Evelyn Waugh 'Officers And Gentlemen' in 1955. (Photo by Malcolm Dunbar/Getty Images)

Where is the Waugh or Wodehouse of our time?

Comic writing: light distraction or social mirror?

Artillery Row

I learnt with some joy the other day that The Comedy Women In Print prize has not allowed the current situation to prevent it from announcing their longlist, the winner of which will receive £3000. Authors who have been nominated include Jeanette Winterson, Dawn O’Porter and Daisy Waugh, and my old sparring partner Nina Stibbe is on there, too. The award was set up last year by the comedian and writer Helen Lederer, who commented ‘I’m relieved the longlisted titles reflect both anti-snobbery and a huge respect for literary wit.’

The reason why it is so difficult for comic novels to be published, despite their enormous popularity with readers, is that most editors and publishers are cautious of its potential difficulty as a genre

There has of course been grumbling that any single-sex award such as this is by definition exclusionary, just as at least one commentator can be dragged forward most years to decry the continued existence of the Woman’s Prize – for which the shortlist was also announced last week – as sexist and bigoted. To be honest, I am so relieved that comic writing in any of its forms is being recognised that I would probably be just as happy if the award was solely made available to inhabitants of Leicester, or writers aged over 70.

The list is certainly a good deal richer and more varied than much of what has been shortlisted for or has won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize, an award that is as close to an establishment honouring of comic fiction as exists. It doesn’t always get it right, often choosing humorous work by big names rather than genuinely funny books by less well-known writers, and despite its recognising Ms Stibbe last year, it has a heavily male-oriented bias. It also suffers from a paucity of titles to recognise. The award didn’t take place at all in 2018 because the judges failed to find anything worth shortlisting, let alone winning. One looks at some of the award winners over the past two decades – Ian McEwan’s Solar? Arguably Edward St Aubyn’s weakest book, Lost for Words? Will Self’s The Butt? – and wonders how miserably unfunny most of the books submitted must have been.

The reason why it is so difficult for comic novels to be published, despite their enormous popularity with readers, is that most editors and publishers are cautious of its potential difficulty as a genre. Anyone who has ever wondered why the vast majority of scripted ‘comedy’ programmes on Radio 4 have been allowed to air, or have wondered at the continued existence and popularity of Mrs Brown’s Boys, will be unsurprised to learn that tastes in humour can be distinctly different to their own. There is, however, an unwritten but widely understood sense amongst the literary establishment that any comic books that do appear should be either left-leaning or, at the least, liberal, and that any sort of ‘difficult’ material that might be construed as racist, xenophobic or sexist should either be omitted entirely or, if it has to be included, should appear in such heavy quotation marks as to make it entirely clear that the author does not hold the repellent views of his or her characters.

One wonders how some of the great comic writers of the 20th century would have coped with these strictures. One of my two great comic literary idols, Evelyn Waugh – Wodehouse being the other, predictably enough – would almost certainly never have published a single novel. Not only was his writing entirely devoid of anything that would today be regarded as ‘woke’ or politically correct, but he took a grim delight in antagonising his readers if they dared to raise any objections. When he received a critical letter from an American woman who had not enjoyed Brideshead Revisited, he did not reply to her but instead wrote in an aggrieved fashion to her husband, asking him ‘if he was in the habit of allowing his wife to write impertinent letters to strangers’. This would almost certainly go viral on social media today, and that is before one gets into his flippant treatment of such difficult subjects as paedophilia (Decline and Fall), racism (Black Mischief, and much of the rest), mental illness (The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold) and the rest.

At a time when his granddaughter Daisy continues the family tradition – and indeed has been nominated for the Comedy Women in Print prize for her book In The Crypt with a Candlestick – it would have been an incalculable loss to literature if he had never been allowed to pursue a writing career, though it was something of a close-run thing that it ever began. The board at Chapman and Hall, who eventually published his debut novel Decline and Fall, were divided as to its literary merit, with some of them shocked by the inclusion of the pederast schoolmaster Captain Grimes; Waugh had to tone down some of his descriptions of Grimes’s more unsavoury antics before the book could be released. Even then, it was only published because of the successful result of a show of hands, and the casting vote was that of the managing director Arthur Waugh, Evelyn’s father, showing that the world of publishing a century ago was as much dictated by who you know as what you know as it is now.

Yet if Waugh would have found it difficult to make a living from writing today, so would many of his friends and peers. His beloved correspondent Nancy Mitford (their collected letters are as funny as any of their novels) wrote two novels, The Pursuit of Love and Love In A Cold Climate, which are an affectionate but clear-sighted account of the aristocratic milieu that she and her friends inhabited. They feature unforgettable characters such as the splenetic Uncle Matthew, who stages elaborate mock hunts of his children and has an ‘entrenching tool’ in pride of place in his house, with which he took pride in dispatching German soldiers in WWI. One can only imagine a commissioning editor’s face as they read the first three chapters, and subsequent feedback. ‘Too elitist and exclusive…character of Matthew entirely unacceptable by every standard…WHO ON EARTH WOULD FIND THIS FUNNY?’

The happy answer is ‘very many people’, and none other than Emily Mortimer is writing and directing a new adaptation of The Pursuit of Love (once such productions can occur again), starring actress du jour Lily James as its protagonist Linda Radlett. But it is likely that Mortimer would shy away from giving her fragrant imprimatur to something that did not have the aura of a classic about it, in part because nobody sensible can be bothered with the inevitable controversy that would come about if a modern novel that had riled a few of the wrong people was to be adapted. Thinkpieces in the Guardian; controversy on Twitter; opinionated voices given platforms on Radio 4. And not a lot of laughs to be had, anywhere.

There is, alas, no Wodehouse of our modern times, although I can think of a few superbly talented comic writers

But controversy, even hysteria, and some of our funniest comic writers have been uneasy bedfellows before. As someone who is taking solace in escapist entertainment now more than ever before, because the daily tidings are so grim that one needs something distracting to escape from it all, PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster novels are the purest balm that one can enjoy. They are (largely) devoid of any social commentary, offering a pre-lapsarian view of a time when matrimony was a predicament to be avoided at all costs and where a gentleman’s gentleman could always be on hand to provide sartorial advice and wisdom, in the most sticky of situations. The comic set-pieces (a drunk Gussie Fink-Nottle at the Market Snodsbury Grammar School prizegiving, especially) are as good as anything in English literature. And yet ‘Plum’, as his admirers know him, very nearly came the most spectacular cropper.

Wodehouse and his formidable wife Beryl were living in France when the Germans invaded in 1940, and he was interned as an enemy alien. Someone bright in Nazi high command realised that they had a potential propaganda coup on their hands, and encouraged Wodehouse to make a series of broadcasts, ‘How to be an Internee without Previous Training’ on German state radio to then-neutral America. The impression given by Wodehouse was that life in the camp was like a mildly dull version of a boarding school, which led to horror in Britain when the talks were broadcast there in 1941. He was denounced as a traitor and a Nazi propagandist, and, although he was eventually cleared of any criminal intent, never returned to his home country again.

It can only be imagined what the reaction would be like today if a similar event were to occur, although a precise parallel is hard to imagine. (Helen Fielding being in the pay of Putin? David Nicholls revealed to be a propagandist for Xi Jinping?) Yet it does remind us that comic writing, even if it seems to exist predominantly for entertainment, does not come about in a frictionless vacuum. Wodehouse wrote most of his novel Money in the Bank while in the internment camp, and his Jeeves and Wooster book Joy in the Morning was completed while he was a reluctant guest of the Nazis in Berlin. Many, including his biographer Richard Usborne, consider it to be his ‘happiest, best-constructed and most jewel-encrusted’ book. One would struggle to differentiate them from his other work in terms of language or plots, but they were constructed and written under the most trying of circumstances, which would defeat most people to come up with anything creative, let alone a comic masterpiece.

There is, alas, no Wodehouse of our modern times, although I can think of a few superbly talented comic writers, such as Edward St Aubyn, Paul Murray and Jonathan Coe, who could make something entertaining out of our current dire international situation. Perhaps they will. It seems a given that, in a year or two, we shall be inundated with ‘coronavirus literature’, and that much of it will be terribly worthy, ‘thought-provoking’ and all but unreadable. It doesn’t seem too much to ask that at least one novel that comes out can summon up something of the spirit of Waugh and Mitford and be riotously amusing. After all, any situation in which an American president can suggest to his people, apparently sincerely, that they should inject bleach into themselves to ward off infection has all the makings of splendidly dark humour already. Now all it needs is a chronicler. Who knows, perhaps it will storm to victory in a future Comedy Woman in Print prize yet.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Subscribe
Critic magazine cover