The New Books, Lightning, and the dearth of Humorous Fantasy

Two new books in the hopper. One is finished and edited, but is lacking a cover. I’m totally at a loss on this cover. I need a bolt of lightning to strike me and stir my creative electrons. A metaphorical bolt, please, not a real one. My brother once got almost hit by lightning and he said it was an unpleasant experience. The bolt hit a nearby pole, transmogrified itself into a ball of what looked like buzzing, white electricity, rolled down the pole, bounced across the road in a menacing fashion, bounced up one of his legs and then down the other. At this point, it rolled away for parts (or victims) unknown. He said it was an experience best avoided.

So, the metaphorical version will be fine, thank you.

The second book is currently at the north of 50,000 words mark and writing itself rather easily. This one, like the first, is humor. However, unlike the first, it is humorous fantasy (the first one is a humorous, Seinfeldian take on modern family and it is guaranteed to be somewhat offensive, but in a pleasant, comforting biscuits-and-gravy sort of way–a mixed metaphor that deserves unpacking, but which I will not unpack due to the fact that I lost the key for the lock and ate the biscuits and gravy, thus polishing off the evidence, though, it does bear pointing out that, as a mixed metaphor, the biscuit dough was well mixed).

I’ve been wondering lately why there is such a dearth of humorous fantasy. There is plenty of serious fantasy. Scads of it. Farmboy saves the world. Orphan boy discovers he has amazing magical powers and he then saves the world. Put-upon wimpy boy discovers he has amazing sword-fighting powers and he then saves the world. Ugly daughter discovers she is actually incredibly beautiful and has mad magical powers and sword-fighting powers and she then saves the world. Poor kitchen boy discovers he is actually the long-lost heir to the throne and he has amazing powers and he then saves the world.

Whoops. Got into a bit of a groove there.

The humor-in-fantasy topic came up briefly on a Kindleboards thread, but never achieved any satisfactory conclusion. Sure, there are some great humorous fantasies out there. Terry Pratchett, Robert Asprin, Terry Brooks…they all wrote a fair amount, with Pratchett being the king, of course. But the canon in general is extremely limited. What’s interesting as well is that your typical fantasy book is usually devoid of any humorous sparks. Fantasy tends to be serious in outlook. Sometimes bordering on the sludgy territory of pomposity. And quite a few times diving right into that sludge.

If you take a look at other genres, whether it be detective, general adventure, romance, etc., it’s very common to find humor. I don’t mean that the book in general is specifically and overtly written for humor, but that humor is a natural component of the story. It shows up. It’s a part of that story’s life and characters. The Dirk Pitt stories, the Stephanie Plum stories, the Father Brown stories, the Travis McGee stories, the Jack Reacher stories, etc.

Fantasy, on the other hand, tends to be…well, perhaps dour is the word. I realize that the apparent paucity of humor in fantasy vs the evidence of it in other genres isn’t anything ground-breaking or all that important. However, I wonder if it’s a limiting factor, in any small way, in terms of attracting new, potential fantasy readers. Everything helps, of course.

Granted, even though I’ve never been able to detect a single, limp molecule of humor in George R. R. Martin’s Dances with Incredibly Violent and Rapacious Smurfs series, that lack has not affected his popularity in any way.

In my new book’s case, I’m going totally overboard with the humor. Overboard as in scuba gear and plumbing the depths of the Marianas Trench. I might not find any readers down there, but I might find some interesting monsters. Maybe one of those freaky fish with the dangling light pole growing out of their foreheads, wavering in front of them and attracting foolish little fish to swim near, whereupon they are gobbled up. That, also, is a metaphor that shall probably not get unpacked. After all, who packs luggage when they’re visiting the Marianas Trench?

14 thoughts on “The New Books, Lightning, and the dearth of Humorous Fantasy”

  1. Well, there’s one reader here who can’t wait to explore, unpack, or otherwise grub around in the Marianas Trench of your humourous fantasy.

    I wonder if the lack of humour in high fantasy has something to do with the (seemingly) inherent seriousness of this “saving the world” business. As a rule, regular books that deal in epic themes (like, say, stories of wars) tend to be a bit short on humour, too. Humour is often reserved for the small and commonplace, children, and the lower classes. At least Shakespeare thought so – his comic relief characters are nannies and grave diggers who can’t get their language straight; Hamlet and Romeo are doomed by their very propensity to take themselves so terribly seriously. And some of the best humour in fantasy comes from skewering that seriousness (Pratchett, in ‘Wyrd Sisters’: “When shall we three meet again?” “I could do next Tuesday…”).

    1. That’s an interesting point about Shakespeare. Makes a lot of sense. There certainly isn’t much humor in his King Lear and Henry V, though you do get a little bit in Macbeth, don’t you?, with the Fates? Or maybe not. My memory could be fooling me.

      Yeah, the whole inherent seriousness of saving the world does lend itself toward grimmer perspectives, as opposed to Adam Sandler. Though, using Sandler as a comparison is incorrect. I’m more curious about the complete lack of any sort of humor, even a mild leavening, as opposed to an over the top Terry Pratchett approach.

      1. Shakespeare does always stick some comic relief characters in, though. Can’t think of who it is in King Lear (I’ve avoided having to study it so far), but Henry V has Captain Fluellen (the Welshman), and Macbeth has the porter (gatekeeper). But they’re short interludes of laughter in the midst of the heaviness of the rest of the story, which is, I think, what you did with your ghost in “Tormay”. Wodehouse, on the other hand, tells the whole story with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, darkness or heaviness doesn’t come into at all. The humour is in the tone, much more than in the situation, in individual jokes, word plays, parody or nonsense (the latter two being big in Pratchett’s humour).

        Sandler, as I mentioned, isn’t funny to me at all; the kind of humour that’s based on embarrassment really would be hard to fit into a fantasy story.

        1. Maybe that’s why I’ve never been a big Pratchett fan. I’m not a huge fan of nonsense. Situational humor is much more my thing. Wodehouse wrote more that way.

  2. I don’t know why either, but for me the two simply don’t mix at all. I can’t really recall whether or not I read any of Asprin’s stuff, but I despise Pratchett, as well as Piers Anthony’s Xanth books. Furthermore, I blame the failure of the movie Willow and the consequent setback of Fantasy as a genre within Hollywood entirely on that movie’s failure to decide if it was a fantasy or a comedy.

    As someone who’s flirted with SF/Fantasy fandom but never really embraced it, I must say I feel my sense of humour is very out of sync with what passes for such within that community. Of course, I think it’s very much out of sync with what passes for humour in the TV/film industry within the US too, so take that for what it’s worth. The point being, humour’s a very individual and subjective thing, perhaps the combination of humour with a genre like Fantasy simply requires too great an alignment of tastes for such books to easily find their readers? That’s really just a stab in the dark though, and hopefully not discouraging. I’m curious to see how your blend of the two turns out.

    1. I’m with you re Pratchett. I’ve tried reading several of his books and either I’m a blockhead or the subjectiveness of humor always kicks in. I find nothing funny in his writing. If anything, it puzzles the heck out of me. As for Anthony, I can only stand puns for so long, unless they’re in Asterix books. My sense of humor is Wodehouse, Kingsley Amis (but only Lucky Jim), Daniel Pinkwater, and Richard Powell. Trying to imagine how any of their brands of humor would translate into fantasy makes my brain hurt.

      As far as mine goes…I have no idea how it’s going to come across. Humor’s an odd bird. I wonder if part of my motivation was sheer irritation at some of the newer fantasies I’ve been reading over the last twelve months. The same stories coming up again and again. I suppose I’m partially guilty of that myself.

      1. What do you (as in, you, Christopher, or you, Daniel) think of Monty Python? Do you find them funny at all? If not, that would explain why you have no use for Pratchett. His humour is very pythonesque (with less offensive bits than the Pythons, which is why I like Pratchett better). An English friend of mine calls it “educated silliness”. But that’s the thing about humour – you can’t explain it, not what it is, let alone how to “get” it. You either have a particular sense of humour, or you don’t. I find, for example, that the prevalent style of comedy in America is just plain stupid, or else painful; the aforementioned Adam Sandler really grates on my nerves.

        But I also have very little use for “regular” fantasy, because of that very lack of humour in it. It’s all so terribly, terribly serious (claps hand to heart while pressing other hand’s wrist to forehead). To each their own, I suppose.

        1. I sometimes find Monty Python funny, sometimes not. You’re right. It’s impossible to explain. There are some MP skits that I think hilarious and others that seem totally dull. But I can’t articulate why. My brother just got me the new boxed Best of Monty Python several weeks ago. I put in the John Cleese disc and only found about half of it funny. The rest of it was just…I dunno. Yet, I thought him consistently funny in A Fish Called Wanda.

          Sandler’s an odd bird. For me, he swings between reticent straight man (such as in Mr. Deeds) and gross-in-your-face-not-funny (such as Zohan). He makes me laugh in the first instance and not in the second. Have you seen Mixed Nuts? If you have, did you think he was funny in that role?

          Yeah, I pretty much agree with you about current American comedy. I wish we had a new Bill Cosby. I loved his old show.

  3. did i ever tell you how much i thoroughly enjoyed, even loved, your “ghost” in A Storm in Tormay? Well, I just did.

    1. Thank you. The ghost was a real gamble for me. He was much more over the top in the earlier drafts. I ended up scaling his character back a great deal for the final version. And, to be honest, who he ended up to actually be was a complete surprise for me. A happy surprise, because of how it worked into the plot…

  4. L. Sprague de Camp wrote the humorous fantasy Howard Shea stories, collected as the Complete Incompleat Enchanter.
    A few other writers of fantasy in which there is humor: Diana Wynne Jones, Patricia Wrede & Caroline Stevermer, Ysabeau Wilce, Barry Hughart, Laurence Watt-Evans (Ethshar novels), A.Lee Martinez, Michael Resnick, Joan Aiken (the Dido Twite stories), Esther Friesner, Jonathan Stroud.

    1. I’ve never heard of most of these (except for Joan Aiken, Stroud, Jones and de Camp…but was unaware of the Howard Shea stories)! Thank you very much! I’ll have to do some investigating…

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