Last night, the Miles Franklin Literary Award — created to celebrate “a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases” — was awarded to Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip. This is a fantastic, and well-deserved, recognition of Lucashenko’s work, and I’m eagerly anticipating a slew of new readers discovering her in “award winner” book shop window displays. But, I must admit: I was surprised by the announcement that Too Much Lip had won.
Pleasantly so, but surprised nonetheless.
Not because Lucashenko is an Indigenous woman — always a dangerous proposition in contention for an award that has historically been very male and very white (though it must be said that the Miles Franklin has made great strides on that front in recent years, with increasingly diverse shortlists and winners).
The real reason I was surprised that Too Much Lip won a prestigious award is because… it’s funny. It’s a funny book. And funny books never win major literary awards. It just doesn’t happen.
Voss? Not funny. My Brother Jack? Not funny. Oscar And Lucinda? Not funny. All The Birds, Singing? Not funny. All fine works of literature, all commendable literary feats, all uphold that high standard of representing Australian life in one or more of its many phases… but not funny.
Why don’t we praise funny books? Why don’t we afford them the recognition and respect they deserve by awarding them major prizes?
There are, of course, exceptions. I recently got around to reading Less, Andrew Sean Greer’s hilarious literary novel. It won the Pulitzer Prize last year. The Washington Post pointed out the significance of that decision with its headline: “Finally, a comic novel gets a Pulitzer Prize”. I’m not the only one who’s noticed that this is a rare and notable event.
Most often, on those rare occasions where funny books get a look in, they languish on the short list, passed over for more Serious(TM) works of literature. One of my all-time favourite books, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which managed to be both hilarious and heart-wrenching, missed out on the Booker Prize in 2014. The gong went instead to The Narrow Road To The Deep North, a distinctly and disturbingly un-funny work of historical fiction.
(Yes, I’m still upset about the committee’s choice that year. I’ve made it my personal mission to press We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves into the hands of every reader I can — yourself included, go read it.)
Part of the reason this trend continues, almost unexamined, is that it’s very difficult for the authors of funny books to call it out without sounding bitter. Remember when Martin Amis said that major awards were only given to “unenjoyable” books? You could practically hear him stomping his foot as he said it. He has never won a Booker Prize, not once in his long and laudable career. His frustration is understandable, but we seem to extend the expectations of “sportsmanship” to the literary community as well. We demand of these authors gratitude and refinement, even in defeat. It’s up to the readers of funny books, then, to speak out on their behalf. We readers aren’t being “sore losers”, we’re not eating “sour grapes”: we have a genuine gripe with the literary establishment ignoring the achievements of books that bring us joy.
Now, let’s not get waylaid here: I’m not trying to get into the old popular-appeal versus literary-merit argument. What I’m talking about is the fact that a book can be both funny and written to an exceptional standard. Therefore, the relative under-representation of these meritorious funny books in our major literary awards is a problem that needs fixing.
Perhaps another part of that problem is the fact that humour is entirely and unavoidably subjective. What has me splitting my sides might not even make you crack a smile. Misery is, comparatively, universal: we don’t need a “good sense of misery” to understand the agony of war, poverty, and death.
It’s nearly impossible to guarantee a uniform response to a joke, or a humourous turn of events. Indeed, some books manage to be unintentionally hilarious, because the response of laughter is so unpredictable. One of the biggest belly-laughs I’ve had from a book in recent times was the young adult dystopian juggernaut, Divergent. The author, in all earnestness, included the simile: “I watch the light leave Will’s eyes, which are pale green, like celery”. How I howled!
(I strongly suspect that such a reaction was the complete opposite of what the author intended, but I make no apologies. I’ll take a laugh wherever I can get it.)
Books that make us laugh — for whatever, subjective reason — are too often relegated to that dratted pseudo-category of “escapist” fiction. That label is problematic on many levels, and I feel compelled to address a couple of them here.
First, I’ve found very few funny works of literature make me feel as though I’m “escaping” anything. Reading Cold Comfort Farm, for instance, was hardly a happy holiday from my dreary life; it was a finely crafted, challenging work of satire. These funny books are probably more likely, in fact, to lead me to think and to take a position on a question or a subject. I’m not distracted by that yawning pit of despair that’s opened in the bottom of my stomach that opens after yet another tragic fictional death or dismemberment. Similarly, I’m more likely to “escape” through a gritty domestic thriller, anything that follows a formula.
Which brings me to my second point: what the heck is so wrong with “escaping” through literature, anyway? Who among us can honestly say that they never wish, now and then, to escape the constant parade of real-life misery that streams live on every device? Why must we disparage authors who afford us that opportunity? Why must we disregard any books that make us relax and smile? Why must a book contribute to our misery, rather than alleviate it, in order to be deemed “worthwhile”?
I put it to you that funny books should be more highly regarded, more greatly respected, than the miserable “serious” books that seem to take out the prizes year after year. It’s far easier to make someone cry than it is to make them laugh. Above and beyond the mastery of writing craft required to write any literary fiction, hitting the target of an elicited chuckle takes singular talent and dedication. Why should we not reward the authors that manage it? I’m not talking about creating new awards for funny books (those already exist, by the way); I’m talking about a major structural change, a shift in the perspective of our literary establishment, towards recognising the contributions of the authors of funny books, and the work that they do to expand the field of literature and develop the craft of authorship. Now, more than ever, we could all do with a good laugh — it’s about time we rewarded the authors who give us one. I commend the Miles Franklin award for leading the charge with Too Much Lip this year, and hope that more of the major prizes follow in their wake.