- Extract from Open Book, January 12th 2012. BBC Radio 4.
That was John Mullan, Professor of Literature at UCL, in 2012 commenting on the results of a listeners’ poll to create a list of the funniest books ever written. As he points out, it was a list dominated by older works penned by some of the late grand masters of comic fiction including the likes of P G Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, Jerome K Jerome and Nancy Mitford.
But then Tom Sharpe, who made it onto the list, died the following year aged 85, and Sue Townsend, whose book The Secret Life of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ topped the list, died in 2014. Another year later, we lost David Nobbs. Those three authors alone produced some of the funniest books I’ve ever read and they created a chorus of memorable characters - Eva Wilt, Popeye Scruton and Reginald Perrin among them - who would turn up time and time again in sequels, TV and films. And, in the past couple of decades we’ve sadly had to say goodbye to many more of the finest comic writers that Britain has ever produced: George MacDonald Fraser, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Carla Lane, Alan Simpson, John Mortimer, Victoria Wood and many more.
But to whom has David Nobbs passed the baton? Where are the new Tom Sharpes?
A quick glance at any fiction chart will show you that, for some reason, there is very little new comic fiction about. TV still has occasional glimmers of genius – I’m thinking here of series like Detectorists, Fleabag and Catastrophe to give just three fine recent examples – but comic novels are in short supply. There is, admittedly, a healthy groundswell of RomCom out there with the likes of Sophie Kinsella, Helen Fielding, Mary Jayne Baker and others, and you’ll also find a reasonable amount of funny SciFi, fantasy and horror too; we may have lost giants like Adams and Pratchett but we have Jasper Fforde, Tom Holt, Robert Rankin, Christopher Moore, David Wong et al still in fine form. But in all of these instances, comedy plays second fiddle to the main genre (although, curiously, each genre only seems able to sustain just a couple of comedy superstars). But look in the comedy section of a bookshop these days and what do you find? It’s all comedians’ memoirs, TV panel show tie-ins, humorous travelogues, cartoons or collected newspaper columns by Clarkson. You won’t find many new novels. Modern comedy writers – people like Jonathan Coe, John Niven and Michael Frayn for example – have become a rarity and a bestselling comedy - such as Jonas Jonasson's 2009 The Hundred-Year-Old Man who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared is as rare as hen's teeth.
I’m extremely vexed and puzzled by this state of affairs. When did comedy become relegated to just a sub-genre? We may not make the best cars, or produce the best footballers, or have the finest education system in the world anymore but surely the British are damned good at comedy aren’t we? We have more stand-up comedians than nurses (or so it seems some days). And we are the nation that gave the world Monty Python and Cold Comfort Farm, Blandings Castle and Fawlty Towers, Morecambe and Wise, Kenneth Williams and Nigel Molesworth. Don’t we pride ourselves on being able to laugh at ourselves? Isn’t GSOH the most prized of all personality traits on dating sites and app profiles? There was a time, not so very long ago, in the days when people read books on the commute to work instead of watching birds get angry or candy getting crushed, when you would see comedy books in abundance. These were also the days, incidentally, when you could see what people were reading - you can tell nothing from the cover of a tablet, e-reader or smartphone – and quite often my interest was piqued enough to buy or borrow the book for myself. But I digress. Once, not so very long ago, people heading off to work would set themselves up with a smile. It was a joy to witness the occasional uncontrollable snigger among the grey and sad creatures that shared my carriage as some paragraph in the latest Leslie Thomas or Evelyn Waugh or H E Bates tickled someone’s funnybone.
For example, my personal introduction to Tom Sharpe came when sitting on board a ‘green goddess’ riot coach with 24 tired and scared police colleagues during the Brixton Uprising of the early 1980s. In between being pelted by bricks and petrol bombs, we snacked and played cards or read. It was there that a fellow rozzer loaned me Vintage Stuff and, suddenly, I wasn’t waiting for the next call to de-bus and to put my life in danger once again. I was in France in the 1970s, watching Glodstone, a Richard Hannay-obsessed public school teacher, being pelted by raw sewage as he attempted to rescue a countess who didn’t want to be rescued from international terrorists who didn’t exist. I can’t begin to tell you how cathartic it was to snort with laughter as I turned each page. It took me far away from the grim realities of the world outside.
All of which begs the question, where has all the funny gone? Surely in this depressing post-truth era of Brexit, Trump, fracking, climate change denial, North Korea and austerity, shouldn’t we be actively seeking some escape from all the horror and nastiness? Why aren’t we reaching for the tonic that is comic fiction? We love a bit of TV satire and we trip over ourselves to enjoy a little farce; like it or loathe it, Mrs Brown’s Boys was the most-watched show on TV last Christmas Day (barring the Queen) and it pulled in a clear half a million more viewers than the misery porn that is Eastenders. Sandwiched between those two extremes was the feel-good filling of Strictly and Call the Midwife, both of which have their share of laughter. It was also great to see three comedies among the Top 10 best shows of 2017 (Detectorists, Catastrophe, Peter Kay’s Car Share) as voted for by critics in a recent Radio Times poll. But the Top 10 books of 2017 show a dearth of humour except for children’s fiction with two David Walliams books and the latest in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid franchise by Jeff Kinney. There’s a Jamie Oliver cook book, a Guinness Book of Records, a Dan Brown, a Phillip Pullman and a Lee Child. But there are no comic novels. And yet, in 2003 – just 15 years ago – when the BBC ran The Big Read and asked the British public to vote for the top 200 novels of all time, comedy was everywhere.
Douglas Adams came in at Number 4 with The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, Joseph Heller (Catch 22) at 11, Stella Gibbons (Cold Comfort Farm) at 88, Jerome K Jerome (Three Men in a Boat) at 100. Sue Townsend (The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾) came in at 112, and George and Weedon Grossmith (Diary of a Nobody) came in at 186. Terry Pratchett alone had no less than 13 entries in the Top 200, or 14 if you count Good Omens, his collaboration with Neil Gaiman, at 68. There was also a sprinkling of Dickens, such as The Pickwick Papers, some classic funny children’s books like Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh and a great many Roald Dahl and Jacqueline Wilson books on the list. In 2003, at least, people were still enjoying a good laugh. Are we really so po-faced these days? Don’t we yearn for a good hard guffaw?
I started this extended whinge by quoting John Mullan and his suggestion that perhaps comic fiction is like a good single malt and needs to mature and accumulate some age before we look upon it kindly. That’s certainly borne out by the polls I’ve been wading through over the past week or so. But surely we can’t just draw a line in the sand under the Millennium and say that ‘all comic fiction ends here’ and expect the books written before that to be the ones that people hold up as the best. And yet, trying to get a new comedy published if you’re not a celeb and it’s not a TV tie-in is a nightmare. My agent, a chap of great skill and experience who works at one of the top five UK agencies has been pitching some of my comic novels for several years but with no success. ‘Well, maybe they’re not good enough’, I hear you say. I accept that’s a possibility but it’s not what I’m hearing from the rejections. What I’m hearing is that the books are well written, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny and clever. One rejection even said that Tom Sharpe would have been proud to have written one of mine. But those rejections also say, ‘I’d have difficulty in placing it on our current list’ or ‘the market isn’t much interested in comedy right now’ or even ‘if you had a bigger public profile we might risk it.’ And that’s the reality; publishers are no longer producing books they like, they’re producing books that the market dictates and the market itself is driven by supermarkets and online giants like Amazon that discount everything and aim at selling to the lowest common denominator. Find a Will Self or a Salman Rushdie in Tesco and I’ll treat you to a literary lunch. And with so many bookshops shutting down, the only outlets in many towns now are the supermarkets and places like W H Smith that only seem to stock charting books.
Incidentally, it's not solely a British problem. In a recent article for Cracked, Daniel O'Brien pointed out five good reasons why comedy books are in the dumps in the USA too. Chief among them are that comedians seem to be content to write biographies but not novels (although I have no ida why he assumes that only comedians can write comic novels) and the fact that 'funny' is used indiscriminately on book covers. As he says, 'The government should honestly be able to step in and legislate the number of times publishing houses can advertise their books as "funny." The back of my copy of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections says "surprisingly funny," and I guess there are a few funny lines, but at the end of the day, it's a book about Parkinson's disease and an entire family that suffers from depression. I don't know what the criteria is for getting "funny" slapped onto the back of a book, but I have to assume it's "having a number of different words," because that's the only thing that The Great Gatsby (heartbreaking and brutal) has in common with Christopher Moore's Lamb (almost impossibly hilarious), both of which have the word "funny" printed on the back cover.'
It's a depressing picture, isn't it? And it's made all the worse by not having lots of rib-tickling new novels to read.
It's why I was so delighted to discover Unbound. They let readers decide what books they want to see published rather than some faceless accountant or supermarket chain. They're publishing books that otherwise might not have seen the light of day other than as self-published e-books. And I'm delighted to report that my first comic novel A Murder To Die For is now in shops the length and breadth of the UK. Despite having only been out for two months it already has 50+ Five Star reviews on Amazon and over 40 Five Star ratings on Goodreads. Not bad for a book aimed at a market that 'isn't much interested in comedy right now', eh?
And now I'm crowdfunding the sequel The Diabolical Club with Unbound. If you fancy an early special edition that's nicer than the trade copies that will go into the shops (though they are nice too), then please pledge now by clicking here. You'll get your name listed in the back of the book as a patron too; your name, forever, indelibly printed in every edition for as long as books exist. That's not bad for the price of a takeaway is it? And, more importantly, you'll be helping an author make a living, helping to birth a brand new book and, hopefully, giving those commuters something to giggle at.
A Murder To Die For is now available in bookshops everywhere and from online bookstores.
I read today in The Guardian that the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction is rolling over to 2018 because none of the 62 nominated books for 2017 made the judges laugh.
You couldn't make it up.
I bet they all had "funny" printed on the cover though.