Writer's Corner
Humor in Books

Guest Post by

Robert Cubitt

 

When it comes to reading the ‘blurbs’ on book covers, the words that fill me with dread are “funny”, “hilarious” and “humorous”, or their many synonyms.

It isn’t that I don’t have a sense of humour, it’s that humour is so subjective. Try this joke:

‘A man walks into a bar. He says “Ouch!”

It was an iron bar.’

Did you find that funny? Are you, as you read, rolling around on the floor, slapping your thighs, with tears of mirth running down your cheeks? Are you smiling indulgently? Or are you asking “What’s funny about that?”

Somewhere, out there in the Twitterverse, someone may have raised a slight smile at that joke, but that’s about it. For the rest, tumbleweed rolled across the scene.

We’ve all been in the pub, or at a party, or even at work, when one of our companions has spent 5 minutes telling us what they thought was the funniest joke ever, and we’ve ended up thinking “Well, that’s 5 minutes of my life I’ll never get back”, then looked on in puzzlement as other companions split their sides laughing.

But when an author, or their publisher, describes their work as funny etc they EXPECT you to laugh, whether it is really funny or not. And if “funny” is its biggest selling point, then that is high risk.

And this is why I get so worried when I see those words on a book blurb that says that the contents are going to make ME split my sides laughing. Bitter experience tells me that this is not going to happen.

I was reminded of this when I recently read a book which described itself as “a madcap comedy of truly ludicrous proportions.” I won’t name the author or the book, as they’ve got enough problems without me adding to them. But I should have known better. The whole book was clearly aimed at trying so, so hard to make me laugh and failing at every attempt. The premise for the book was a good one: what if the frustrations we meet in life were to follow us into death? But the joke wore thin very quickly and there was nothing to replace it as the book dragged interminably onwards.

If you think that I’m being very grudging, then I need mention none greater than the Bard himself, William Shakespeare. Take these examples of wit from his plays:

 

“For defect of judgment Is oft the cure of fear.” 
–Belarius, “Cymbeline,” Act. IV, Sc. II

 

“Where’s hourly trouble for a minute’s ease.”
–Helicanus, “Pericles, Prince of Tyre,” Act II, Sc. IV

 

“Most spend their mouths when what they seem Runs far before them.”
–Dauphin, “King Henry V,” Act II, Sc. IV

 

“Some rise by sin and some by virtue fall…”
–Escalus, “Measure for Measure,” Act II, Sc. I

 

Oh, please stop me, foresooth there goes another rib! (Robert Cubitt)

 

“Ah,” I hear you say, “but the use of language was different then. The audiences of the day would have been rolling in the aisles.”

 

Somehow, I doubt it. Having said that, the groundlings no doubt enjoyed Shakespeare’s frequent dirty jokes. Here are a couple.

 

Twelfth Night: Act 1, Scene 3

 

SIR ANDREW But it becomes me well enough, does ’t not?

 

SIR TOBY BELCH Excellent; it hangs like flax on a distaff; and I
hope to see a housewife take thee between her legs and spin it off.

 

Hamlet: Act 3, Scene 2

 

HAMLET Lady, shall I lie in your lap?


OPHELIA No, my lord.


HAMLET I mean, my head upon your lap?


OPHELIA Ay, my lord.

 

HAMLET Do you think I meant country matters?


OPHELIA I think nothing, my lord.


HAMLET That’s a fair thought to lie between a maids’ legs.


OPHELIA What is, my lord?


HAMLET Nothing.

 

I have to admit, they aren’t the dirtiest jokes I’ve ever heard, if jokes they are, but maybe the groundlings were a little less sophisticated in those days.

Did Shakespeare describe his comedies as such? I suspect that he must have, otherwise no one would have known whether they should have laughed or cried. The expectation of jokes is half way to getting the audience to laugh.

It’s fine for the author’s family and friends to say that a book is funny, but the author should remember, family and friends tend to be kind. Books require the far more objective view of dissociated readers before they can be called funny.

Just because your partner laughs at you, it doesn’t make you a comedian and just because an author’s partner chuckles at the jokes in a book (which they may have heard before anyway) it doesn’t mean that a book is funny. Let others be the judge of that. The book I mentioned above only garnered an average 3.6 stars in terms of reviews on Amazon and the lower valued reviews (28% at 1 and 2 stars) all said pretty much the same thing – it just wasn’t funny. Maybe I should have read the reviews before I bought the book, after all, that’s what they’re there for.

Of course, it could be worse. Having spent months writing what the author thought was a literary masterpiece, describing the highs and lows of human existence, it could be something of a smack in the mouth for a reviewer to call it “hilarious”. But at least the author will know that the humour was accidental.

Being funny for money, I believe, is one of the hardest jobs in the entertainment world. If a singer or musician offers a halfway passable rendition of a song, they will probably get a round of applause, even if only out of sympathy. And here’s the thing, they’ll get the applause even if the audience has heard the song before.

But if a comedian tells jokes that don’t make the audience laugh, or which the audience has heard before, they’ll walk off the stage to the sound of their own footsteps.

The author of a “comedy” may never hear their book hit the wall, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t thrown. If you want an honest opinion of your book, don’t ask friends and family – ask a reader. But be prepared for his or her review.

About the Author:

Bob was born in Edinburgh in December 1951 to Katherine Sutherland and Bob Cubitt (confusing at times). Bob senior was a professional soldier and the first few years of Bob’s life was spent travelling around the world with his family. During his first 15 years he lived in Edinburgh, Austria, Malaya, Enfield, Leigh-on-Sea, Maldon (the Essex one), Harlow and Peckham.

Fed up with such an itinerant lifestyle, in 1968 Bob Joined the Royal Air Force as an apprentice electronics technician and spent the next 23 years travelling the world and enjoying all that service life had to offer. Places visited included Oman (a small island by the name of Masirah), Cyprus, Malta, Holland, Germany and various parts of the UK. During this time he met and married Bernadette and produced three children, Ewan, Tara and Sinead. He retired from the RAF in 1991.

Following on from this Bob took up new employment with Royal Mail as part of their logistics team and stayed with them until 2009. After that he returned to his roots and took up a position with the Ministry of Defence at their Logistics facility at Bicester, Oxfordshire, before leaving to take up full time writing  2012.

Bob has always been keen on writing and had tried his hand at various projects over the years, but the need to earn a crust had always interfered with his desire to be more creative. Now with time to spare, Bob returned to writing with passion and produced two works of fiction in rapid succession. In truth these had been “works in progress” while he had still been in full time employment and just needed finishing off. Since publishing these  books on Amazon he has focused on new projects and now has a total of  nine fiction and three non-fiction works published, with more in the pipeline.

In his spare time Bob enjoys playing golf, is an ardent supporter of Northampton Saints rugby club and is a member of a pub skittles team. He also writes a weekly blog for this website.

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