When Comedy Falls Flat: The Difficulties of Writing Comedy

 

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I couldn’t resist posting that new cover from EBook Launch  for ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’. I think the former one was too cartoon like.  Some might say that there is a difficulty with this one in it being too romantic. That all fits in with the end of this post.  I do like it, though. I think the artist did a brilliant job. Sadly, Émile’s freckles are missing…

One of the problems with writing humour is that everyone’s sense of humour must be slightly different. Of course, there is mainstream comedy, and there is dark comedy, and there are satires and spoofs. What one person finds hilarious leaves another cold.

And that is the problem with comedy. If you don’t amuse, you can annoy. Comedy, or books with a strongly comic undertone, must surely be amongst the most difficult of genres to write.

For instance, I usually enjoy the writing of that writer of the mid-twentieth century Monica Dickens.  The regular reader of this blog won’t be surprised to find that I came across a copy of the first book I read by her, ‘One Pair of Hands’ at the age of twelve on one of those invaluable and innumerable bookshelves my mother had stocked with books bought by lot in furniture auctions. It was a 1930’s edition, and even had the postscript left out of modern editions, the discussion on ‘the servant problem’ at the end.

To digress a bit: Monica Dickens was the great-grand-daughter of Charles Dickens,  a debutante who went to work as a ‘cook general’, an amazingly eccentric move in the UK of the 1930’s.  This led her to write this book of her experiences with various employers in the London of the Great Depression.

Work may have been scarce, but ‘good servants’ were equally so just before the outbreak of World War Two, as people came to regard the long hours, poor wages and necessary subservience of ‘service’ as demeaning. In Victorian times, any lower middle class household would have had its ‘Mary-Ann’ who had to do just about everything for her employers; in the 1930’s things had changed, while many employer’s attitudes had not, and Ms Dickens’ book was about just that, and written with sharp observation and humour.

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The edition that I found on my parents’ bookshelves.

I found some other books of hers on the shelves, including, ‘Man Overboard’. This, an account of the misadventures of a British naval officer axed by a reduction in the navy circa 1955, I found so dull that I nearly stopped reading it, save then – as now –  a stupidly stubborn streak usually kept me reading a book I didn’t enjoy as ‘I’ve put this much effort into it; I might as well go on to the end.’

Most of it hardly raised a smile from me. That was, until I got to the climatic bit, which is is fact, the protagonist’s coming to a sense of proportion through the death of his father. At twelve, I was shocked to find that Monica Dickens had written a humorous depiction of a funeral. I had thought myself irreverent! That was black comedy indeed, and I was full of admiration that back in the conventional 1950’s she had dared to write it.

She did not in any way ridicule the grief of the mourners, but she did send up the foolish emptiness of many of the rituals, and much hypocrisy on the part of various distant relatives to a family loss. I was fascinated at how a humorous attitude towards life’s tragedies can in fact be a great bulwark, and I think I learnt a lot about dark comedy.

I read various other books of hers that I did consider funny (and tragic, for this author often combined the two). ‘Kate and Emma’ was one, ‘The Heart of London’ was another, and ‘The Listeners’ was another ( and no, that isn’t about the day-to-day ups and downs of the hard working people who do surveillance; it is about the author’s experience as a member of The Samaritans).

But I am unable to say why it was exactly that I found some of this author’s work hilarious, and other parts only raised from me a weary smile. It might have been that ‘Man Overboard’ was told from the point of view of the male protagonist, whereas her books are usually either told from the point of view of a female one, or have multiple points of view.

Another aside: How I wish that style of writing would come back into fashion…

It could just be that every comic situation depicted in that book left me cold until the end.

And that is one of the perils of writing comedy. When it falls flat, it’s about as acceptable to the reader as a heavy cold pancake, without any sugar, lemon, syrup, etc.

When it fails, it often frankly grates. Far more so than, for instance, pathos which misses the mark and turns into bathos, which after all, does make you smile at least.

I found this a couple of years ago, when I read some of a comic series by a female author. The books were well written. I enjoyed the first. In it, the heroine allowed herself to be beguiled by a charming wastrel, who subsequently let her down and wandered off with a regretful wave.

On beginning the second, I realised with dismay that the scenario was much the same as in the first. The protagonist had learnt nothing from being so badly let down by the first anti -hero. She met another one here, a supposedly different character, but in fact, virtually identical to the unreliable lover in the first. He looked the same, and his character flaws were identical. The heroine allowed herself to be drawn in by  him in exactly the same way as she had with the first, and he let her down in just the same way . So indecisive was he, that he didn’t even finish things properly; he wandered off exactly like the first, possibly to return in some future volume.

I looked at the third. Here that same anti-hero was again, hardly changed at all, though with a different name and a slightly different hair colour, being unreliable and winning the heroine’s heart and letting her down all over again…

This was obviously the case of a protagonist who learnt nothing and remained static. She was depicted as being supposedly sophisticated and in her late thirties. The author obviously found her guillable nature adorable, but for myself, I only find a naïve and ridiculously romantic female protagonist charming if she is young and inexperienced. If my own twenty-one-year-old Sophie de Courcy had led a less sheltered life, then her romantic silliness over the eponymous Scoundrel Émile  would have been  less exusable…

The protagonist of the series I mentioned seemed to have had many love affairs, but in the ones the reader is shown she was a sort of romantic recidivist, falling for the same sort of man, and being exploited in exactly the same way, again and again and never learning anything. In subsequent volumes, the former exploiters had a habit of returning with a weak apology, and the starry eyed heroine would admit them to her bed all over again before they strayed off again…

It was certainly realistic about a certain sort of woman. I found these constant re-runs of the first story not hilarious, as it is clear from the reviews that many did, but irritating.

There are in fact, ways in which an author can allow her protagonist to make the same mistake about one character, a love object, without depicting her as a static character incapable of learning. Magic is one, hypnosis is another, and a theme involving re-incarnation is a third.

In fact, in one of my favourite fantasy series, ‘Child of the Erinyes’ by R A Lochlann, a combination of these magical and reincarnation explanation is used to great effect. The heroine has no memory of the anti-hero’s abuse of her in previous incarnations, and so we do not become frustrated with her.

I suppose the author of the series about the non-developing woman had looked at some of the characters in classic comedy – ie, Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, and seen that they were essentially static, but this in no way detracted from people’s enjoyment of the stories.

And the odd thing is, that I enjoy those stories, myself.

She may have been right in her assessment. In all fairness, only a minority of reviewers reacted as I did. The majority seemed to enjoy the female protagonist, and to root for her without respecting her, chuckling indulgently as she made the same mistake about men all over again.

Which comes back to my point; writing comedy is so hazardous precisely because readers’ tastes and sense of the ridiculous differ so greatly.

A reader of  one of ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ wrote to me, ‘I found it read more as a straight paranormal romance. I couldn’t find any spoof elements.’

She added, ‘But I really enjoyed it.’

Well, that’s the main thing, anyway…

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Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Mary Barton’: A Harrowing Depiction of Poverty in the UK of the Early Industrial Revolution.

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I have recently been re-reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Mary Barton’. I thought I had long since written a review of it; it seems not.

This is, of course, Elizabeth Gaskell’s first novel, published in 1847. It established her reputation as a writer who sympathized with the poor and oppressed, the workers in industrial Lancashire who were voiceless in the government of the country, and who suffered hideously during the times of economic depression.

In this, she resembled Charles Dickens. He was in fact her later publisher when she wrote for his magazine ‘All The Year Round’. Like him, too, she had a great dread of the rampant mob, and shares the almost morbid fear of trade unions which he showed in ‘Hard Times’. In the novel Gaskell depicts trade unionists with unintentional comedy, as having a conspiratorial aspect almost akin to a lot of Gunpower Plotters.

This, no doubt, was partly due to the fact that she was writing the novel in the era of  the Chartist protests, which co-incided with the outbreak of revolution throughout much of Europe.  The Chartist leadership was strongly divided over those who espoused peaceful methods and those who considered that they must win power by ‘Reason if we may,  by force if we must’.  Elizabeth Gaskell was a devout Christian who recoiled from violence and was shocked by the mutual antagonism of the mill owners and their nameless ‘hands’ who comprised their workforce.

The original protagonist of the novel was not Mary Barton, but her father John Barton, and this probably explains why he in fact comes across as a more fully realised character than his daughter’s love interest, Jem Wilson. Jem is accused of the murder that John himself has committed of the mill owner’s son, the caddish and handsome Harry Carson.

He has been angling to make Mary his mistress, though in her naivety, she thinks that he is interested in marriage. Eventually, in fact, when he realises that she won’t become his mistress he does make her an offer of marriage, which she scornfully rejects (no doubt Richardson’s Pamela would be astonished by that). By then, she realises her folly in rejecting Jem, who following his own failed proposal, is assiduously keeping away from her.

Jem is warned about Mary’s danger from Harry Carson by Mary’s Aunt Esther, who subsequently deserted by her lover, had taken to prostituion to support their child, and after her death, become a drunkard.  She has been keeping a covert watch on the Barton household, and wishes at all costs to keep Mary from suffering the same fate as herself.

Jem confronts Harry Carson, and they come to blows, but a policeman separates them. When he is later murdered, Jem is the natural suspect.

Now Mary resolves to save him from the gallows…

There are some harrowing descriptions of poverty and misery in the book, and the author leaves the reader in no doubt of her moral outrage that such conditions should be allowed: –

‘Never was the old Edinburgh description of gardez-l’eau more necessary than in this street. As they passed, women at the doors tossed out slops of every description into the gutter; they ran and overflowed into the next pool, which overflowed and stagnated…our friends were not dainty, but they picked their way till they got to some steps leading down into a small area..You went down one step into the cellar…It was very dark inside. The window panes of many of them were broken and stuffed with rags…

…After the account I have given of the state of the street, no one can  be surprised that on going into the cellar inhabited by Davenport, the smell was so foetid as almost to knock the two men down…They began to penetrate the thick darkness, and of the place, and to see three or four little children rolling on the damp, nay, wet, floor…They clustered round Barton, and tore from him the food he had brought with him..’

In fact, the mill owners of Manchester were offended at what they saw as Elizabeth Gaskell’s unfair portrayal of their indifference to the sufferings of the mill workers. They were better pleased with her later novel, ‘North and South’ where their viewpoint is depicted more sympathetically.

In this novel, certainly, Mr Carson, whose son is ritually assassinated as a sort of ‘legitimate target’  in a piece of terrorism by John Barton – who despairs of anything short of this moving the obdurate mill owners – is a highly unappealing character, who only arouses the reader’s pity after the death of his prized son. His wife, though thinly skethed, is another. Once a mill worker herself, having produced upwards of four children, has taken to indulging her ill health and treats her servants as her natural inferiors.

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Harry Carson is also thinly sketched,  which as he is to some extent the antagonist, is a shame. Had he been given a sronger role, the extent of Jem’s victory, over both his own jealousy towards Carson, and Carson’s attractions as a rival  love object for Mary, would be more striking.

The trade union leader is depicted as a wily opportunist, rather on the lines of Plutard (I think that was his name; I’m being too lazy to look it up) in Zola’s ‘Germinal’.  Perhaps he is depicted that way as a counter to the unsympathetic bourgoise in the novel, but one gets the impression that Elizabeth Gaskell could  not credit that anyone could be a dedicated trade unionist and Chartist without being either fanatical or self seeking…

Jem Wilson is depicted as a wholly admirable working man, capable of selfless devotion, and handsome ‘save for the marks of smallpox’, with dark curling hair and a stalwart build. Outstandingly brave, he rescues his father and another workmate from a blazing mill. It is typical of him that he should oppose women working, but one has to remember that his mother’s experience of work has left her disabled as a result of an accident with unguarded machinery.

Mary Barton, very pretty, well meaning and often wilfully opposed to her own best interests, is a good characterisation of a young girl of sense with some silly notions. Her realisation that she loves Jem, only after she has turned down his proposal, is vividly recounted.

John Barton, demoted from his place as protagonist as he may have been,  is the character who makes the greatest impression on the reader. His personal tragedies – he has lost a son through poverty and loses his wife in childbirth – a death he blames on the shock she sustains when her sister runs off with an army officer – embitter him. Still,  he never loses his devotion to the working people and his determination to relieve their suffring.  In the scene described above, where he helps the Davenport family, he sells his last possessions of value to buy them food and medicine.  When the petition on the condition of the workers he delivers to parliament is contemptuously rejected and the recession worsens and want increases, he becomes desperate. Unemployed and black listed as a trade unionist, he turns to violent methods to change the minds of the masters.

John  Barton, then, is a believable flawed tragic hero, and the ending when the older Carson is able to forgive him makes a moving conclusion to the story.

Mary’s fight to prove Jem’s innocence is well told. Her admitting in court that she loves Jem would have been astoundingly indpendent behaviour in a Victorian heroine. Many critics disagree with Raymond Williams objection, that the story’s change in theme from the political to the domestic entails a weakening of its theme.

It is worth noting that in this first novel, the character of the sailor as a dashing racounteur is depicted in Will Wilson, Jem’s cousin. This character, no doubt partly based on fond memories of her own lost brother,  was a type Elizabeth Gaskell was to develop in Frederick Hale in ‘North and South’ and Charley Kinraid in ‘Sylvi’a’s Lovers’.

Will Wilson is a straightforward version, a touching combination of the boastful and the modest, who falls  in love with the dowdy and virtuous Margaret Leigh when  he heards her sing.  He lacks either the sophistication of Frederick Hale, or the moral dubiousness of Charley Kinraid.

Jem, for his part, is depicted as – despite his aversion to women working – a wholly more attractive rival to the dashing Harry Carson than the melancholy Philip Hepburn is to Charley Kinraid in ‘Sylvias Lovers’ . ‘Mary Barton’ is a novel which ends  happily for the two sets of young lovers, Mary and Jem, Will and Margaret, in complete opposition to the tragic conclusion to that later novel.

The ending is a good deal less happy for John Barton, of course, who must face the consequences of his crime. As a matter of fact, parents usually fare badly in Gaskell’s novels. ..

That this happy ending for the young people has to take place in Canada, not the UK, is in itself  a dismal comment on the prospects for workers in what was then the ‘workshop of the world’.

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Indie Authors: Don’t Give Up On Your Original Voice When Sales Are Bad

https://www.amazon.com/Longbourn-Jo-Baker-ebook/dp/B00CQ1D3BYFive years ago, when I started writing online, I was lucky enough to meet some outstanding writers on Goodreads (I’ve met others since, on Authonomy before it packed up and elsewhere, but here I’m talking about that original base of writer friends).

They were mostly women, varying in age. Some came from my native England, some from the US, and a couple from the Antipodes. Their genre varied, but they all had one thing in common….

They didn’t write formulaic, predictable stories. They broke rules; they used humour; they featured strong female leads (otherwise, I wouldn’t have enjoyed their stories). They were often a bit cross genre, and this was probably one of the reasons why they hadn’t got that elusive contract with an agent or publisher.

They wanted to achieve something original. Yes, they wanted success and sales – who doesn’t? – but above that, they wanted to write with an individual voice and to get readers for the novels that they had loved creating.

In those days, things were a lot easier from the sales point of view. My goodness, back then Amazon hadn’t introduced Amazon Select and Pages Read, both of which have led to a catastrophic fall in sales.

Why, in 2014 my spoof Regency (technically, late Georgian) Romance ‘Ravensdale’ sold thousands – enough for me to take my daughter on holiday to Paris.

It also attracted a good many resentful reviews from readers who disliked their favourite tropes being satirized, however gently, but that is the price of notoriety, and I think most writers, like me, would rather attract sales and public notice than have no controversy, obscurity, and dismal sales.

Incidentally, since the introduction of Amazon’s new sales policies, sales of ‘Ravensdale’ have plummeted. Because it is sinking into obscurity, I have made it free on Smashwords. I have tried to make it free on Amazon, but they ignore me. Here is the Smashwords link for that:

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/721130

My own view is, that while it is nice to make money out of writing, that isn’t why I went into it; in fact, that is only the icing on the cake. The reason I went into it, is because I wanted people to read my stuff.

If I – as someone (I hope) at least partially sane – had gone into writing to make a profit out of it, then I’d be writing: ‘The Duke Gets His Breeches Down: Dastardly Duke Series 101’.

That is the way to make high sales and money out of writing.

Most of those writer friends haven’t sold as much as they deserve. But then, if they got their just deserts, they’d be best selling authors.

Sadly, the market doesn’t work like that; the market recognises the price of everything, and the value of nothing, as someone once said.  As often as not, it’s not the talented and original authors who are among the most successful.

Sadly, I think some of them have become discouraged about writing. Some are taking a long break from the whole business of writing and the weary slog of publicity, and finding it a relief. Of course, many of them are very busy; some of them still have children, and a job…The wonder is anyone in that situation produces good work at all.  But I suspect some have been discouraged by mediocre sales, and the lack of a breakthrough.

I personally, think it would be a great loss if they gave up altogether. Rather, I think that if an author is making a pittance from her writing and it has no visibility on the sales ranks on Amazon, she might as well make her books free.

Smashwords will do it happily enough. The problem is Amazon, who seem to turn a deaf ear when it suits them.

However, they have made my first book, ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ free. For anyone interested, the new edition, complete with a faster start, is available here https://www.amazon.com/That-Scoundrel-Émile-Dubois-Light-ebook/dp/B00AOA4FN4

and here

By the way, I wouldn’t like to give the impression that all wonderfully original works are doomed to poor sales and lack of public recognition.  Many receive the recognition they deserve (though sometimes it happens after the author is dead).

There is Jo Baker’s ‘Longbourn’, for instance. What a brilliant work!

I found it such a refreshing change to read a book set in the UK of the Regency era which is about ordinary people – not the aristocracy (the families of approximately 700 men) or the gentry (approximately 1.5 per cent of the population).

But I will be writing a post about that soon. For now, I would like to say that I wish that all of my original writer friends were back to writing again. I miss them.