You could be funnier and so could I

. . .western culture since the middle ages has overvalued the tragic and undervalued the comic. We think of tragedy as major, and comedy as minor. Brilliant comedies never win the best film Oscar. The Booker prize leans toward the tragic. In 1984, Martin Amis reinvented Rabelais in his comic masterpiece Money. The best English novel of the 1980s, it didn’t even make the shortlist. Anita Brookner won that year, for Hotel du Lac, written, as the Observer put it, “with a beautiful grave formality.The fault is in the culture. But it is also internalised in the writers, who self-limit and self-censor. If the subject is big, difficult and serious, the writer tends to believe the treatment must be in the tragic mode. When Amis addressed the Holocaust in his minor novel Time’s Arrow (1991), he switched off the jokes, and the energy, and was rewarded with his only Booker shortlisting.But why this pressure, from within and without? There are two good reasons. The first is the west’s unexamined cultural cringe before the Greeks. For most of the last 500 years, Homer and Sophocles have been held to be the supreme exponents of their arts. (Even Homer’s constant repetition of stock phrases like “rosy-fingered dawn” and “wine-dark sea” are praised, rather than recognised as tiresome clichés.)The second reason is that our classical inheritance is lop-sided. We have a rich range of tragedies—Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides (18 by Euripides alone). Of the comic writers, only Aristophanes survived. In an age of kings, time is a filter that works against comedy. Plays that say, “Boy, it’s a tough job, leading a nation” tend to survive; plays that say, “Our leaders are dumb arseholes, just like us” tend not to.More importantly, Aristotle’s work on tragedy survived; his work on comedy did not. We have the classical rules for the one but not the other, and this has biased the development of all western literature. We’ve been off-centre ever since.

From “Divine Comedy”, by Julian Gough, at the Prospect online.

I was traveling when I put this up and had read just the excerpt I left here, and thought it was provocative.

But, as one of our commenters noted, Mr. Gough. . .is . . .not in full possession of all the material and humorlessly asks us all for more humor. And, what’s more, his assault on writing workshops (if you click over) is a perennial experience. Every year someone lobs a bomb at them and every year there are more. It’s like writing workshops are like Jamie Madrox, the mutant from the X-Men who multiplies when he gets hit.

Does everyone need an MFA to be a writer? No. But it’s also worth adding that in an era where we increasingly need credentials of all kinds to do the simplest things in the US, it’s not surprising that my students think they need a license of some kind to be a writer.

All of the studying I did in writing, though, all of the workshops I took and the teachers I studied with, if anything, taught me to take more risks, not less. They showed me how I wasn’t daring enough. Teaching writing as I do now, I feel like that’s part of the job, if not the job in its entirety. It’s annoying to me that people misunderstand workshops and the teaching of creative writing as much as they do.


  1. we could all be funnier I guess…

    perhaps, we already are. we’re just taking ourselves too damn seriously.

  2. Yet another misinformed take on Erich Segal’s The Death of Comedy…that seems to forget that Greek tragedy was always performed in conjunction with a satyr play and that our true comic legacy comes from Rome: Plautus (some 20 plays) and Terence (a dozen…) Finally, the remarks on Homer are completely ill-informed–his stock phrases are metrical devices used in ORAL poetry. (Homer, scholars agree, never wrote anything) And Aristophanes is political satire rooted in the personalities of his day (read his take on Socrates in The Clouds)…and classical Greece (and Rome for that matter) are not an “age of kings”….and Euripides is a master of parody who blends the comic with the tragic….The last time I checked, Moliere, Shakespeare, and Co. were still canonical and Beckett (Waiting for Godot is a comedy) remains one of the defining works of 20/21st-century literature….Gough’s an amateur hack.

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