A Sense of Humor (on reading mss)

June 4, 2011 — 2 Comments

I’ve not been very bloggy lately. I’m ashamed to have missed Short Story Month in May. I had such high hopes of blogging about all my favorite short stories, of linking to other terrific short story blogs, of praising the fair form!

But busy prevails.

One thing I’ve been doing is teaching a summer study abroad class that leaves for Prague and Berlin on Monday. More on that in reports from the field next week…

Another thing I’ve been doing is reading book manuscripts for two different presses. One for a contest in poetry, another for open submissions in prose. And I find that what I am looking for most of all is a writer who has a sense of humor, who is having fun. My colleague articulated this one day as we sat reading through poetry manuscripts – this need for humor – and it has stuck with me as one of the main criteria I look for.

Let me be clear: I’m not talking funny ha-ha. I’m not talking LOL funny. I’m talking playful – with content or language or form. I mean the author is having fun with her art.

I’m also not talking about tricks. “No tricks,” says Raymond Carver. No gimmicks. Go ahead and show off if you’ve got it – like Frank Lloyd Wright does with his Fallingwater cantilevers or his spiraled Guggenheim museum – but don’t be a show off. (Okay, yes, Wright was a bit of a show off, a dandy, but he earned it.)

I’m definitely not talking about jokes. My favorite moments are when I read a sentence and I don’t know it’s funny, but then its humor starts to glimmer like a rising sun behind the words, and by the time I get to the end of the sentence or paragraph, dawn has arisen; it’s a beautiful day.

"what a morning — fresh as if issued to children on a beach"

Let me give a couple quick examples of famous first lines (and first lines are important) that are not necessarily funny on the surface but that reveal the author’s sense of humor:

Mrs. Dalloway said she would be the flowers herself.

– Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

This is revealed as funny when we realize that Mrs. Dalloway has servants to do such jobs for her, and that she volunteers to do this task “herself” because she knows the servants are busy, and, hey, it’s a beautiful day in London!

Call me Ishmael.

– Herman Melville, Moby Dick

As if to say: Ishmael may or may not be my name, but you can call me that.

There was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke . . . Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism. But now it sounded to me like the name of some maleficent and sinful being. It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work.

– James Joyce, “Sisters,” Dubliners

The humor of the first line, and it IS funny, is revealed through the rest of the paragraph. The narrator is naive, earnest, but the narrative is not earnest. And the narrative (the author) is having fun with this character’s personal drama over the word “paralysis.” There’s the funny comparison to other dreadful words. And his conflicting desires: Oh how the word fills him with fear! Oh how he longs to be nearer to it!

You are probably thinking that I have no idea what I’m talking about because these are very unfunny opening lines and I clearly don’t know what is funny. But  hopefully you can see that I’m making a distinction, that I’m definitely not talking funny ha-ha, though I can love writing that is successfully funny (in which case I am usually also looking for an undercurrent of seriousness). But the less successful manuscripts I’ve been reading tend toward the uber-earnest – toward dramatic nature metaphors or melodramatic climaxes – and I’m all like, Lighten up!

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In other news, there’s an interview with me and my editor extraordinaire, Shannon Cain (who won the 2011 Drue Heinz in Short Fiction!), that just posted on the Kore Press blog, Persephone speaks. (Many thanks to Erinn Kelley for asking great questions!)

And my book For Sale By Owner is on the long list for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.

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2 responses to A Sense of Humor (on reading mss)

  1. 

    Almost no one gets the humor in Kafka either, but it’s so brilliant, so brilliant…

  2. 

    Yes, Ryan! Why didn’t I think of that? (I’m headed to Prague Monday! I just taught Kafka last week!)

    Kafka is a great example of that dark and subtle humor that isn’t always obvious at first. But what is funnier than, “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect”?

    I’ve heard that he would have audiences in stitches when he read aloud. I wonder how much is lost in translation.

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