Why Are There So Few Comedy Novels? | Satire Slides on the Morrow
Slide into my slides and let's do a deep dive into comedy novels.
The curation process is complete! I’ve collected some of my favorite pieces from this newsletter over the last year and turned them into slideshows which I will present, tomorrow night, live at Dynamic Eldorado. If you’re available, I hope you’ll join me.
I haven’t been in front of an audience for purely comedy purposes since August. It’ll be great to get back.
Here’s the show artwork in which I am holding a comedy implement ready to make comedy slides out of comedy ore.
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Much appreciated. Now, let’s get into today’s deep dive into a topic dear to me.
Why Are There So Few Comedy Novels?
This is something I’ve thought a lot about since I wrote my first novel, Dangerous Dan, starting in 2011.I wanted to be a comedy novelist like my heroes Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, or maybe a memoirist like Patrick F. McManus or David Sedaris.
At the time, I figured I had a pretty big advantage over other beginning novelists. After my mom passed in 2006 I got pretty heavy into endurance sports and, after completing Ironman in 2009 and dabbling in some high-altitude mountaineering, I figured I had some mental toughness to bring to bear on the necessary amount of work a new novelist needs to do to get decent at it.
Looking back now, ten years later, I was right about my capacity to stick to the work — I ended up getting a publishing deal and writing a dozen novels plus non fiction titles, some of which became bestsellers in their niche — but wrong about the fact that any of it would matter.
If you’ve ever wondered why there aren’t more modern Pratchett/Adams type folks, here’s why I think there’s not.
First I Will Blame the Gatekeepers, Then Show Why It’s Not Really Their Fault
Of course, I’d like to rail against everyone at every publishing house. They failed to recognize my genius and now I can’t afford a writing tower from which to glare down at the non-comedic populace.
It is true that approaching a publisher with a pitch for a comedic novel is like approaching a first date with a shirt made out of rotting fish. They are probably not going to want to take it off of you.
From a purely selfish perspective, it is very annoying to feel like I can often make absolute strangers laugh in person, but when gatekeepers get pitches for my work they don’t even read the pitch let alone open the gate. But this complaint lives in a world where the publishing market is a meritocracy where the quality of the work is the only factor. It’s not.
Books are like houses, and the gatekeepers are like real estate agents. Yes it matters how well a house is made, but the house’s location matters even more. With books, the quality of the writing matters, but the marketability matters more.
Literary agents and publishers can no more be expected to ignore market realities than real estate agents. Regardless, some — because they love Pratchett and Adams just like you and I do — probably ignore market pressures anyway and end up going bankrupt as a result.
So where exactly are these so-called “market pressures” coming from?
Reading Comedy is Just Different
In order to laugh at something you need to be able to relate. But the magic trick of getting strangers to laugh works much better in person than it does in a novel. When someone hears something to which they can relate presented in a funny way they will laugh out loud. There’s a straight path from ears to brain.
When people read, though, there is no such straight path. The comedy goes through a number of filters before it gets to the brain, which is why reading something funny online usually only makes you breathe slightly louder through your nose rather than laugh out loud.
Because of the way companies like Amazon have incentivized every regular person to become an art critic, a lot of ardent readers are reading with half their mind turned toward what their review of the work will be. This further depresses the work’s ability to deliver relatable characters which results in fewer laughs.
The result is that readers usually won’t take a chance on a new work of comedy, which means they don’t sell, which means there’s no market for them, which means the publishers are correct to avoid publishing them.
Lots of brain-addled authors write comedic novels anyway, yours truly included, but they eventually run aground because there is zero money.
The only exceptions seem to be LitRPG, which is a genre of books written with the mechanics of and heavy allusions to video games.
Can Anything Bring the Comedy Novel Back?
In my opinion, probably not. I think, thanks largely to mobile phones, the space that used to be occupied by the Pratchetts and Adamses of the world is now occupied by YouTubers, TikTokers, and so on.
But you can also watch tv and film on your phone, so there are still some comedic shows and movies. That said, there are fewer broad comedy movies for similar reasons to novels: it’s hard to do, the stakes are high, people watch while composing their review, it can create problems selling the movie in international markets, etc..
There are still episodic shows like Ted Lasso, Shrinking, etc. that are comedic and still getting made and still making money. But by and large, a modern day satirist in the tradition of Pratchett — though I do not suggest I am anywhere near his exalted level — is more likely to write a newsletter, like this one, than a novel.
I’m going to go ahead and link my books when I mention them, just because I’d be remiss not to, and I’d be delighted if you read them, but, just to be clear, all the money you pay for them goes to enrich Amazon except a barely-noticeable micro-fraction. If you want to support my work, becoming a paid subscriber here is a better means financially, or, honestly just telling another person about me and my work is probably more beneficial. Thank you, regardless. I mean it.
This is a question I’ve also asked myself. I think it’s because comedy, by its nature, self-destructs. It is a means to cut tension, never to build it. That’s why comedy of any length more than a few hundred words needs to live inside a dramatically structured work. Something needs to build the tension before comedy cuts it. In order words, I think comedy exists only in relief to drama. Comedy by itself is like a garnish with no dish.
‘Tis a mighty fyne hammer thou dost wield, sire. Mehopes thou dost slay with it this eve.