Why won't publshers take comedy seriously?

David Viner on the lack of heavyweight comedy books

This Christmas, as usual, the book shops will be full of books on and by comedians. Comedy makes publishers money. It’s been doing so for decades. So why do publishers, and the literary world in general, still not take comedy seriously?

They certainly take contemporary fame seriously, so they are always more than willing to publish something – practically anything – by today’s most famous (and infamous) comic figures, but they seem strangely suspicious of anything else about comedy that has a bit more breadth and depth.

Take, for example, biographies. While editors rush to commission someone to chronicle the first 20 or 30 years of the latest comic ‘genius’ to cross over into the Sunday supplement style page, they recoil with a mixture of bewilderment, horror and contempt whenever anyone suggests a study of someone who has actually made a real and lasting mark on the profession.

While the likes of Russell Brand and Peter Kay continue to churn out volume after volume of over-hyped wit, wisdom and unreliable reminiscence, the really good books on the lives of such bona fide greats as Dan Leno, Max Miller, Sid Field or Jimmy James remain unwritten.

The situation is even worse when it comes to movies and TV shows. Beyond the sure-fire cult appeal of the seemingly endless Carry On coffee table books, there is precious little in print for serious admirers of comedy’s classic productions. Once again, there is far more likelihood of a current TV tie-in being rushed out than there is of a proper in-depth study of a past primetime hit being commissioned. Indeed, comedy hardly seems to have a proper history as far as the publishing world is concerned – it only exists in the kind of flatly perspective-free ever-present that is promoted so glibly by the likes of Heat magazine.

One reason for this could be that few people in the publishing profession know that much about comedy, other than as ordinary casual consumers. Plenty of them are English lit or history graduates, so they understand, in those particular literary fields, the idea of a ‘great tradition’ that, once chronicled, can either be defended or deconstructed. No editor, for example, would react to a proposal to write a biography of, say, Jane Austen or a detailed account of the Bloomsbury Group by exclaiming, ‘Who? What? That was way before I was born!’

Many, however, have reacted exactly like that after hearing someone pitch an idea for a book on a comedian or comic movement hailing from a period prior to the Seventie. They just don’t see comedy as something more than a transient little trend. They simply don’t believe in it, let alone respect it, as a significant living tradition.

Some of the stories of sheer editorial stupidity in this area are desperately depressing. Take the case of the author whose proposal to produce a serious survey of the greatest stand-ups in British history foundered after the young female publisher insisted on excluding Ken Dodd on the grounds that he was ‘unbearably ugly’. Or the similarly youthful male editor who dismissed the idea of a book on Max Miller because ‘no one cares these days even if he was the best in his own era’.

Imagine the same types shunning a study of Jean-Paul Sartre due to him being a boss-eyed letch, or one on Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, because she was nothing more than a frivolous 18th Century aristocrat about whom no one these days cares. It just wouldn’t happen. It’s a totally different mindset.

Even when the noble few actually do manage to get something well-researched, well-written and enduringly relevant about comedy published and sent out into the shops – as Andrew McConnell Stott has recently done with his refreshingly substantial biography of Grimaldi - they surely must be frustrated at the way that their efforts are often promoted (if at all) and reviewed in the press.

Whereas studies in more ‘respectable’ fields are treated to a serious critical appraisal by a recognised expert that puts the work into some kind of proper context and engages with its style, structure and arguments, even the best books on comedy are likely to be subjected to the most cursory of readings, and not by an expert but rather by anyone from a half-hearted fan to an unashamedly glib minor celebrity who is happy to prattle away for half a page and then pocket the handy cheque.

Past examples include the Frankie Howerd biography that the Daily Telegraph handed, bizarrely, to a correspondent for the Church of England and the history of British TV comedy that the Guardian entrusted, similarly capriciously, to an American feminist. It must be enough to make many of the most diligent of authors despair.

How are books on comedy ever going to improve when even the best of them are dismissed as mere examples of a second class literary genre, while the worst of them are allowed to pass through the process under the radar without so much as a brief critique? How are students of comedy going to deepen their appreciation of the art and its evolution when so much of what is published on the subject is so hopelessly shallow and shoddy?

What, then, can be done? Well, publishers can start by thinking far more carefully and deeply about comedy as a subject - exploring its history, its key figures, themes and traditions, seeking out advice from some of its expert observers and archivists – and consider how they might help to tell its long, rich and fascinating story. That, as a project, would surely prove so much more rewarding than the current practice of chasing fleeting fashions and exploiting short-term controversies. It might actually produce the kind of books that end up being proudly displayed on readers’ shelves instead of just taking up space in the post-Christmas bargain buckets.

The newspaper critics could also help by treating comedy biographies and histories as proper biographies and histories – and not just fodder for that dog’s dinner of a display known as the ‘showbiz’ section in the weekly review of books. Better, fairer, more informed reviews will encourage a growing number of talented writers to start investing some time and effort in the area. Who knows, there might even come a day when a comedy book makes it on to the shortlist for a prestigious literary prize.

Can we not strive to at least move in this direction? A comedy book really should not just be for Christmas. It ought to be good enough to reward the reader throughout the year. So come on: take the subject seriously, encourage the authors, believe in the books and promote them with a bit more passion and pride. It might be big and clever.

Published: 16 Nov 2009

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