We are not amused: My love/hate relationship with funny fiction

In the Get Real thread, Rob T. suggested that I might review other funny crime books. My reaction was to shudder. I hate funny fiction. But of course, I don’t, because I like Dortmunder, and Westlake‘s comedy caper novels generally. I’m just very very picky about it.

I hate things that are trying to be funny, rather than letting the humour bubble up from underneath. I hate things where there are jokes that require being outside the frame of the novel to get. I loathe puns—I mean I quite like puns as they naturally arise in conversation, but I hate it when you have a character whose name is a pun, or where the characters makes puns. Even when I adored Spider Robinson uncritically, I found the pun cascades at Callahan‘s excruciating. I generally hate things that don’t take themselves seriously and make me feel they’re making fun of me because I do take them seriously. I didn’t notice the “fit hit the Shan” line as a pun when I read Lord of Light (I doubt I’d heard the American expression about shit hitting the fan when I first read it) and it’s a very good thing because that’s the kind of thing that ruins my reading experience. To this day I think of that as something like the notion that Aslan is supposed to be Jesus, an extraneous annoyance I wish nobody had pointed out.

I hate Discworld. I like Pratchett’s juveniles a great deal, and I like Good Omens, but I find Discworld completely unfunny. I’ve given it a fair try, having read the beginnings of all the ones people say are the best, but they leave me cold. I’ve often tried to figure out why they tend to irritate the heck out of me when so many other people love them, but I had to settle for emigrating. I don’t find Wodehouse funny either.

I generally don’t like satire much, unless it’s done very well. I hate Mary Gentle’s Grunts, because it strikes me as mean-spirited. Galaxy Quest understands what’s good about what it’s making fun of as well as what’s ridiculous about it. I think good satire has to love what it skewers, and that doesn’t happen often enough.

It’s not that I’m a grouch with no sense of humour. I laugh a lot. I have even written things that make people laugh. But I don’t like extraneous added funny bits, I like humour that arises naturally from situations. I don’t like jokes—and in fact if you tell me a joke more complicated than “What’s brown and sticky?” (A stick!) I’ll probably spend ages trying to figure out a context in which it could make sense and therefore be funny to me. (I have a couple of stories, the one about the ham and the one about the jellyfish, that came from doing that.) If you give me solid characters and have them doing funny things and taking them seriously, I will laugh. I’m much more likely to be amused by a funny bit in a serious novel—the oatmeal and blue cheese dressing in Shards of Honor gets me every time. Similarly I smile just thinking about the getting Christened sequence in The Long Ships.

I think everything that I think is considered to be humorous writing and that actually amuses me fits into that category—John James, Robert Sheckley, Bob Shaw. The only possible exception is Douglas Adams. Adams does have jokes and his world is absurd, but I think on the whole he does treat his characters seriously, even when he’s being ridiculous. They’re not just there to be funny. Marvin and the terrible pain in the diodes down his left side, and Arthur with his terrible quest for a cup of tea are plaintive as well as amusing.

There’s probably a lot more funny stuff out there there that I would like if I didn’t cringe when I saw the covers. I’d be interested in recommendations, but I’m reluctant to ask for any—do please bear in mind what I’ve said here.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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