On silliness

Lately I’ve been rather frustrate at the books I’ve been reading. Specifically, I’ve been frustrated that every book seems to take itself so seriously. Book like Deadtown, which are hard to describe to non-genre diehards without accusations of rediculousness but who can’t seem to find room for any lightness.

I’m not saying books need to be funny, but I’m also drawing a line between repartée/the occasional joke and true silliness. It’s especially frustrating in urban fantasy since the genre is so facially absurd. But instead you end up with things like Working stiff that are unrelentingly dark despite their position as “light” reading.

I’m really just reiterating the classic criticism of most comics since the 80s, but it applies to every genre. Not everything has to be totally grim all the time. It’s part of the reason I like Séanan McGuire as much as I do. 

It’s perfectly possible for silliness and seriousness to coexist. Perhaps the best example is Saga which as I’ve mentioned before includes the most emotionally powerful single page I have ever seen. It also includes lines like “there are only three forms of high art: the symphony, the illustrated children’s book, and the board game.” Also a creation myth that is also a fart joke.

Doing silliness right is hard. It’s incredibly easy to do it badly. Sir A Propos of nothing attempts it and ends up with most of the jokes in horrifically poor taste. Ms. Marvel does it well, and Order of the stick is a masterpiece of silliness. Moving away from comics the successes are less visible. Douglas Adams is the obvious referent for sf. As far as my reading experience goes, Lois McMaster Bujold is the only sf writer that comes close to matching Saga’s blend of serious, powerful work and humor. Outside of sf, Alexandre Dumas (père, I’ve not read fils) manages it (The three musketeers is actually hilarious. The 70s Three musketeers/Four musketeers films are really the only adaptations I’ve seen that get that across). Par conséquent I’ve seen elements of silliness in Arturo Pérez-Reverted as well. In terms of fantasy, I feel like Rachel Aaron’s Eli Monpress books do a good job of not becoming too bogged down in seriousness while still telling a “straight” story. Of course, for more popular recent work, the Gentleman Bastards series does that too.

Vonnegut did it too, although aspects of his work haven’t aged well. It’s one of the reasons I love the old screwball comedies, despite the virtually omnipresent sexism and racism (His girl Friday is probably the one that holds up the best here).

The lack of silliness in most fiction is probably why I end up rereading most of the Vorkosigan saga every year. It’s also probably while I can acknowledge that Memory is probably the best book in the series the combo of Komarr and A civil campaign (as Miles in love) is actually my favorite. I unironically love the 1960s Batman series for the same reason. 

Terry Pratchett is probably the obvious author to mention here. While I enjoy reading his stuff from time to time, I could never get into it enough to really consider myself a fan. Part of it is that I lack a lot of the cultural referents, but it’s mostly that I find the vast majority of his characters unlikeable and it’s really hard for me to latch on to books without at least one marginally charming character. Also, I can only really handle so much satire. That’s my frustration in sf, that the options are frequently grimaced seriousness or satire. I’d like something in between, as the endless parade of wink-wink-nudge-nudge Flinstones-type “humor” is pretty tired by this point. 

So I’ve decided that for the foreseeable future I’m swearing off super-serious stuff. I have enough going on that unrelenting pessimism without the slightest tinge of comic relief is more wearying than I’m willing to put up with. It probably won’t affect my posts here too much beyond possibly skipping some titles in the queue (there are still more than 100 books on my “to be reviewed” list).

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