Nobbs' funniest novel is A Bit of a Do, but he's best known for The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, which crossed the Atlantic into Canadian bookstores because of its reincarnation as a TV comedy series, shown on PBS.
Also recently published is the latest novel by England's Keith Waterhouse, Palace Pier, a lovely satire on writers' festivals. The blurb on the front of the book calls Waterhouse (who's most famous for Billy Liar), "A master comic novelist at the height of his powers."
England has a great tradition of so-called serious comic writers, meaning comic writers who are taken seriously. Consider Kingsley Amis (The Old Devils), Beryl Bainbridge (Injury Time) and David Lodge (Small World), to say nothing of Henry Fielding (Tom Jones), Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice), Anthony Powell (A Dance to the Music of Time) and Evelyn Waugh.
When you consider this tradition, you wonder, "Why are there no Canadian comic novelists?" Would Canadian publishers and critics even dare to call someone a master comic novelist? Canadian readers like to laugh, don't they?
Yet the feeling in the CanLit world is that literary prose must be earnest, that you can't be taken seriously as a writer if you write comedy.
Oh, yes, there is the Stephen Leacock Medal presented annually to a Canadian works of humour. But in the 55 years since its inception, it's gone more to gentle and folksy journalism than to novels.
The very fact that most countries outside Canada regard Leacock (1869-1944) as the only Canadian humorist should tell us something.
Among Canadian fiction titles, there is precious little to conjure up a smile. You can go back to Mordecai Richler's work or some of the late W. O. Mitchell's, or Armin Wiebe's The Salvation of Yasch Siemens (1984), or Miriam Toews's Summer of My Amazing Luck (1996), but what has there been lately? Besides Will Ferguson's satire, Happiness (formerly Generica), and David Arnason's King Jerry, there's not much.
In its preview of this fall's adult fiction, the July issue of Canada's book-trade magazine, Quill & Quire, presents blurbs on 40 new novels, and only one is described as "comic." There are many tales of people coping with tragedy; some of the more sombre titles are River of the Brokenhearted, Decomposing Maggie, and The Cancer in Us All.
Canadian taste in the arts is influenced more by the United States than by England, so perhaps there is a clue to the health of comedy there. Carl Hiaasen (Strip Tease) seems to be popular and he's called "master of the comic crime novel," a label that must also be given to Donald E. Westlake. Philip Roth and John Updike can both be hilarious (consider Roth's The Great American Novel and Updike's Bech is Back) but neither is ever described as a "master comic novelist."
Peter De Vries (Madder Music) and Calder Willingham (Eternal Fire) wrote comic masterpieces but never achieved the wide readership they deserved. Erica Jong, Frederick Barthelme, Harry Crews, Frederick Buechner and Alison Lurie have shown flashes of comic brilliance, but they're never referred to as "master comic novelists."
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Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections contains wonderful comedy, but even that was billed as a "comic tragic masterpiece," "funny and deeply sad." Even the talented Franzen, it seems, can't build a reputation on comedy alone.
A new sub-genre of comic fiction has recently emerged -- chick lit. Spawned by the English novel, Bridget Jones's Diary, by Helen Fielding (first published in 1996), this genre embraces stories of working mothers (I Don't Know How She Does It, by England's Allison Pearson), mothers who have opted to stay at home (Amanda Bright@Home, by the U.S.'s Danielle Crittenden) and groups of career women who get together regularly to compare notes (Beautiful Bodies, by American Laura Shaine Cunningham).
Perhaps the best of this genre so far is The Dirty Girls Social Club, by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, who currently lives in Albuquerque, N.M. Told in six different voices by six likable young women, this novel not only is one of the funniest in years, it goes deep into the life (work, home and sex) of each one and also educates the reader on Hispanic culture.
The Dirty Girls Social Club is the quintessential comic novel -- a great story that makes you laugh and makes you think as well.
Where are the Canadian chick-lit novels? Are they too comic for our publishers, who seem to equate comedy with joke-books and comic strips?
Or do our publishers simply reflect the national taste? Do Canadians regard comic fiction as trivial? Have we become so earnest in our daily lives that we must have a steady diet of suffering and pain and heartache in our literature?
Is tragedy the only kind of literature we value?
When Winnipeg's Toews launched her poignant memoir Swing Low back in 2000, she looked out at the overflow crowd and said, "How come I get so many more people for my sad book than I did for my funny ones?"
How come, indeed.
Dave Williamson is a Winnipeg writer and educator whose latest attempt at a comic novel was called Weddings.