Humor and Writing

Mur Lafferty (author of the hilariously awesome The Shambling Guide to New York City) hosts a writing podcast I enjoy, called I Should Be Writing. A month or so ago, she interviewed one of my favorite authors, Gail Carriger, in ISBW Episode #328. I have been following Gail’s career ever since her agent posted the first page of Soulless to her website, and I HAD TO READ MORE!! I’ve loved all her books for the combination of Victorian sensibilities and humor and plain silliness with strong, relatable characters and engaging stories.

Anyway, naturally the two of them turned to discussing humor in fiction (starting about 41:20), and how important and rare it is even (or especially) in the SFF genre. I really enjoyed their discussion, particularly because most of my favorite authors have some element of humor or silliness to lighten even the most serious subjects of murder or war or whatever the overt plot of the book might be. Gail points out that she wants her readers to enjoy reading her books, never to feel like it’s a slog. As a reader, this is terribly important to me. Reading has always been my escape, and my therapy. Trying to read dark or depressing or overly serious things either puts me to sleep, or makes me move on to something more enjoyable quite quickly, no matter how good or interesting or otherwise important I might think a certain thing is.

Mur and Gail talk about how HARD being funny in print is. This is something I struggle with. I want to write silly and humorous, but somehow it always comes out flat, so I default back to a somewhat more “serious” tone. But sometimes I can’t help wondering if that’s my issue with producing anything publishable and finding my voice. Am I meant to be writing humorously? Should I just keep plugging away until I find the right trick and embrace the nonsensical? One of my main writing interests is Ancient Egypt (of course!), but I wonder if I do them a bit of a disservice by not pursuing more humor. The dwellers of the Two Lands had, overall, a pretty pervasive sense of humor. There are any number of examples of silly (often pornographically so) graffitos scattered through ancient monuments. They told jokes, and sang silly songs. Many scholars gloss over their funnier side, but no picture of the Egyptians is really complete without their humor.

Gail also talks briefly about how subversive humor can be. This is something any discerning reader of Pratchett’s Discworld could attest to. But I think it’s terribly important. Humor is the best and most effective way of taking the world apart and showing how it can be different without alienating those who are too invested or too complacent in the status quo to hear it any other way. Humor, by its nature, holds a fun-house mirror up to the world. The astute writer can use that to write characters and plots which would be considered radical in any more “serious” work.

That’s the kind of humor writer I would want to be. I don’t aspire to Pratchett-like levels of brilliance, but I would love to be able to take my silly-side for a walk now and again. I just don’t know how to get started.

Maybe I ought to just let the ludicrous out of the bag and take it for a bit of a walk for a while. If I write something so over-the-top goofy and then scale it back a bit, it might do the trick. Or it might just flop like a stranded fish. But such is the nature of any writing experiment.

I will say, the most approval I’ve ever gotten of a piece of writing was a hilariously filthy and deliberately awful bit of fan-fiction for a friend’s erotic-romance novel. It was nice to make people laugh. Maybe I ought to try writing something that goofalicious again.

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