Friday, May 25, 2012

The best writer with no sense of humor.

I have made it clear several times on my blog how much I detest Ayn Rand.  My greatest peeve with her is she can't write a lick.  Her prose is cloying and grandiose, her characters have no depth and perhaps most damning of all, she's never been funny, not even once.

Maybe some fan of her work diagrees.  If one stumbles upon this blog, I ask that hypothetical person with this. Give me a funny passage of hers. Just one in those long depressing, poorly written books of hers.

My favorite writers bring the funny.  Some like James Thurber, Nick Hornby, Calvin Trillin and Mark Twain are considered funny first and stylists second.  The great stylists I love, like Jane Austen, George Orwell, Salman Rushdie and Charles Dickens, also can weave a funny tale, sometimes in dark and desperate stories.

Patrick O'Brian, my latest literary crush, can be stylish and funny at the same time. It's stunning how good his stuff is.

By the "bring the funny" criterion, I have genre writers I like better than others.  Raymond Chandler trumps Dashiell Hammett, for example. Molly Ivins kicks David Broder's ass ten ways from Sunday. I never became a huge fan of science fiction because so few sci-fi writers (or SF writers for the older, more serious fans) could find funny with a GPS.  That's why guys like Douglas Adams, J. Michael Straczynski and Joss Whedon were such a breath of fresh air when they came along.

Because I am a mathematician by training, whenever I think of a blanket statement, I try to come up with a counter-example. It took me a while to warm to him, but I think the best writer in English who has never made me laugh might be Joseph Conrad.

Heart of Darkness is not a laugh a minute page turner. It's just one of the best novels ever written in English. This is made more remarkable by the fact that English is Conrad's third language, learned in adulthood after he learned he learned in youth his native Polish and French, the language preferred by literate Europeans of his age.

Still, Heart of Darkness haunts, so much better than the films that it has inspired, especially the pretentious Apocalypse Now. It really is worth keeping Conrad's work about what he actually was describing. The first few paragraphs of the book are the preface a man makes about his experiences in Africa.  He is making them in a comfortable home in London. He takes the historical view and considers that two thousand years earlier the Romans, the most civilized people in the world, came to England, where he and the listener are sitting pleasantly in the present, in an attempt to subdue and exploit the scariest people in the known world, the scattered tribes of Britain.

There is also the description of an African resting in the shade of a tree, worked like a dog and waiting to die, that is unforgettable.

So there is the nomination of a mathematician/trivia expert for the greatest writer in the English language who never tried to be funny.  There are two ways to present counter-examples.

1. Find a passage of Conrad that is funny.
2. Find a stylist equal to or greater than Conrad who is also not funny.

If there is some writer you love in translation who did not write originally in English, I am willing to consider him (or her) as well.

I await your replies.


sfmike said...

Doris Lessing tends to be ultra-serious and never tried to be funny, which is something that doesn't usually attract me, but as you're pointing out, the exception does tend to prove the rule.

namastenancy said...

I agree with your assessment of Conrad. I read him when I was younger and really didn't understand him but I returned to reread "The heart of darkness" when I was older. It still haunts me.

Anonymous said...

Sorta, Matt!

Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" is one of the greatest works of English literature - and he shows some wit in it too!

I recall the map in the office with purple pins denoting where "the jolly pioneers of progress drink the jolly lager beer."

Conrad's humor is dry - like a good martini.


Matty Boy said...

Thank you, RZ. That is a good line. Good counter-example.

Emphyrio said...

There are more classic SF writers with a sense of humor than you might think: Keith Laumer, Harry Harrison, Eric Frank Russell, Jack Vance, and Kurt Vonnegut, to name a few. But SF tends to be more concerned with exploring ideas than with exploring the human condition (the source of most humor). Though some ideas can be funny too. Isaac Asimov wrote a memorable story "The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline" which reads like a research paper in a chemical journal, but with a twist. Robert Heinlein's "All You Zombies..." is an elaboration of a humorous premise, which Douglas Adams perhaps alludes to when explaining Zaphod's unusual ancestry.

Matty Boy said...

Emphyrio: I enjoyed the work of Laumer and Vonnegut. I should have mentioned them.