Thursday 18 March 2010


Erika Wagner’s article in today’s Times begins with the immortal words,
“Last time I checked, there are a lot of books about Asian sisters didn’t really count as literary criticism.”

Said by Daisy Goodwin, one of the judges of this year’s Orange Prize, who is fed up with reading novels concerning the exploits of Asian sisters, this made me laugh. It comes a couple of days after the debate opened up by Sara Crowley, albeit unwittingly, on her blog, (HERE and the post above this one) about ‘cultural tourism’. Sadly, people seemed intent on being grievously offended in that discussion, and needed to wave their subtexts in the air.
The Times, brave souls, risks the wrath of the ‘grievously offended’, and pokes fun at the current fashion for books peopled by Asian sisters. And there are obviously rather a lot about. Must admit, I hadn’t stumbled over any, yet, and The Times doesn’t exactly make me want to seek them out, either.
But the article moves on, far more interestingly, to why novels that make the reader laugh, are not winners of the literary prizes, when they are good stuff, well written, and hard to get right.
Daisy Goodwin:
“I think the misery memoir has had its day, but there are an awful lot of books out there which had not a shred of redemption in them,”
That is thought provoking. So much is in the eye of the reader – plenty of intelligent, astute readers loathe McCarthy’s The Road, and find it unremittingly bleak. I didn’t – I found it a hymn to the human spirit, tenacity in the face of annihilation. But there you go – it takes all sorts, thank goodness.
Wagner says:
“Comic novels — let’s call them terrific novels that happen to be funny — tend to fall through the cracks, especially where prizes are concerned. Publishers have to choose which books from their list to submit for a prize such as the Orange: is a book that makes a reader laugh really worthy of a prize?”

The article, HERE, makes good reading. And concludes with a list of Erika Wagner’s top ten comic novels:
Erika Wagner's Top Ten comic novels:
What a Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe
Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
Headlong by Michael Frayn
The Believers by Zoe Heller
Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka
Deaf Sentence by David Lodge
Moo by Jane Smiley
Digging to America by Anne Tyler
The Wife by Meg Wolitzer

I could add anything by Tom Sharp, Jerome K Jerome's Three Men in a Boat. Any more?


Group 8 said...

Notes on a Scandal is hilarious despite grave subject matter. Zoe H is a comic mistress.

Lolita (Nabokov) is also a scream and it is about v serious stuff.

Both writers play on the absurdity of warped peronalities to wonderful comic effect.

Minnie said...

I imagine that, for Daisy Godwin, having to work her way through a towering pile of ever-so-sincere-and-meaningful new fiction had its effect ... All those 'ishoos': the curse of the book group.
But she does make a good point. To paraphrase: 'It's the marketing, stupid!' Publishing now reactive, rather than pro-active. And I sometimes wonder if they LISTEN to readers at all (market research rather than PR, anyone?).
With you, V, on serious lit fic (McC a very good example); agree that sometimes only humour can do the trick. Love your list, and would add K Amis's 'Lucky Jim'; Stella Gibbons's 'Cold Comfort Farm'; Willans' Molesworth series (perfectly complemented by Searle's illustrations); almost anything by David Lodge or Howard Jacobson. Oh, and for readers of French: Raymond Queneau's 'Zazie dans le metro' and the entire works of Alphonse Allais. Mx
PS Word verif do sa 'tultrog' at me, miffuf - how dare it, fie!

Minnie said...

Aaagh, how could I, an ex-journo, forget Evelyn Waugh's 'Scoop' or Jane Thynne's wonderful 'fictitious' romp based on her experiences @ The Eye (?'Another Little Drink')? And then there's a trio of hilariousness from Nancy Mitford.
Cor, times 'ave changed!

rachel said...

The Third Policeman (Flann O'Brien), now there's a funny book. Reminiscing about it only last week I felt like crying with laughter.
I stopped by because I was lured in by the words 'comic novel' - got to the end of your post before I realised I was still waiting for graphic
novels to be discussed! Glad to be reminded of the funnies, though.

Julia Bohanna said...

My favourite Shakepearen quote is from King Lear:

'Jesters do oft prove prophets.'

You can hit really hard with comedy...sometimes it is blow you are not expecting.

That said, I still will be scrapping Gita and Solita Shame Their Family in Mumbai, the novel.