Thursday, October 10, 2013

Humorous vs funny

Elizabeth Zelvin

What’s the difference between a humorous mystery and one that’s funny? I know that many writers and, more important, agents disagree with me, but imho (in my humble opinion, as we say online), calling a manuscript humorous is the kiss of death. “I’m enclosing my humorous mystery manuscript, A Barrel of Deaths, in which my madcap protagonist, Corky Screwball, has a series of hilarious adventures as she tracks a murderer through the sewers of New York.” As an agent would say, not for me. The “humorous” label is like a laugh track on a TV sitcom. The obvious anxiety that the readership or audience won’t know it’s supposed to be funny unless they’re prompted is detrimental to genuine humor.

If I’m told a book is humorous, I expect to find a peppering of jokes—sometimes identified as jokes in the text—and a strained humor that may be expressed in excessive adjectives and adverbs, coyness about sexuality and strong language, an intrusive narrative voice that may overpower the characters’ voices, clichés produced as if the author has no idea they’re not fresh, and other devices by which some writers try too hard to be funny.

On the other hand, if a reader I trust tells me a book made her chuckle or laugh out loud, I’m willing to try it in the expectation of being pleased. Sense of humor being as individual as taste in books, I may not find it funny. But I won’t be unwilling to try it or braced against being distinctly unamused.

I’ve done so much purging of my bookshelves lately that it’s hard to find “humorous” passages I don’t find funny, but here’s an example. I’ve omitted the author’s identity (no one I know personally, but the book got good reviews) and character names.

I contained myself until we were in the car….Then I leaned forward and said, “You know who [that] is? He’s the kid who lives next door to…[t]he house where the murdered man was!”

Now here’s one of the differences between men and women. If they had been women, both of them would have turned around with their jaws dropped and their eyes stretched wide. They would have said, “No! You’ve got to be kidding!”

Being men, X said, “Huh,” and Y didn’t say anything at all….

X said, “God, it’s nearly one o’clock. We’re all gonna hate getting up in the morning.”

Sometimes men are just no fun.

In contrast, here’s a passage from the late Donald Westlake, a writer who wrote many very funny books in his distinguished career. I won’t try to find a passage I thought was a sidesplitter. As I said, what makes people laugh is idiosyncratic and varies from one reader to another. But here are the first two paragraphs of Get Real, Westlake’s posthumously published final novel. It features his series character Dortmunder, a likable crook to whom the unexpected inevitably happens as he proceeds from caper to caper. Note the simplicity of the language, the absence of cliché, the distinctive voice, and the effortless command of tone.

Dortmunder did not like to stand around on street corners. A slope-shouldered, glum-looking individual in clothing that hadn’t been designed by anybody, he knew what he looked like when he stood for a while in one place on a street corner, and what he looked like was a person loitering with intent. The particular intent, as any cop casting an eye over Dortmunder would immediately understand, was beside the point, and could be fine-tuned at the station; the first priority was to get this fellow in charge.

Which was why Dortmunder didn’t like standing around on street corners; he hated to give cops the feeling there was duty to be done. And yet, here he was, in the middle of a weekday morning in April, as obvious as a carbuncle in the pale glare of the weak spring sunshine, the near-beer equivalent of real sunshine as in, say, August, but still plenty bright enough to pick out a questionable detail as large as John Dortmunder, who happened to be waiting, in fact, for a cab.

Need I say more?

1 comment:

Julia Buckley said...

Great post, Liz. I thought the funniest writing in it was your fake letter to the agent. That one made me laugh out loud. :)