Sunday, July 30, 2006

Humor Me

I once dated a lady who was a good person and had a charming sense of humor, but when it came to the physical act of love, her intensity bordered on the pathological. I don't remember laughing once before, during, or after sex, and perhaps I should find this humorless approach to lovemaking a good thing, lest I were to mistake her laughter for contempt.

In matters less personal and less embarrassing, I find that as I get older, I cannot bear humorless people, listen to humorless music, and, most importantly, read literature that lacks a hint of laughter, irony, or any other scintilla of wit.

Upon closer inspection, this preference has is apparent in my tastes. Elvis Costello over Bruce Springsteen. Salman Rushdie over Nadine Gordimer. "Seinfeld" over "24." It's not that Springsteen, Gordimer, or "24" lacks humor (though they pretty much do), but they favor raw emotion over wit, power over subtlety.

Why, you ask? Humor is less threatening than intense, and I usually find cerebral more appealing than soulful; and while to thine own self be true, I am sure that these prejudices have been debilitating when it comes to my choices in literature, and probably my writing.

That's what they told me in grad school, at least. For instance, take the case of a robot/writing teacher who conducted a class on style and form would gush at length if she happened to agree with one's comments, and averted her eyes when she didn't like it.

"OK, what else?" she would say after a particularly egregious comment. Or "Thank you for your comment, anybody else?" while looking at someone she knew would support her point of view.

This year's model, and next's

We were talking about favorite authors and books, and when a fellow student mentioned that Grace Paley was one of her favorite writers, the teacher went on at length about Paley's stories, and her point of view, and all the challenges she faced, and blah blah blah, thanks for stroking me...

So when I admitted that "A Confederacy of Dunces" was one of my favorite books -- one of the funniest books ever written, I might add -- she looked at me perhaps a milisecond as the punch cards filed in her brain to spit out the conclusion, "Alert! Alert! System shutdown possible!" before turning away and saying, "Alright, what else?"

A friend -- also a lover of the humorous and profane -- also suffered a throwdown after a comment did not agree with the teacher's inner robot. "Am I stupid?" asked my friend, an extremely funny but insecure woman.

"We're the villiage idiots," I said.

And so it went in writing workshop, where to have a sense of humor was to be avoided like Herpes Simplex II. If you're stories were not DEAD SERIOUS and HEAVY WITH EMOTION, you were DISHONEST and LACKED DEPTH.

But, as I was sad to discover, there is a little problem with putting such a heavy burden on laughter.

Although one may not glean it from a certain short story of mine, when I am writing and am stuck, I'll try to get out of the jam by writing something humorous. If I want to avoid an emotional confrontation between characters, I'll write something funny. And, above all, if I write a sex scene, it's going to be a laugh riot, though the one sex scene I've written came out like a mix of Jim Carey, Jenna Jameson, and one of those romance novels with Fabio on the cover. Which probably ends up looking like Tom Cruise having sex with a farm utensil.

Wouldn't want to wake up next to this

My personal defense mechanism is humor -- I use it to deflect emotional confrontation in my own life. Being serious often makes me unconfortable, and it was more than one ex-girlfriend who asked, "Bookfraud, are you ever serious?"

After a couple of decades of this immaturity masking as wit, I finally figured out that it was simpler to answer a delicate question rather than make a joke out of it; in my fiction, it dawned on me that emotional depth of character is mandatory, and it's hard to do that when everything is a one-liner ("Did you hear the one about the narcoleptic comedian doing standup in airplane cabins?").

I am probably addicted to wackiness more than anything, and it can be a hard thing to break. My novel is chock full of wackiness.

Like I said above, "A Confederacy of Dunces" is one of my favorite novels, but if you know anything about the book, and you have a sad sense of irony like I do, you probably know where I'm going with this. In a famous story about the book's genesis, the mother of the author badgered the great Walker Percy until he agreed to read it, and immediately recognizing the man's genius, Percy had "A Confederacy of Dunces" published to great acclaim.

Its author, John Kennedy Toole, didn't see his work published, much less win the Pulitzer Prize, because he'd killed himself. Nothing funny about that.