Friday, February 15, 2013

What has 2 thumbs and no sense of humor?

Sometimes writers are like serious putty. From xkcd.
Unfortunately—sometimes writers. I love reading fiction that’s also funny, and that’s why I was so happy to read not one, but two, pieces that touched on humor this month—an essay on humor by E. B. White (in Essays of E.B. White), and an interview in The Paris Review with short story writer Marie-Helene Bertino.

In the essay, Some Remarks on Humor, E. B. notes how “serious” writing is often seen to be in conflict with humor—especially unintentional humor—because a serious writer’s worst fear is to have his “architectural scheme” of high emotion toppled by a “snicker.” In summary: “Here, then, is the very nub of the conflict: the careful form of art, and the careless shape of life itself”. (I love this last phrase, “the careless shape of life itself”—I think it perfectly sums up the silly in life.)

And yet, this conflict—in art, as in life—is the source of so many of our emotions. Maybe that explains why, as E.B. writes, humor “plays close to the big hot fire which is the Truth.”

It’s also why I was so glad to read Marie-Helene’s interview because I think she sums up really well what humor can do—not to trivialize human emotion—but to enhance it. In answer to the question of how she manages to integrate both despair and humor in her stories, she says:

“…[H]umor is a key to certain locks that straightforward storytelling can’t open…. Humor brings out… the little nuances—Isn’t the world ridiculous? Isn’t this just absurd? If your house burns down, and you go to the diner because you don’t have a kitchen anymore and they say, ‘Smoking or non,’ and you’re sitting there basically charred and cindered, that’s funny, and it’s also really sad. You can…go a lot further if you’re intercutting severe sadness with humor.”

So, the bottom line? I think it’s something like, don’t be afraid to make with the haha. It can really pay off if handled right—or maybe especially even if handled a little wrong!

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