Wanted: Comic Novelists

Writing in the UK-based magazine The Critic, Alexander Larman bemoans the lack of comic novels in today’s literary marketplace. This is in an article entitled “Where is the Waugh or Wodehouse of our time? Comic writing: light distraction or social mirror?” He puts this down to some extent to the following problem:

There is […] an unwritten but widely understood sense amongst the literary establishment that any comic books that do appear should be either left-leaning or, at the least, liberal, and that any sort of ‘difficult’ material that might be construed as racist, xenophobic or sexist should either be omitted entirely or, if it has to be included, should appear in such heavy quotation marks as to make it entirely clear that the author does not hold the repellent views of his or her characters.

He goes on to consider how this policy would have applied to his two favorite comic novelists: Waugh and Wodehouse. As to the former:

Waugh would almost certainly never have published a single novel. Not only was his writing entirely devoid of anything that would today be regarded as ‘woke’ or politically correct, but he took a grim delight in antagonising his readers if they dared to raise any objections. When he received a critical letter from an American woman who had not enjoyed Brideshead Revisited, he did not reply to her but instead wrote in an aggrieved fashion to her husband, asking him ‘if he was in the habit of allowing his wife to write impertinent letters to strangers’. This would almost certainly go viral on social media today, and that is before one gets into his flippant treatment of such difficult subjects as paedophilia (Decline and Fall), racism (Black Mischief, and much of the rest), mental illness (The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold) and the rest.

He recounts an anecdote relating to the beginning of Waugh’s career as a novelist, describing it as “something of a close-run thing that it ever began.” After a discussion of the comic works of Wodehouse and Nancy Mitford, Larman sees some hope for the future in the literary prize givings aimed at comic novels. Indeed, in the case of one of these, there is another Waugh connection. Waugh’s grand daughter Daisy Waugh has been shortlisted for the Comedy Women in Print prize for her book In The Crypt with a Candlestick. See previous posts.

He concludes with a look forward to more comic contributions from novelists such as:

…Edward St Aubyn, Paul Murray and Jonathan Coe, who could make something entertaining out of our current dire international situation. […] It doesn’t seem too much to ask that at least one novel that comes out can summon up something of the spirit of Waugh and Mitford and be riotously amusing.

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