Monday, June 04, 2007

The Comedy of Tragedy and the Tragedy of Comedy

I have at last got round to reading Julian Gough's stimulating article in Prospect (expertly critiqued by Daniel Green at The Reading Experience), in which he considers how the European literary tradition, underpinned by Christianity, has to its detriment spurned comedy and embraced the tragic.
The comic point of view—the gods'-eye view—is much more uncomfortable for a believer in one all-powerful God than it was for the polytheistic Greeks. To have the gods laughing at us through our fictions is acceptable if the gods are multiple, and flawed like us, laughing in recognition and sympathy: if they are Greek gods. But to have the single omnipotent, omniscient God who made us laughing at us is a very different thing: sadistic, and almost unbearable. We do not wish to hear the sound of one God laughing.
We think of tragedy as major, he says, and comedy as minor... Brilliant comedies never win the Oscar. The Booker prize leans towards the tragic.

And, you could add, we are drowning in misery memoirs. Yet how does this sort with publishers' current allergy to novels which are 'too dark'? And how does Gough's complaint that we are stuck in the tragic fit with Mark Ravenhill's complaint in last Monday's Guardian that we are overly obsessed with 'fun'?:
News wants to be fun. Documentaries want to be fun. The neologism "info-tainment" may sound ridiculous but it is a real concept. And it has changed our broadcast and print media over the last decade. But can we honestly say that any of the greatest achievements of western culture are "fun"? King Lear or Anna Karenina, the Ring cycle or Crime and Punishment - it is not possible to describe them as "enjoyable" in any simple sense of the word. They are stern, uncompromising, engrossing. In places, they are hard work.
Ravenhill is right, there is a retreat from seriousness. But this doesn't undercut Gough's argument. As Gough says, true comedy is deeply serious, and can be more subversively so than tragedy.

Once upon a time I wrote darkly comic radio plays. When the 'marketing' ethos took over BBC Radio Drama Production I was asked to 'drop the irony' because what were required now were 'heart-warming' plays.


Kay Richardson said...

Yeah. I reckon good comedy is more profound than mediocre tragedy. Anyday.

Adrian said...

Zadie Smith wrote in the intro to the Burned Children of America something along the line of "Why so sad, people?" Yet having recently read, say, "Black Swan Green", "On Beauty," and "The Line of Beauty" I think what's missing from contemporary British fiction is something that hurts - the discomfort zone. Maybe on both sides of the Atlantic its easy to write about 9/11 because it feels big... yet the best writing about the Al Quaeda threat has to be the very dark and very funny cartoon Monkey Dust, where 2 West Midlands would-be terrorists can't bomb on Wednesday "cos the Albion are playing." That said, I get annoyed by articles writing about comedy (its like writing about dancing, you're kind of missing the point.) Thought it was a good article though, despite that; yet, satire is different than comedy is different than humour, and maybe our view of comedy = light entertainment would be utterly bewildering to the Greeks. Beware of people writing comedy books; but even more so of those writing serious books.

Adrian said...

P.S. Mark Ravenhill no not of what he speaks. Crime and Punishment and Anna Karenina are two of the most extravagantly enjoyable books you could ever read.

Ms Baroque said...

Well, come on, you've got to admit that's funny!

Julian Gough said...

I'm with Adrian. Into the discomfort zone… But I think comedy is
the best vehicle to take us there.

Elizabeth, you ask:

"Yet how does this sort with publishers' current allergy to novels which are 'too dark'?"

I'd say that publishers, being commercial beasts, are reflecting the public mood: the great mass of people do not want to read depressing, unfunny novels.

So why do so many writers write depressing, unfunny novels? Which brings us back to my central argument, that there is a bias in official culture, and literary culture, toward the tragic (not in public culture, mass culture, which has always preferred comedy.)

And we get the feeling we are "drowning in fun" because the public are being given comedy about the unimportant stuff, while tragedy is reserved for the important stuff. Endless humour that isn't anchored in truth, isn't dealing with dark material, is pointless and exhausting.

Of course, there are exceptions and they are usually hugely successful because there is a real hunger for them: The Office, the Simpsons... And the quality of the Sopranos is directly related to how funny it is. Episodes that take themselves seriously and brood are not as good as episodes that hit the serious subjects head on but remain alive to the comedy of the human situation.

But where are the literary novels that can match the Simpsons?

Hey, is that a box marked "Soap" that I'm standing on?

Sorry... I'll shut up now...

-Julian Gough

Elizabeth Baines said...

Hum. Maybe,in the interests of bloggy brevity, I contracted my argument too far, as Lisa Simpson might say.

I agree completely about the discomfort zone - that's what writing's all about to me - and I agree too that a sublime way of negotiating the discomfort - and real-life tragedy - can be comedy. My question about how our obsession with tragedy sorts with Mark Ravenhill's comment about our obsession with 'fun' was a rhetorical one: there's something about the division of our culture into 'fun' and 'misery memoirs' (which often, in my opinion, appeal to sentimentality) which is to do with a fundamental retreat from true seriousness and intellectual challenge.

In line with this I wouldn't agree that comedy is necessarily always 'better' than tragedy as a way of dealing with pain, or always possible (as I indicate in my next post), and I wouldn't agree either that 'unfunny' novels are necessarily depressing. For eg I've just read Dave Eggers' Heartbreaking Work... , a novel about grief and How Life Sucks, and some of the episodes in there you could never call comedy, they had me weeping my socks off, but I'd never in a million years say they were depressing, they were so full of energy, and wit, and I left the novel uplifted.

Actually, I'd say (as I indicate in the title of this post) the best work isn't easily labelled as either comedy or tragedy, but incorporates both elements, as indeed does life. (As Adrian says, 'Beware of people writing comedy books; but even more so of those writing serious books.')

I agree that on the whole the difference between serious comedy and our current culture of 'fun' is one of subject matter, but it's not exactly simple: it's also a question of treatment. For eg, when I was writing my comedy radio series I was asked, as I say, to 'get rid of the irony'. In fact I never did, I didn't know how to do it, and the Beeb gave in, but presumably they thought the audience would rather laugh with my character than at him. If that had happened, they would have taken on board his very questionable capitalist and sexist values, and the story, and the subject, would indeed, as a result of the treatment, have been changed. (Or maybe they even wanted me to drop the politics altogether and have the audience laugh at contrived and sit-com mouthpiece jokes!)

On another point, though, I am genuinely puzzled. You put the fact that publishers don't want 'dark books' down to their commercial nous, so how do you explain that they go on filling their literary lists with unfunny books, as you say they do?

Elizabeth Baines said...

Oh, sorry, Eggers' book isn't supposed to be a novel but a memoir... Or rather, that's the joke he's telling: the book is actually a comment on all that stuff

Elizabeth Baines said...

And a word I should have used, of course in reference to my experience of reading Eggers' book is catharsis - the Greeks did acknowledge the usefulness of Tragedy, after all!