the theme of today's noon session at the Ottawa International Writers Festival was "Is it hard to be funny?" with readings by Miriam Toews and Christian McPherson, with a discussion moderated by Citizen columnist Peter Simpson.
Miriam read another excerpt from her latest novel, Irma Voth (which she also read from last night), and Chris read from his first novel, the Cube People. it was a pleasure to hear both of them read. Peter talked about the different type of humour in their works, Irma Voth has humour tinged with sadness, whereas the Cube People & Chris' poetry tend to be exaggerated, reductio ad absurdum slices of life that take on a surreal quality.
Peter began with a joke to show that we all react differently to humour & then a quote from a recently deceased Canadian writer/critic named Eric Nichols (sp?) (i could have misheard, can't find any mention of such online). the quote described humour writing as a low calling. i think i understand what this meant. when writers use humour in their work, it is often seen as low brow, which is odd considering that humourous, ribald & bawdy writing has a long tradition. think of Rabelais, for example. humour has always been a way to critique the status quo, societal convention & those in power.
naturally both Chris & Miriam disagreed with the characterization of humour writing as a low calling. for both of them it seemed that rather than deliberately trying to write humourously, the humour naturally happened. Chris was a class clown as a child, Miriam finds humour necessary when faced with trying times.
Chris read the opening passage from his book. the passage was about the husband in a couple who are undergoing fertility treatment, the man at the clinic, trying to masturbate with all kinds of thoughts running through his mind. humour is used to broach an awkward topic, to cope with some of the absurd and difficult realities of living.
when i think of the word comedy, i think of the multiple meanings, of humour but also of day to day lives, of Balzac's la Comédie humaine, Italian's Commedia dell Arte,Dante's la Divina Commedia, the word comedy being used to describe the day-to-day lives of civilization or the theatre of the everyday or travels from one state to another...
both authors were asked once again, i believe by members of the audience, about the autobiographical connection to their fiction. this subject comes up a lot with audiences. i'm not quite sure why it is so important for readers to find an autobiographical connection. i am content to read literature as made up with universal truths being pointed out or questioned. in the case of both Miriam and Chris, real life certainly factored in to their writing, but doesn't it always?
last night David McGimpsey & Rob Benvie read and performed and there was much humour in their work, especially David's. yet i can't help mulling over the lack of attention to works with a comedic bent. one of my favourite poetry collections, Stuart Ross's Hey Crumbling Balcony: Poems New and Selected (ECW Press, 2003) for example or Gary Barwin's writing, full of humour, Alice Burdick's Flutter (Mansfield Press, 2008)--. and of course, the brilliant and humourous word-play of the late and dearly missed John Lavery. award worthy writing.
humour is a literary device that can be used to surprise readers, to turn them away from the expected. in various guises, it can offer a new way of thinking about something--a contrast with its conventional sense, a parody, or a societal critique. in these absurd times, we need humour now more than ever.
my own taste tends to run very much toward dry wit, found in the work of such writers as the late Roberston Davies, or howling puns. Peter Simpson gave the example of Mordichai Richler in Barney's Version. he cited a passage where a man who is dying of a heart-attack calls an emergency number and is asked to choose 1 for French & 2 for English, then he gets put on hold and has to listen to Mozart's Requiem Mass.
the event was engaging and has inspired much thought about humour and its role in CanLit. this is one of the reasons why i enjoy the Writers Festival, it inspires thought & more reading, writing, discussion...
i'd be curious to know about your favourite humourous poetry & fiction by current living Canadian writers, so if you can think of any, let me know.