Guest Editor Conversations: Percival Everett, Fall 2014

I Am Not Sidney PoitierWe’re happy to present the first of a new series–interviews with our guest editors, following the publication of their issues. Below is an introduction by Jessica Treadway, Emerson College professor and author of the forthcoming Lacy Eye (Grand Central, 2015), and a conversation between Editor-in-Chief Ladette Randolph and Percival Everett, guest editor of the Fall 2014 issue.

If you read Percival Everett’s books blind, without any names attached, it would probably take you some time to absorb the fact that a single author was responsible for them all. I knew it was the same author, and it still took me time–his work is that versatile, that eclectic, that impossible (thank goodness) to pin down. It is always exceptionally smart. By turns it can also be laugh-out-loud funny, tender, quiet, rowdy, clever, provocative, and sad. Even in the case of an outlandish premise, it is completely true.Continue Reading

Publication Starts the Story: On Jim Bouton’s Ball Four

Bouton, motivating corporate types.

Bouton, motivating corporate types.

Under review: Ball Four: Twentieth Anniversary Edition by Jim Bouton (465 pages, 1990, Wiley Publishing)

A memoir’s publication date usually serves as a finish line. The events within have already taken place well, well in the past; their cathartic release tends to act as a formal and organized end to the events’ influence on the author’s life.

The opposite is true of the life and memoirs of Jim Bouton, big-league pitcher throughout the sixties and into the seventies. The weeks and months that Bouton chronicled in his memoir, Ball Four, were hardly detectable compared to the Richter-scale impact that the release of Ball Four had on Bouton’s life. Decades later, Bouton in his seventies still earns speaking gigs at corporate functions not so much because he lived the life that Ball Four details, but because he wrote about it.

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Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions

 Stack of Mad Magazines“Oh, I get it. ‘Pete’ is the name of the boy who falls off the log. ‘Repeat’ is the name of the other boy, but when you say his name, you’re also asking me to say the joke again.”

My daughter says this a week after she’s been told the classic “Pete and Repeat” joke. You know this, right?

 Joker: “Pete and Repeat sat on a log. Pete fell off. Who was left?”

Rube: “Repeat.”

Joker: “Okay, Pete and Repeat sat on a log…”

For days, my daughter has told this joke to anyone within earshot. Now, for the first time, she actually understands it.

“That is kind of funny,” she says. Continue Reading

Episodia 1.1: Making Comedy and Paper with Liz Lemon

If you didn’t have the pleasure of viewing “30 Rock” before its finale on January 31, allow me to introduce you to the funniest female sitcom character since Lucille Ball. Her name is Liz Lemon, and — as the head writer for “TGS with Tracy Jordan,” a live comedy show that airs Friday nights at 10:30 pm (unless there’s wrestling) — she doesn’t just know how to be funny; she knows how to use it to pay her bills. So no matter what your genre, the seven tips below will help you make comedy and paper, Liz Lemon style, by finding your niche as a writer in an overcrowded industry.

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People Are Funny

This is old news, but in 2005, the Poetry Foundation gave the poet Billy Collins something called the Mark Twain Poetry Award of $25,000, “recognizing a poet’s contribution to humor in American poetry.”   The press release included these two sentences:  “Billy Collins has brought laughter back to a melancholy art.  He shows us that good poetry need not always be somber poetry.”  That a foundation with the word Poetry in front of it would actually support writing they then label melancholy is, I suppose, baffling enough (though one can easily sense, being a press release, that melancholy was used only to make laughter stand out), but to then give an award to the best selling poet in American history (Collins’ book, Sailing Alone Around the Room is rumored to have earned him a million-dollar advance) even more money is quixotic.  Couldn’t they have given the $25,000 to someone who really could use the money as a bribe to make their poems funny?  Or, at the very least, funnier?

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April Fools: Some Funny Novels (Seriously, That’s What the Post Is About)

Our valiant editorial intern, Sean Mackey, suggested this month that in honor of April Fools’ Day we recommend a few humorous books. He had this to say himself:

Humor is becoming more and more specific for different audiences, where a reader who laughs at I Am America, And So Can You might not find Pride and Prejudice and Zombies funny.  Two classics that have remained fresh for centuries, despite this audience segmentation, are Candide—Voltaire’s condensed epic tale bashing optimism—and Don Quixote—Cervantes’s satire on chivalry, knighthood, and what it means to fully “embrace” literature.

Sean’s absolutely right that it’s hard pulling off lowest-common-denominator humor these days, especially in a book—but you don’t have to go quite all the way back to Voltaire and Cervantes to find funny writing that everyone can enjoy.

The example that immediately jumps to mind is Douglas Adams’s oeuvre, from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its many sequels, to Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, and even his quirky non-novel project, The Meaning of Liff—a “dictionary” that bears a passing resemblance, in intent if not execution, to another classic humor book: Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary. (One personal favorite from Bierce: “Corporation: An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.”)

Adams has plenty of company, too, in today’s contemporary humor writers: Jasper Fforde, for example, who’s most famous for The Eyre Affair and its sequels, and Tom Holt, a British novelist writing very much in an Adamsesque vein. (His most recent is Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Sausages.)

 

There’s a fuzzy line, of course, between all-out trying-to-be-funny books, and more literary books that happen to have funny components. Jincy Willett is one author who probably falls more on the latter side, most notably in Jenny & the Jaws of Life—though anyone in an MFA program may appreciate The Writing Class just as much if not more. I’d probably be remiss if I didn’t also mention Aimee Bender here, though in my experience her work—Willful Creatures, for example—is more of an acquired taste. (And speaking of acquired tastes, if you don’t laugh at the opening sections of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, you’re probably not alive.)

If you want to get really high-level about it, there are also some writers who arguably aren’t “funny” at all, at least not on the surface, but at which you nevertheless can’t help but laugh. I’m thinking here of David Foster Wallace—not a favorite of mine, but I can at least appreciate what he’s going for—or of specific books like Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, which takes place during a trip up an escalator, or Kafka’s The Castle. Follow K. to the end of that story, and you have to laugh if you don’t want to cry.

[A note from Akshay: I have to introduce one of my favorite comic writers, Flann O’Brien, who we somehow missed in our St. Patrick’s post. O’Brien recently received a boost when one of his books, The Third Policeman, showed up on an episode of Lost. You can start with At Swim-Two-Birdsone of the weirdest, wildest, and funniest books in English—and then pretty much read anything else. He is a magician. Also, this isn't a novel, but no student of the language can be without “English As She Is Spoke,” which we read aloud with some friends during a long car ride. This is not recommended, as it results in some very unfocused driving.]

One final caveat: humor’s more subjective than even “serious” literature, and there may be books in the list that you think are hopelessly dull, or books not in it that you’re shocked we could overlook. If that’s the case, don’t just sit there fuming—tell us about it in the comments! We always appreciate new reading suggestions.

And now, to end with some truly sophisticated humor: