Advance review copies of Sam Lipsyte‘s forthcoming novel, The Ask, include a letter from Farrar, Straus and Giroux editor Lorin Stein pondering the fate of the comic novel:
A generation ago, there was no shame in a book’s being funny. Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, Stanley Elkin, Barry Hannah, the Roth of Portnoy’s Complaint, the DeLillo of End Zone, etc., etc.—these titans of the sixties and seventies were unabashedly comic writers. Just because they made you laugh it didn’t mean they weren’t great or serious. On the contrary, they aired the dirty laundry of our minds and it made them heroes. (“The most moral writers, as William Hazlitt wrote in his Lectures on the English Comic Writers, “are those who do not pretend to inculcate any moral.”) By being funny they were able to tell the truth.
From there Stein argues the main reason comic novels have “fallen into a kind of desuetude” is the rise of uncensored stand-up comics, who are now the main purveyors of yuks and snappy social criticism for the mainstream. But no stand-up, Stein argues, can offer the “needed nuance and speed” that comic novels provide to their subjects.
I’m not enough of a cultural historian to dispute Stein’s claim about stand-ups—though I do figure that back in the dark ages it was no harder to find a Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor LP than it was a copy of Portnoy’s Complaint. But it seems clear to me that the comic novel hasn’t fallen into disuse so much as it doesn’t play the culture-shaping role it once did. As with so many other artistic disciplines in the past decade or so, tastes and interests are now so fractured that nobody collectively agrees on anything, and nothing is harder to get people to agree on in the first place than on what makes you laugh. (Maybe the most successful comic novel today would be funny in the way Friends is “funny.”)
Still, my efforts to completely demolish Stein’s argument by pulling out many examples of contemporary comic novels—ones I actually found funny, anyway—have fallen short. That may largely be a function of my reading habits. (After all, Mr. Stein, my shelves are full of books published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) But I could start a list with Lipsyte’s Home Land, a nervy and willfully outrageous portrait of a high-school loser approaching middle age. Jack Pendarvis‘ Awesome is a raucous send-up of American folk tales from my pick for the best comic writer going; Matthew Sharpe‘s Jamestown takes a similar approach to the founding of America. Nicholas Kulish found plenty of dark ironies in the relationship between the military and the media in Last One In; Ken Kalfus did much the same for 9/11 in A Disorder Peculiar to the Country. I don’t think of Adam Langer‘s two excellent Chicago-set novels, Crossing California and The Washington Story, as strictly comic, but they do have plenty of laughs, and a consistently genial, witty tone. After that, I mainly wish that George Saunders would write a novel.
But let’s not romanticize the past too much—I didn’t live through the sixties and seventies as an adult, but I suspect laugh-out-loud literary fiction wasn’t much easier to find back then. Remember, the same Roth who wrote Portnoy’s Complaint also wrote The Great American Novel, a clunker as a comic novel and a baseball novel both. The dearth of contemporary comic novels doesn’t mean it died at the meaty, jewel-encrusted hands of Andrew Dice Clay; it’s just proof that the comic novel has always been among the hard tricks in fiction to pull off.