, Oscar. Yup, misery loves company 🙂
I’m not a writer … yet … much (so don’t go to my website – it’s not writing and it’s not funny). I am interested though.
Seems to me that a mainstay technique of humour is the unexpected, perhaps leading to the ridiculous – either as a narrative twist or as a juxtaposition of characters or situations. Surely this can be used in an essentially serious story. Dickens springs to mind.
Easy for me to say as I haven’t tried it, so trip me up and kick me.
Thanks for dropping in, Nic! I’d say that the same technique would be involved, but put to a different end, if that makes sense. I’d also say that the kind of serious story where that kind of thing is used is a little out of favour now as well, at least in literary circles.
Didn’t Tracy Chevalier tell us not to write about ourselves, because we’re not as interesting as we think? (And then wrote on her website that she has long ears.)
I don’t know how to write funny stories but I admire the skill in others, and there’s nothing like a good belly laugh halfway through a story. I love dark humour in particular, something to make you cringe and weep and laugh at the same time.
Love the Heidi Pitlor quotes, especially ‘the assigning of language to something I have never thought about’ — a very resonant thought.
I wasn’t aware of that TC quote. Not entirely sure what to make of it 🙂 I think you can make good capital out of writing about the worst bits of yourself and how things might go horribly wrong if you let them. And that HP quote is an unbelievably difficult thing to achieve, although certainly worth aspiring to.