Laughter is a mysterious, wonderful thing. The Navaho or Diné people have a ceremony to celebrate the first time a baby laughs. In China, a New Year's cookie called "laughing open mouth" symbolizes happiness for the coming year. Laughter is a magical moment, and humor a magical craft.
If one is writing or revising a novel that falls into the category of humor, what are the rules to make it so? I don't know, despite the fact that what I write is intended to be funny and apparently hits the mark a good chunk of the time. Even when I try to boil down what makes me laugh in other people's work, or in those moments that work in my stories, it doesn't sound like a recipe anyone else can follow.
So to kick off the New Year, I'm asking you, what is funny? Funny as in, makes you laugh even as you shake your head and feel sorry for a character? How much is too much or not enough, given that pace should move, like any other novel, in waves that crescendo toward the close?
My librarians must think me a bit Pollyanna-ish in my constant requests for what is new and funny; they know not to try to sell me on the latest tear-jerker. I only take recommendations on sad and beautiful books from friends; it is a measure of the depth of a friendship when I dive into a book that promises heartbreak and misery.
In asking for suggestions on humorous novels, it is amazing how broad the category is, and how differently people define it. The challenge is that I want real stories, with real problems, a take on the world that delivers punch and still a laugh. My own bookends in this category – the first book I read that captures what I am aiming for, and the most recent – are Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, and Mark Haddon’s A Spot of Bother.
The set-up of the first, as you know, is hardly grounds for a chuckle, and the latter is a must-read about a gentleman who is slowly going crazy, as is most of his family for one reason or another. Well-crafted characters searching for meaning and truth in their lives. Tragedy at every turn, and yet we cannot help but smile, at the least.
What allows that moment of recognition and self-recognition to not only connect, but make us actually, physically laugh? It’s in the writing, in the moment, in the conflict, in the character, and still it goes beyond definition. We know it when we see it, because we react to it with our hearts and souls.
What do you think? What makes you laugh out loud? What are your thoughts on funny?
Wednesday, January 02, 2008