There’s nothing funny about writing a comic novel

Writing a comic novel is hard enough – getting people to find it funny is even tougher. Is this why serious writers avoid jokes, asks author ED O’LOUGHLIN

IN 1969, a 31-year-old professor of English stopped his car near Biloxi, Mississippi, and ran a hose from the exhaust pipe through the window.

His grief-stricken mother, convinced of her only son’s genius, subsequently spent five years hawking around the manuscript of his unpublished novel, already rejected twice while he was alive. Finally, after seven more rejections, a writer and professor named Walker Percy, worn down by her constant harassment, reluctantly picked up the manuscript and read.

A Confederacy of Dunces was published by Louisiana State University Press in 1980, and the following year John Kennedy Toole was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.

The novel has since sold some 1.5 million copies, and might have sold more, were it not the kind of book that people pass on to their friends as soon as they’ve finished it.

So what was so wrong with the novel that it couldn’t get published in Toole’s lifetime? The most popular explanation is that Confederacy is a comic novel, and that the publishers and agents didn’t get it.

It is certainly a very funny book, and not in the way that many successful contemporary “comic” novels are held to be funny. It is not merely wry (wry: sarcasm’s jaded, back-stabbing cousin). Nor is it wistful, the humour contrived by smiling while you whine.

It is fashionably witty – not many novels mine comedy from the writings of Boethius, the 6th century author of Consolation of Philosophy.

But if that doesn’t work for you, you can always fall back on Ignatius J Reilly, a fat, deerstalker-clad hotdog salesman and failed academic, who attempts to incite a Negro Revolt in 1960s New Orleans as part of his lone guerrilla war against modern inanity.

Several other characters are almost as funny, and all are drawn together by a plot, deceptively episodic at first, which proves as satisfyingly neat as a single malt whiskey.

How sad, how ironic, that no one got Toole’s jokes while the poor man was alive. Except that they did, sort of.

In fact, the first publisher to see the manuscript, Simon Schuster’s great editor Robert Gottlieb, entered into a two-year correspondence with Toole, and was still urging changes when the writer – already showing signs of mental illness – abandoned the effort.

Gottlieb got jokes. He was later to edit the New Yorker for 15 years, and at the time of his correspondence with Toole, he had just published another comic masterpiece, Catch-22 , after several years honing the manuscript with its author, Joseph Heller.

Gottlieb wrote to Toole that he thought Confederacy was funnier than anything else around. The problem was, he said, that unlike Catch-22, or Thomas Pynchon’s V , it wasn’t really about anything.

That in itself is highly debatable. Furthermore, why should humour be about anything? Isn’t funny a good thing in itself?

My interest in this is mostly selfish: I have recently published a second novel, Toploader , which is certainly about lots of things – war; technology; oppression; the failures of the media; the enduring power of familial love and the human will to survive – but which also wants to be funny.

The adverse criticism it has met so far, both before and after publication, has centred on the book’s sense of humour. On the other hand, so has much of the praise.

Humour is a gamble. You have to take the chance that the number of readers (and critics and editors) who agree with your notion of funny will be greater than those whom it will repel.

Because humour will always do one or the other: a joke that doesn’t work (and it doesn’t matter if this is the writer’s fault or the reader’s) loses its author far more brownie points than a weak plot point or a clunky sentence.

No wonder so many serious writers now steer clear of trying to be funny. Readers are increasingly hard to come by in the 21st century; best hold on to the ones that you have.

If Graham Greene were alive today, would he still be writing silly books about vacuum cleaner salesmen in Cuba, or would he lay-up sensibly, and stick with his ends of affairs? Would Scoop be appreciated today as an instant masterpiece ( Brideshead Revisited certainly would: snobbery never goes out of fashion)? What would we make of a latter-day Stella Gibbons, whose Cold Comfort Farm was little, from start to finish, but a brilliantly executed spoof (and science fiction too, but that’s another day’s story)? Sometimes, though, humour is the message.

Catch-22 , for instance, is normally described as an anti-war satire, but this is to misrepresent it. From classical Greece onwards, it had been thought that satire had a progressive purpose, that sin and folly might be corrected by laughing at them. By the 18th century, even Swift and Pope must have known, deep down, that this was merely a literary convention.

By the mid-20th century, it was utterly busted. To Be or Not To Be and the Great Dictator are very funny movies, but they did nothing to stop Hitler. When the young Joseph Heller peered down at Italy through the bomb-sight of his B-25, all he saw was ageless madness, not something that he could do anything to change.

For me, Catch-22 is an absurdist novel, not a satire. Absurdism holds that you dissect the human condition not in the hope of curing it, but so you can play pranks with its guts to cheer up your friends.

Kurt Vonnegut joked in Slaughterhouse Five that writing an anti-war book makes about as much sense as writing a book to prevent glaciers. He could not have known, writing in the late-1960s, that mankind was about to get that glacier problem well in hand. War, of course, is proving trickier.

Art that sets out to address political issues – whether humorously or dramatically – can be good, bad or indifferent, but it must subscribe, to some degree, to the satirical delusion. Still, it remains enduringly popular.

I recently read a novel which was almost universally applauded for its depiction of the corruption, violence, ecological devastation and social collapse caused by oil drilling in the Niger delta. That it was, on almost every other count, a very bad novel seemed to pass most reviewers by.

I am not complaining about this: I find it heartening. I have already, with no due modesty, mentioned some of the themes of my own current offering: the ever-changing nature of war’s unchanging brutality; technological anomie; the constancy of lies; man’s inhumanity to his fellow man; that sort of thing. These, I fancy, are far meatier issues than anything you will find in any of PG Wodehouse’s 100-odd books.

From this we must conclude that I, Edward John Patrick O’Loughlin, am a better writer than PG Wodehouse. Or Stella Gibbons. Or Robertson Davies. Or Myles na gCopaleen.

Thank you very much. I’m here all week.

Toploader by Ed O’Loughlin is pubished by Quercus

© Ed O’Loughlin – Writer and Journalist