Three years ago I published the first of a trilogy of office culture novels. Like any other freshly published author I spent the first few months of this event both craving and utterly dreading reader feedback. This is, I suppose, natural for all practitioners of such a public and accessible art form as the novel. But what made things doubly—infinitely actually—harder for me was the fact that I had attempted to write a humour novel. And the humour novel has only one pay-off: humour. If it didn’t make people laugh, it had failed completely. So as the first few copies of my books began to sell I began to cower in fear. The book had to make people laugh. There was no question about it. Plot, characters, momentum… everything counted for naught if belly laughs were not forthcoming. Eventually one of my friends called me one day and told me that he liked the book. It wasn’t perfect, he added, but it was a good start. It reminded him, he said, of the early PG Wodehouse novels, when the Maharaja of Mirth was still getting to grips with his gift.
Afterwards I had two thoughts. First, I wished I had friends who didn’t have to be this frank. Liars make the best friends. Secondly, I thought: GOD DAMN YOU WODEHOUSE! Because as long as Wodehouse’s literary output is with us every aspiring humour novelist embarks on his career knowing that he can only ever be second best. Wodehouse’s shadow looms large. The two novelists who have most influenced my own approach to fiction are Jerome K Jerome and P.G. Wodehouse. (Though I must confess my mastery of Jerome’s canon is much more complete than that of P.G. Wodehouse’s.) Both of these men were funny of course. Uproariously funny. But they also crafted exquisite sentences. This obsession with language, I think, is what made both of them so funny. And while Jerome still paid lip service to the idea of a plot, Wodehouse was so good with his sentences that he could summon laughter at will. As other more worthy critics have noted before you can open any Wodehouse novel on any page and find an explosive quantum of laughter. You didn’t even need to know the plot. A single Wodehouse paragraph could be a universe unto itself.
Look at this paragraph from The Code of The Woosters:
“I was sauntering on the river bank with a girl named something that has slipped my mind, when there was a sound of barking and a large hefty dog came galloping up, full of beans and buck and obviously intent on mayhem. And I was just commending my soul to God and feeling that this was where the old flannel trousers got about thirty bobs worth of value bitten out of them, when the girl, waiting till she saw the whites of its eyes, with extraordinary presence of mind opened a coloured Japanese umbrella in the animal’s face. Upon which it did three back somersaults and retired into private life.”
To me there is no funnier piece of writing in the English language. This is the perfection I aspire to with my attempts at humour writing.
DAMN YOU WODEHOUSE!