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funny ha ha

The lovely people at Penguin sent me a big package containing the new "women's fiction" titles in their Red Classics imprint. Leaving aside the whole division of the original Red list into the initial "manly classics" (25 out of the inital thirty books were by men, and the ones by women are mostly all about men) and the new pretty lady ones, it seems a bit foolish to do all of the Jane Austens at once. Why not throw in a Mary Elizabeth Braddon, or a Nancy Mitford, or a Stella Gibbons? Do we really need new Austens (even though they are truly lovely editions, and are much nicer than my own battered old '60s Signet ones) rather than some other, under-rated authors whose titles might actually need this sales boost?

But anyway, the point of this post (if there is one) is the cover blurb on Pride and Prejudice, in which Meera Syal (whom I quite like, by the way) declares that the book is "the funniest book ever written." Now, I love P&P and have done so ever since I first read it about 16 years ago - it's one of my favourite books - but it's simply not the funniest book ever written. It's very witty, it's got some great jokes, but it's not the sort of book that makes you weak with laughter - or even laugh out loud. P. G. Wodehouse, The Compleet Molesworth, Arthur Marshall, gideondefoe's pirate books - all these things make me laugh so much I can barely speak. But surely no one has that reaction to Pride and Prejudice? It reminds me of the critics going on about how hilariously funny Zadie Smith is - not only is she not enormously funny, but I don't think she's even trying to be most of the time. I am mystified. I was talking to a bestselling Irish author about this recently (who is very funny herself, and whose new book made me laugh out loud too) and she has noticed the same thing - "good" books that (intentionally) aren't particularly funny being hailed as hilarious. I'd say that book reviewers have different standards of humour from the rest of us, but then, I am one myself. So I dunno. Has anyone else encountered this bizarrely inaccurate praise?


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 6th, 2006 11:40 am (UTC)
It's kind of an excuse thing, isn't it? "Funny" is an allowed reason for doing something geeky like reading, so people who are trying to persuade others to read a book will use it as a catch-all for "I loved it". I do think Pride and Prejudice is funny, and when I first read it in my teens I was delighted to discover and get the humour - it wasn't what people had led me to believe "old books" or "classics" were like. So perhaps that funniness gets magnified by the context: jokes that wouldn't be worth paying for a stand-up show to hear are great in the pub. Oh, that's a shit analogy, but youknowwhatImean.
Apr. 6th, 2006 12:38 pm (UTC)
I do, and I think you're totally right. And I had the same response to P&P too - "hang on, I get this!" So yeah, that probably does get magnified when people are trying to persuade someone else to read it - even through a blurb.
Apr. 6th, 2006 11:47 am (UTC)
I dunno, maybe the reviewers in saying a book is "funny" or "hilarious" actually mean "light hearted" (which I would use to describe P&P), or to awkwardly attempt to convey that the book isn't Serious Literature and thus more appealing?

Weird though.
Apr. 6th, 2006 11:48 am (UTC)
Austen has a wicked sense of humour, but she is hardly stand-up comedy. A blurb like that would lead me to expect silly Bridget programming her VCR.
Apr. 6th, 2006 11:54 am (UTC)
Oh, and, re: the first bit, what do you mean there's more to classics by women than Jane Austen? I suppose if you want to be PC (*sigh*) there's, like, The Color Purple. But women... writing? Before 1980? Huh.
Apr. 6th, 2006 12:15 pm (UTC)
The only writin' a wumman should do is her shopping list! I blame the femminists.

Also, a student of mine doesn't see what the point of studying women writers is, because they can get published now and all that suppression of women's writing stuff was in the past, so why read them now, it's just special treatment?

. . . your're not surprised he's a man, right?
Apr. 6th, 2006 03:01 pm (UTC)
And possibly thank you letters on behalf of the male members of her family?

Although, actually, I hear more of that from women. Such as the little darlings in first year WS who think we should study less feminism and more men.
Apr. 6th, 2006 12:49 pm (UTC)
This is not from a reviewer, but I still remember my aunt going on and on about how funny The Beans of Egypt Maine was. Then a couple of years later I read the book myself, and I was horrified! It's one of the most depressing books I've ever read! It wasn't even a case of some mildly funny or witty things seeming funnier within the context of the book -- it's 100% bleak, as far as I'm concerned.
Apr. 6th, 2006 01:00 pm (UTC)
Hang on, are you trying to say that the Pirate books don't really "use natural and everyday incidents to give a fascinating insight into the lives of upper and middle class women from the late 18th century"? I'm never trusting one of my blurbs again.
Apr. 6th, 2006 01:02 pm (UTC)
Noooooooot funny! Witty, yes. Funny, no.
Not funny the way you write SVH, no.
Apr. 6th, 2006 06:13 pm (UTC)
Hee. Can't everything be improved by Lila Fowler?
Apr. 6th, 2006 08:36 pm (UTC)
Well, given the subject matter of most of the book reviews I print, 'funny' is not a word I see very often :)

Why not throw in a Mary Elizabeth Braddon, or a Nancy Mitford, or a Stella Gibbons? Do we really need new Austens (even though they are truly lovely editions, and are much nicer than my own battered old '60s Signet ones) rather than some other, under-rated authors whose titles might actually need this sales boost?

This is the conundrum of the book industry: the authors that need the most promotion from publishers get the least, while the Dan Browns, Micheal Crichtons and Terry Pratchetts, who are guaranteed fantastic first-day sales even if they published a book containing white pages[1] get the lions share. I found Rabiner and Fortunato's "Thinking Like Your Editor" to be very interesting about this, as it discusses how relatively recent changes in the book retail industry have deeply changed how editors approach books and their marketing.

[1] Not to diss on these authors, it's just that, f'r instance, I've happily bought the latest Pratchett without so much as a glance at the jacket copy, let alone a review.
Apr. 7th, 2006 07:46 am (UTC)
Penguins are supposed to have black or orange spines, dammit, and cover designs consisting fo the reproduction of a single work of art - what is this red shit?

And I thought White Teeth was hilarious but maybe that's my problem.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )


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