How Publishing Is Rigged You thought it was a meritocracy??

8Sep/11

It’s So Very Droll

The Literary business has a completely backwards idea of what makes something funny. Something truly funny is going to have you laughing out loud, regardless of where you are, or who you’re with, or what you were just doing. Something that is truly funny is going to compel you to react in an honest, heartfelt way, without ego, and without artifice. On the contrary, something classified as “funny” by a Lit Biz person is seen to the rest of us as arch, detached, and aloof. A Lit Biz person’s reaction to something that they think is funny would be along the lines of “Ho ho, Barron Worthington Huntersmythe the Fourth, now that is so droll, I tell you, so very droll. Good one, Barron.” These people, they're so uptight.

People in the literary business value archness and distance as indicators of a humorous piece of writing. Nothing that is actually funny. “Wryly observed” is how they would describe their version of funny. The entire industry has decided that what's detached and ironic (their version of ironic) is “funny.” And as a result, we don't get to read anything that's actually funny anymore. We're stuck with this non-funny version of funny.

A “Humor” magazine called McSweeney’s Internet Tendency will publish things like this:

Example 1: Excerpt from “After A Thorough Battery Of Tests We Can Now Recommend “The Newspaper” As The Best E-Reader On The Market.” by John Flowers:

This is the very beginning of the story:

For the past three weeks our team of engineers has analyzed the most popular e-readers on the market in order to confer our annual “Editor's Choice” Award.

Devices were judged on a variety criteria [sic] to see how each functioned given a set of circumstances. The criteria themselves were weighted for the final score; individual and final grades were assigned on a curve.

Each device had its strengths. For some it was speed; for others it was capacity. Some were better with shorter articles; others with longer works. And cost, as always, was a factor. But in the end, one e-reader stood out.

The Newspaper.

McSweeney’s tries to be funny—and do they try so very hard. But the above story, and everything else that they publish, is so far removed from humor; I would have never known it was supposed to have been funny if I hadn’t seen it at the McSweeney’s website, which I happen to know is known as a “humor” website. This story is presented as a scientific assessment of available e-reader formats. Scientific assessments are emotionless by nature, and this story, excerpted above, is as emotionless as they come. This distance and the detached assessment-type language is meant to be “ironic.” In other words, this story has no content that is actually funny, but a place like McSweeney’s will publish it and think that they’re being clever by remaining so detached.

Example 2:I Swear To Fucking God, If I Come Home This Christmas And Find Out My Parents Are Still Unplugging Their Computer From The Wall When They Want To Turn It Off, I Will Fucking Snap.” by John M. Mustian

This is the entire story:

Seriously, how fucking hard can it be?

Click START, then click SHUT DOWN.

That's a TWO-step process that for the past 10 years in a row I've had to sit down with you assholes and explain, re-explain, re-explain, re-explain, re-explain, re-explain, re-explain, re-explain and re-explain START, then SHUT DOWN! START, THEN SHUT DOWN!!!

What, in the precise two-step process—that I've written down and given to you on numerous occasions—do you not get?

“But Jason,” Dad will say, “it's confusing that I have to click START in order to shut something down. That just seems counterintuitive.”

Oh is it, Alan? Is it counterintuitive? Would it help if, instead of a START icon, Microsoft created an icon that looked like a 63-year-old retired accountant with back problems bending over to unplug his computer from the wall? Would that kind of visual be less “counterintuitive”? Apparently it would because every FUCKING year I come home and find that you've been resorting to exactly that kind barbarism. [sic]

But it ends here! DO YOU HEAR ME, ALAN? It ends here!

You and Mom had better brace for the possibility that one of you is going to walk into the family room someday and find the other electrocuted, lying in pile of their own shit next to the computer, because that’s what’s in your future if you keep unplugging it from the wall rather than following my VERY simple instructions!

And GODDAMMIT, STOP PRINTING OUT HARDCOPIES OF ALL YOUR EMAILS!

Literary Business people think that certain elements of this story make the story funny, regardless of the fact that these elements have no humorous context within the story itself. They think that any of these things, merely by their presence in their story, make that story funny:

  • exclamation points are funny
  • putting things is capital letters is funny
  • yelling at parents is funny
  • calling parents by their first names is funny
  • referring to parents as “assholes” is funny
  • using the word “fuck” is funny
  • using the word “shit” is funny

The writing of a funny story cannot be reduced to a mindless word-formula. “Recipe for humor: Add two ‘fucks’ and a ‘shit,’ throw in a couple of exclamation points and capitalize a few of the words.” It doesn’t work that way, it actually takes talent to invent and write a story that contains real humor. But Lit Biz people have no feel for what’s actually funny, so they resort to this contrived recipe formula. The result is piece after boring-ass piece, all drier and duller than stale toast. “Fuck” can be hilarious. Yelling at parents could be one of the funniest things anyone's ever read. But for either of these things to be actually funny, there has to be some thought behind them. To make a reader laugh, these elements have to happen within the right context of a story, not merely thrown in any old place.

What we have is an insecure writer who masks everything they do in irony, distance and arrogance, and who is desperately hoping that we’ll mistake that archness for humor. Let’s look at a specific element of this story: the use of the word “fuck.” The mere use of the word is supposed to be funny—not its context, not its placement, not the impact of the word or its effect upon the rest of the story. For the uptight (and typically medicated) writer drone, the mere saying of this word is a big deal. They’ve been “bad.” They’ve had a “breakthrough moment” by daring to put the word in their story. They can say to themselves, “See, I’m not an uptight scared person! I just used the word ‘fuck’ in a story! I am downright reckless!” To the normal, sane person, this tactic is transparent, akin to the child who yells catcalls down an alleyway as he runs away. But in the Lit Biz world, this use of the word “fuck” is daring, boundary-pushing stuff. Or so these people would like to think.

Example 3:How To Put On A Sports Bra” by Anna Lefler

1. Approach the sports bra with confidence, secure in the belief that you will wear it.
2. Holding the sports bra open by its bottom edge, peer into it and locate the medium-sized opening in the center of the cavity. This is your target.
3. Take a moment to ask yourself the following questions:
A. Am I naked from the waist up?
B. Have I removed my glasses?
If the answer to either is “no,” make the necessary adjustments and return to Step 1.

(There are 12 steps total, but I won't reprint them here.)

Again, we have a writer who is trying to be ironic, numbering the steps, presuming the reader needs advice on how to put on a bra at all. Arch and detached, yes, but not actually funny. This writer has also tried to be “daring” and the use of the word “naked” in another context might make a room of fifth-graders titter, but here, it’s simply not funny. The writer did not write this list to be read by a room full of fifth-graders. She desperately wants you to think she's hilarious. In later steps, Anna Lefler goes all-out-crazy-daring and mentions breasts and even areolas. Such a risky girl she is!

The McSweeney’s website is entirely full of stories like the three above. The “lists” format is a regular feature and they’re all the same, written by writers who are trying to be clever, contrived, and, oh, so droll. But not one of these McSweeney's stories is actually funny.

Example 4: (What you’re about to read is supposed to be funny.)

A Series of Brief Unstaged Musicals, Each Responding to a Current Event, Each Written and Scored by Ben Greenman, With Satiric and Comic Intent

Some examples:

Weiner! The Musical

LeBron! The Musical

The above preface (“A Series of Brief...”) appears before these these “things” that are published by McSweeney’s (which they refer to as “unstaged musicals”) from time to time. Greenman loves to do these “Current Event! The Musical” pieces, and he includes the “satiric and comic intent” part as yet another literary mechanism that Greenman hopes comes off as clever. It's as though in revealing his own insecurity about the comic intent of the piece, Greenman is asking you to give him a break if you don't actually find his work humorous.

A quick sample of “Weiner! The Musical” appears below:

ANTHONY WEINER
I have been struggling as of late
Deciding if it’s right or wrong
To use these social network sites
To send a picture of your schlong.

[His TINY CONSCIENCE speaks up.]

ANTHONY WEINER’S TINY CONSCIENCE
What the hell?
Are you kidding, man?
That’s your question?
That’s your plan?

ANTHONY WEINER
Well, not even the schlong exposed!
But inside boxer briefs and posed
To look much larger than it is
So gasping, they’ll say “Is that his?”

The above is supposed to be hilarious. Did you find yourself laughing at the above? No, because it's terrible in the kind of way that makes you roll your eyes. Ooo, look, he said “schlong!” (That's supposed to be funny all by itself, just the mention of the word, and the fact that we're, gasp, talking about a man's penis.) Embarrassing enough when read silently to yourself—what if you had to read the above aloud, to your friends? To strangers? Can you imagine the pitying looks on their faces as they try to restrain themselves from audibly groaning?

Note also the exclamation point in the title of these pieces. The exclamation point is supposed to be funny, all on its own, simply because it's an exclamation point, and it's supposed to remind you of Oklahoma!, an actual musical. It's also supposed to indicate the enthusiasm of the piece, which is ironic because these “unstaged musicals” are completely flat and devoid of any emotion, humor or otherwise. Greenman is hoping that the exclamation point can compensate for what each of his stories lacks.

[I'll be writing more about the horrible pointless stuff that Ben Greenman publishes in a future post.]

Beyond all of this McSweeney's stuff, the reigning queen of the short short (a “short short” is an extremely short story, fewer than 1000 words; I call these stories “Crumbs”) is also considered a humorous writer. Yes, these Lit Biz people also think that Lydia Davis is one of the funniest writers around. Never mind that the rest of us can see her work for what it truly is: undeveloped observations of events, real and imagined, and not actually stories, and certainly not funny.

[Read more about Lydia Davis here.]

That our literature is devoid of real humor is one of the many things that is disappointing to the regular readers out there. And the terribly unfunny things that do get published are so lame that not even a junior high school kid would find them funny, let alone a normal, sane adult. The problem is that the people who are making decisions regarding what gets published today have exactly zero sense of humor. Things that are truly funny exhibit, to these gatekeepers, a loss of control. Yes, they consider uncontrollable laughter a breakdown in one’s otherwise contrived façade, and that’s intolerable to a person in the literary business. The Lit Biz world considers something that is “polished, refined, and serious” (as we saw in the New Pages review of new literary magazine, The Common) as the ultimate high praise. And that’s how publishing people serve up their “humor,” and said humor displays itself as emotionless and detached.

[To read about MFA Stories and the properties that they exhibit, click here.]

Something that is polished, refined and serious is not something that is going to have you laughing to yourself later in the day, much less chuckling later that week. When you think back to the four examples I’ve included above, do you recall anything about them that made them funny to you? Forget about the lack of humor—was there anything at all about those stories that stayed with you? And I'm not even asking about the stories staying with you over the course of a week or a year or more—is there anything that's stayed with you for the time it's taken you to read the rest of this blog entry? Of course not; there’s no impact to these pieces, humorous or otherwise. But here’s the thing: The publishers of said humor pieces think that they’re the funniest things going, and they can’t handle the raw emotional impact of actual humor. The writers hope that they're coming across as funny. But just as it ain't easy being green, it sure as fuck isn't easy being funny. But these people are worse at it than anyone you know.