Sunday Salon: Seriously, Comedy is Hard

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Last week, I completed my duties as a first-round nonfiction judge for the Shirley You Jest! Humor Book Awards and forwarded one contender on to the final round. The winners and runners-up (one of each, for fiction and nonfiction) will be announced on November 1, National Authors’ Day.

After mulling it over with some degree of anxiety, I have decided that I won’t be posting reviews of any of the titles I considered. I know this is highly unusual for me, as my stated position is “I review everything I read.” That said, the decision significantly reduced my anxiety about the judging process–partly because of the time commitments, but also because these books would have been very hard to review. For the most part, they were collections of personal anecdotes and observations, not strongly linked by narrative and exaggerated for comic effect…to varying degrees of success.

As Steve Martin once said, “Comedy is not pretty,” and it’s not easy either–as the saying goes, “dying is easy–comedy is hard.” I think that it’s particularly difficult to do humor well in print, where it’s just between writer and reader–there are no visual or audio cues beyond the words on the page, let alone the responsive laughter of an audience (which is its own sort of cue). This experience reinforced my appreciation for those who can pull it off, especially if they’re writing outside the “comic novel” genre (fiction permits certain latitudes). People like David Sedaris and Tina Fey and Jenny Lawson (and Steve Martin, for that matter) don’t come along every day, and the authors who entered their work in the nonfiction category of the SYJ! Awards had their work cut out for them.

The SYJ! Awards were open to “indie” authors whose books were published by small, independent publishers, including themselves, and that’s another factor in my decision not to post reviews. For the most part, I’ve shied away from reviewing self-published books here, and nothing I read during my judging stint inspired me to change that policy.

The best self-published works I’ve read are those that I didn’t find until after they were picked up and reissued by traditional publishers, based on word-of-mouth success. And honestly, my appreciation for one more thing was reinforced by my time on this project: the work that’s done on traditionally-published books by the people who aren’t the writer–editors (content and copy), designers, and other members of the team (whose jobs I can’t name because I don’t work in publishing).

Comedy is hard, humor can be very subjective, and judging comedic nonfiction turned out to be less than a barrel of laughs–a supposedly fun thing I’ll (probably) never do again (although I just might read that collection of David Foster Wallace’s “essays and arguments” one of these days–it’s as close to Infinite Jest as I intend to get, frankly).

What makes humor work for you in books? Is it different from what you like in other media?

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