I said something disgusting last week. I was describing a book I’d read to a friend. “I think it’s for men,” I said to her. “I mean, it was good. But it wasn’t great, and I kind of waded through some of it. I think it was probably written for men.”
To my credit, I slapped myself in the face with a large fresh monkfish after I said this, because it’s a really stupid thing to say for anyone, let alone someone who is constantly moaning about the fact that lazy genre labels such as “women’s fiction” should be banned, along with wasabi (turns my stomach), HD brows (an offence to foreheads everywhere) and schmaltzy advertising which pretends a bloody brand is supporting families or communities (yes, I’m looking at you, Tesco).
Unfortunately, there is the minor problem that the stupid thing I said might also have been true.
It was because the book was supposed to be funny. This was the reason I’d bought it, along with the fact that it had been nominated for multiple prizes and won a few very serious ones. In fact, on the cover was a quote from the Irish Times to this very effect. “So good,” it said. “So good, so funny, and so sad.”
That’s a book for me, says I to myself, I says. Funny and sad and good. That’s totally me, says I.
But then I read it. I won’t name it here. I don’t see the point of slagging something off in public unless you’re being paid to do so. In any event, it was good. Well, good-ish, but not great.
The funny bits, it seemed to me, generally concerned horrific injuries, a walking corpse of a horse, general violence, and drunkenness (the hungover part, at least). This is all very well, but while it might raise a titter from some, I found my inner voice behaving like a stereotypical German pedant, with such thoughts as “oh yes, I see what he did there,” and “Ah. This part is humorous, because it is technically comical that his leg is falling off.”
A similar thing happened with another apparently marvellous example of male-authored literary humour which actually won the Booker prize. My reaction was four parts “I see that this is meant to be funny,” and one part “I don’t get it”. It was, literally, no parts “Hahaha”.
All this set me to thinking about what is funny to men and women. Are our funny bones wired differently? Does the female ribcage vibrate to a different frequency of comedy? Do women laugh more at observational quips? Is slapstick and injury-based violence more humorous to men?
When it comes to films, the audience certainly appears to be divided. So is it the same with books – or to be more specific, that rare breed of literary fiction which is supposed to be funny?
Take a recent-ish example of the silver screen: The Hangover was hilarious, apparently. But some of us had to be told that, and we were also told that the reason we didn’t get how much of a rip-roaring, up-chucking laugh it was, was because it was a lad’s movie. Bridesmaids was supposed to bridge the great divide, but it was harder to get men to go and see it, because it was a woman’s comedy, and so, obviously couldn’t be funny. The same will go for Rough Night, anything involving Tina Fey or Amy Schumer, or jokes about mammary glands (made by people who actually have them).
As someone who doesn’t set out to write funny, but has occasionally fooled the odd reader into thinking that I meant it, I find that thinking about what is funny, generally kills the joke.
But this creates huge problems in terms of fiction, and specifically, novels. Comedy doesn’t sell, when it comes to novels. If a woman writes comedy – or even something remotely amusing – this means it’s chick-lit. If it’s not chick-lit, it must be burned immediately and swept under the carpet with blushes and smacked hands. But when we’re in the process of writing, we’re not trying to market it as comedy: we’re just trying to incubate it, until we eventually find out what the hell it actually is.
There seems to be this niggling feeling what a woman is writing might be woman-funny, rather than man-funny, no matter how much we’d like to bridge the great divide. To call it disheartening would be akin to calling Ireland a bit damp. The niggling feeling only gets worse when I sometimes come across a book, written by a man, which is supposed to be funny, but which doesn’t even raise a smile on my face – which to date, I might add, has not had even one injection of cosmetic-grade botulism.
I find myself thinking that there is a certain type of literary humour for men, and I then I find myself disassociating from it. (Having found myself twice in a matter of minutes, I then spend time wondering whether I had in fact lost myself twice also, which for some reason makes me want to go to the pub.)
Whilst I will fight to the death for the right to not categorise what I and other women write as Women’s Fiction, I’m afraid of losing the battle for laughs. I’m afraid that funny might be a gender issue, when it comes to literary fiction at least. But let it be known that I am open to someone poking fun at the notion. Or, for that matter, at me. I’m here all week.