Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Role of Humor and Allusion in Literature

During the Thanksgiving Holiday Season, the Gilmore Girls special came out on Netflix: A Year in the Life. My daughter and I had been looking forward to it for quite some time.

"Do you like that show? How can anybody like it? It's so stupid!" That's what somebody we talked to said to us, as we went off to watch the Gilmore miniseries. That person was not speaking out of ignorance or spitefulness. Having watched the show and parts of it several times, this was a considered opinion for this person. But not for us.

Dealing with different tastes in literature is daunting. I remember one time, I was hurt about the poor reception of one of my own books, and after having ranted about it in private to someone I trusted, I was stunned to hear back: "Well, what is so great about your writing?" There was nothing at all that I could answer to that. The person had read my writing. If what was so great about it did not move them, then nothing I could possibly say in its defense ever could.

It's like responding to a joke. If you don't laugh, then it's not funny --  to you. But it may be hysterically funny to somebody else. It's subjective. And yet it also isn't. The joke has a punchline, and if you understand the context, then it will make you laugh. And if you don't laugh, then you don't understand the context.

So every time we judge a piece of literature as lacking, our judgment is valid, but we are also subjecting ourselves to the judgment of someone else, who will find us lacking for not getting it. Literature is very, very personal.

Now most people will just try to gloss over all that and say: "Well, it's just a matter of taste. We don't argue over taste." But others do feel the urge to argue, because when somebody rejects something you like -- maybe even love -- then it feels as if they are rejecting you.

Did we like the Gilmore Girls miniseries? Yes, but not every part of it equally well. And that, too, has to do with context. You see, Gilmore Girls is full of literary references and esoteric allusions, and to the extent that you are not in on the joke, you won't get it.

We loved the first two episodes and felt they were just as good as the original. And then we kind of got bogged down in the musical about Stars Hollow that went on and on and didn't seem to be part of the plot.  And I like musicals, mind you.

Once I realized, on a second viewing of the miniseries, that this was Sutton Foster in the lead, and that she is a Lorelai stand-in on Bunheads, and that there are a number of in-jokes in the musical numbers, all was well. I forgave the Sherman-Palladinos for the diversion. I got it.

The truth is that there have always been some allusions and some jokes on Gilmore Girls that I did not quite get, and even if I did get them, it was not on the first viewing. But I am the kind of reader and the kind of viewer who likes to be challenged, so I never resented that. It did not  make me feel stupid that I didn't understand everything on the first try. It was challenging, not annoying.

I think that is the difference between an avid reader and those who insist on always reading something at their "reading level", intended for people just like themselves. I started reading English before I could properly speak English. I had to tolerate a lot of vocabulary I had never heard before even in my basic primer. I am not the sort of person who looks up every word she does not understand. I rely heavily on context for disambiguation. But there are some modern Gilmore fans who Google everything right in the middle of watching the show. How weird is that?

But isn't it "self-indulgent" to put in jokes that only some people and not others will get? Aren't you some kind of elitist twat if you do that? And aren't you doomed to failure in the marketplace if you don't play to the lowest common denominator. Or alternatively, to a very well-defined and established niche?

Not really. Gilmore Girls is literature. Like all literature, it does have a plot, and a very good one. But the plot is character driven. And also, it's not just the story. It's the way the story is told that has us coming back for more. When I listen to Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel deliver lines written by Amy Sherman-Palladino, it's like reading those words. The words matter. The writing matters. And I know for a fact  they are not allowed to ad-lib. The words, arranged in precisely that order, are the product. And it sells!

Before Gilmore Girls, there was no niche on TV  for word-based comedy with a dramatic flare. This is totally different from situation comedy, and equally different from most dramedies. And while the idea about a mother-daughter pair who really like each other and are best friends is also novel, in the hands of other writers it would not work. This show is really about the writing, and if you are not an avid reader at heart, you won't like it.

By the same token, I am the sort of person who likes to have conversations like that. People will tell you that they hate it when other people talk like a book. Everybody should be colloquial and accessible. Gilmore Girls plays at being colloquial in the delivery of the lines, but they are actually literature. It's written English passing for conversation. I love that! That's why Gilmore Girls for me is a fantasy come true. The fantasy is not just about a mother and daughter who like each other -- a much bigger deal than loving one another, by the way. The fantasy is not just about a safe, colorful, beautiful town full of eccentrics. The fantasy is that it might be possible to meet people who talk like a book. That it might even be cool, instead of just awkward! I want to live in a town where every single person is like a character in a book! And they're all happy, deep down inside, even when they are miserable!

So, I hope that explains why I like Gilmore Girls to all my friends and family who think the show is stupid. But oddly enough, this epiphany about Gilmore Girls came at a time when some of the reviewers of my books mentioned something rarely mentioned before: my writing -- at least some of it -- is funny. Shocker, isn't it?

"But your books aren't funny, are they?" Someone who knows me and has read my books asked me that. Well, uh, yeah, but after years of feeling I was cracking jokes that only I could understand, it's nice to be validated.

It's like the old friend who once said: "But there's no sex in your books, right?" There is in some of them. There's not in others. You don't really know me, as a writer or a person, if you judge by just one book. But all my books are a little funny, if you know how to read them. It's not funny as in slapstick ha ha. It's more subtle than that. Most reviewers don't focus on the comedy, but they note it is there:

In fact, part of the comedy and tension between Theodosia and Laffite lies in her trying to dissuade him from the rosy view he has of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. (from Joe Eldred's Libertybuzz review.)
The comedy in my writing comes from conflicting world views, which is also the source of most of the comedy and tension in my life. That's why I like Gilmore Girls. And yeah, I know Amy Sherman-Palladino is a liberal. Still, it does not matter. It might as well be a libertarian who wrote about Prohibition in Stars Hollow. Taylor Doose is complaining about not being able to increase the tax base in the town. People at the town meeting tell him he could get a lot more taxes if he made it legal for bars to open in Stars Hollow. He adamantly refuses. Then ditzy Babette says: "Why don't you just tax the secret bar?" "What??" he asks. Then everybody else turns around and shushes her.

There follow several scenes in the secret bar that has to be dismantled every time Taylor passes by.

"Why do they have a secret bar?" my daughter asks.

"Because Taylor doesn't let them have a bar, but that never keeps people from having bars. It just drives them underground." And then I explain how the good thing about black markets is that they cannot be taxed.

Of course, in Stars Hollow, the government isn't scary. It's just funny. I wish real life could be like that!


  1. I thought the first part of Our Lady of Kaifeng was hilarious in parts. I remember telling you that, but thought maybe I was getting it wrong as it was supposed to be serious.

    1. Hi, Julia. No, you didn't get it wrong. It was funny. It was also serious. I guess that's what's confusing about my writing style -- it's kind of funny and kind of serious at the same time. Sort of like life...

    2. That is what I meant is was hilarious in part, not in entirety.