Reports of the death of the British comic novel have not, it seems, been greatly exaggerated. Earlier today, it was announced that the Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction had been withheld because none of the 62 submissions had prompted “unanimous, abundant laughter” from the judging panel. This is no surprise.
Visit any bookshop and it is incredibly hard to find anything that is likely to raise a smile. Thrillers and chick lit abound, of course, but in the loftier realm of literary fiction we have lost our sense of humour as writers strive to convey big ideas or whimsy in an earnest fashion.
In America, this is not the case. The death of Tom Wolfe has reminded us that you can be humorous and still address the things that matter. And there are plenty who are carrying the torch for this great novelist – Joshua Ferris, Nell Zink, Jay McInerney – none of whom are afraid to use funnies in their fiction.
The demise in Britain is a recent phenomenon. Two decades ago novelists such as Jonathan Coe and David Lodge were held in high esteem, their way of skewering different sections of society – aristocrats, academics – seen as a skilful way of saying serious things about the world as large. Comedy, quite rightly, was perceived as an important tool as tragedy. But there was popular fiction, too.