Thursday, 20 November 2008

Langford, The Sex Column (2005)

I've been thinking recently about what makes really good comic prose. It is, I'd say, more than just the ability to time a punchline (although of course that is important); it has to do with an ability to capture a particular tone, a sureness and easiness of motion in the prose, a profound likeability and engagement. It's possible to make people laugh, of course, without having any of this; but only to laugh in a number of rather limiting ways. That's why Chesterton was a greater comic writer than Dorothy Parker; and why Wodehouse is so much greater a stylist than Charlie Brooker. It's not that Brooker lacks talent (he's rather disgustingly gifted, indeed, as a stylist); it's just that Wodehouse has all Brooker's technical chops and something more. You admire Brooker's spleen; but you end up falling in love with Wodehouse's comic genius.

These thoughts were focussed by the arrival in the post of a copy of David Langford's The Sex Column; a collection of his SFX columns that sparkles throughout, but with the warmth of sunlight on water not the chill of neon on razor. I say that even though one of the pieces vents Langfordian frustration at, well, me actually, over a publisher's mix-up as to who got to write a particular title (he suspects me of hovering vulture-like and swooping down to snatch his project; I didn't, actually, but I can see why he was annoyed. And he is gracious enough to add an endnote confessing cordial relations with y.t. nevertheless). Otherwise this is as good an overview of SF, publishing, fandom and myriad related topics through the 90s and the beginning of the noughties as I can think of, and its writing is consistently on the Chesterton/Wodehouse side of things, not only in its inherent likeability, but in its sheer technical excellence. Nobody I can think of in genre, and few writers working today, writes comic prose as well as Langford.

Appendix: Three broad currents into which the many theories of human laughter can be grouped. One, sometimes called the ‘dark laughter’ theory, says that we laugh out of a nasty and reprehensible sense of superiority over other people: if we watch slapstick comedy it is the fact that those others are suffering pain and indignity whilst we are not that makes us laugh. Believers in this hypothesis like to point to satire, to cruel caricature, to put-downs, to the racist, sexist and homophobic currents in many jokes as evidence for their theory. A second theory, associated with the psychoanalytic theories of Freud, says that laughter mediates psychic anxiety, shunting it into a pleasurable release rather than external manifestations of distress (Freud observes that the physical signs of laughter, the facial rictus, the noises we produce, the tears running down our cheeks, are very like the signs we make when we are in great distress: indeed if you walked past a restaurant window and saw a woman at the table exhibiting those symptoms you might not, lacking the context, know whether she was laughing or crying). According to Freud the things that make us most anxious, such as death, sex, pain and embarrassment, are the things that make us laugh; laughter being the mind’s defence strategy for dealing with anxieties that would otherwise overwhelm us. A third theory is sometimes linked with the French philosopher Henri Bergson but would better, I think, be thought of as postmodern (Gilles Deleuze is its most eloquent proponent, I think). It suggests that we laugh when mechanical and organic get mixed up, when rhizomatic connections are made juxtaposing all sorts of experience in our mind, making new, disjointed and original connections. That, in other words, we laugh on many occasions when nobody is suffering, and when we are not anxious, but just because we are delighted—we laugh, as we walk into the sea, when a wave surges and the water touches or bellybutton; or when pigeons fly up into sunlight as we drink our coffee, or on a thousand different occasions. We laugh, in other words, not for negative reasons (a nasty sense of superiority over the suffering of others, or a sapping psychic anxiety), not out of lack, but out of a joyful fullness. These three theories are not, I think, wholly incompatible.


Ian Sales said...

According to Confucius, the funniest sight in the whole world is watching an old friend fall off a high roof.

Adam Roberts Project said...

The old Confucian saying: 'Keep your enemies close, but your friends, well, push them off a high roof.'

Ian Sales said...

Not to mention... before committing revenge, dig up two cold dishes -

No, wait.

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