Friday, July 11, 2008

Only When I Laugh

Last week I was at NEA signing See How They Run, my new book about presidential elections. (Full disclosure: My favorite part of the afternoon was seeing the NEA delegates from Nebraska on the convention floor wearing corn hats.) The second best thing was a compliment from a social studies teacher. “My kids are going to really like this book,” she said, “because it’s…it’s…well, it’s funny.”

I couldn’t have received higher praise. That’s what I was aiming for, in large part, because my own fifth grade civics experience was mind-numbing. The text I read was delivered in the driest way possible—all the blood, sweat and tears of creating and maintaining our political system desiccated into a Sahara of facts listed for their own sake. Of course, it was the style of the times, but a pretty stupid style if you think about it. When an author presents an idea and illustrates it with a compelling story, a kid will remember that idea. Make it funny and the kid will stick around to read more. Humor can be the spoonful of sugar that keeps kids turning pages.

I’m not saying every book should resemble a comedy routine. Mine don’t. Plenty of subjects don’t lend themselves to humor (unlike our political system!). There are others that are simply no joking matter.

But humor can be very useful. First of all, it’s entertaining, nothing wrong with that. As I’ve said before, it can keep a reader engaged long enough to learn something. It can deal with weighty material as well. Humor allows you to sidle up to a biting truth without being too biting, to take the edge off something that’s just too tragic. Humor lets you make a point without sounding as if you’re preaching or wagging your finger at your readers.

Despite these invaluable attributes, humor isn’t respected much at all. Let me be clear, people like it but if they must go public, humor quickly becomes a guilty pleasure—the beach read, the restful interlude before undertaking something more worthy. While awards aren’t always a measure of timeless excellence, they do indicate what our culture thinks of as quality at the time they are given. How often do comedies win the Oscar for best picture? What proportion of the Newbery winning books were written to amuse? The Sibert? Let’s face it, people often think that humor is literature’s “less than,” an artless country bumpkin compared to Literature with a capital “L.”

I often talk about this issue with my friend David Elliott, who writes wonderfully funny picture books and middle-grade novels among other things. He told me that the Children’s Laureate of Great Britain Michael Rosen has helped create the Roald Dahl Funny Prize open to fiction and nonfiction alike. While I wish that prizes for humorous works weren’t separate (haven’t we all learned by now that separate is never equal?), at least England is acknowledging that humor is worthy of recognition. Let’s hope it doesn’t take too long for us to follow suit.

I would love to hear what other people think about this whole humor issue. Do you agree that it is thought of as one of literature’s second class citizens? How do you think it should it be seen?


Vicki Cobb said...

I totally agree with Susan! There are lots of serious subjects in the world but that's no reason to be grim about them. Well said!

Gretchen Woelfle said...

Hear, hear. Hurray for funny and the Funny Prize. I once heard an interview with Wim Wenders in which he said that in his middle age he was going to try to make a comedy, that it was much harder than tragedy, and demanded a certain maturity that, for him, came with age.

Susan E. Goodman said...

So why do you think humor and the skill it takes to produce it is undervalued?