I have a spent large portion of the last 50 years trolling for writers who write humorously without gaffawing, regardless of genre or topic. As a child I had graduated from the Scholastic catalog straight to the adult library where books sported gaily illustrated jacket art. Aside from Thurber and a few Frederic Browns, humorous fiction seemed to have been the province of British writers of the Wodehousian school. But happily 50s and 60s Americana produced an overwhelming number of magazine writers churning out books, we used to call ‘light non-fiction’, where every city dweller wanted to experience the Egg and I or We Took to the Woods lifestyle, but only long enough to bang out a manuscript.
In the 70s and 80s these books were quietly culled from library collections and at a dollar a book I had as many as I could eat. To this day I am not quite sure if reading Jack Douglas and Alexander King as a preteen corrupted my view of life and sex. Humorous writers of the post National Lampoon big bang era were busy exploring all the different ways they could write about the sex they wish they were having as if it were a new invention: Bruce Jay Friedman’s anthologies were good for a lot of in your face sex farces. But by then a lot of the good humor writers had abandoned prose for television, and I was fishing through non fiction for my fixes. If it weren’t for Hunter S Thompson and Tom Wolfe, I don’t think I would have survived the 70s at all.
In the 80s and 90s witty writing seemed to have completely retreated into the science fiction/ fantasy section; perhaps the editors used a different yardstick there. Giving me Harry Harrison, Harlan Ellison, Robert Asprin, where even serious writers managed to produce at least ONE deliberately funny book. Of course this was before Douglas Adams ruined it all: once a new benchmark is laid down, it’s hard for anyone else to measure up. And then Pratchett/Gaiman’s Good Omens came along and moved the goalpost yet again. I regret not visiting Discworld until after Pratchett had passed, but on retrospect if I had spent 20 years waiting for the next book to have to be gray marketted across the pond I would have been inconsolable. As it was, we were smuggling Lindsay Davis’ humorously written Falco mysteries in from the UK as they came out…I say WE, I was importing them and then all my friends were reading my copies. Back then I was also smuggling in humorous fantasy authors like Tom Holt at crushing conversion rates. It was a rare thing for me to be BUYING newly published books in any manner, especially at full price. I had become accustomed to only acquiring books once they had a few miles on them: hunting for someting to read meant sitting on cold bookstore floors taste testing a stack of likely prospects usually pulled off the shelf by cover art alone. My career careened between retail and antiquarian bookselling merely to ease the hunt for something to read at a reasonable rate.
You would think the internet would make it easier to find more to read, but it just nets up everything off the sea floor, that doesn’t mean it was worth finding. Finding humous non fiction authors a la Mary Roach, Bill Bryson, and Sarah Vowell is nearly impossible. As soon as you queue up HUMOR as a category, the screen just vomits up ‘books’ of stale anecdotes cranked out by comedians; comedians don’t have anything interesting to write about except themselves and if they were interesting people they wouldn’t have become comedians. I swear if I could burn every episode of Seinfeld I would, even if I had to invent time travel to do it.
In the modern era. . .this age of content glut, millenial ADD, and self publishing/sans editing, I turn up a lot of authors who are convinced they are funny because their peers have told them so, or writers who set out TO be deliberately funny but lack the requisite skillset, leading me to a lot of disappointment. I want to break the fingers of every blasphemer who types ‘the next Terry Pratchett’ or ‘for those who like Douglas Adams’ at the head of their reviews, it’s like a red flag waving me off the runway. But in the end the thrill is supposed to be in the hunt, that’s why it’s called hunting and not finding
My prose consumption is almost all by ear these days, it’s not that I can’t read the printed word, but I would have to put down my knitting to do it. Hence I go through a lot of audiobooks, some bought, some borrowed, some I find by the curbside after having toppled off an overloaded truck after misjudging the speed on around a corner. Despite a lot of recommendations. I have yet to find any other American authors I can shelve alongside Christopher Moore and Bill Fitzhugh but I keep looking.
In the past few years I have discovered Jodi Taylor’s marvelously English St. Mary’s Chronicles adventures, which along with Pratchett’s Discworld novels, I have on infinite repeat, for the inbetween times when I have nothing to feed my earballs. (make sure you google Jodi Taylor ‘author’ because the other Jodi Taylor has a COMPLETELY different following, if you know what I mean. ) Irish author Derek Landy’s Skullduggery Pleasant black humor dark fantasy series which purports to be for Young Adults but that’s a gross tin labeling fail. Dennis E Taylor’s Bobiverse trilogy which reads as science fiction, but is covertly a philosophical essay about immortality and cybertech godplaying.
Last year I found Andrew Cartmel, a television writer finally finding his funny with the Vinyl Detective mystery series revolving around records. Today I stumbled over Scottish writer Justin Lee Anderson first foray ‘Carpet Diem: or how to save the world by accident’ which smacks of immitation Good Omens but actually tastes quite delicious. I’m a sucker for Christomythology show me a non-inspirational book with gods and monsters and I will bite. I truly wish James Morrow’s Towing Jehovah series was on audio, I’d like to reread that without having to re’read’ it if you know what I mean – nothing like dragging the corpse of a dead deity behind an oil tanker for a laugh.
Here’s hoping I continue to find a few more books to read in the coming year. Meanwhile I have a good backcatalog to replay whenever I get too down in the dumps.