Friday, March 21, 2008

Funny and scary

Cynthia Crossen's Readback column in the WSJ discusses the polarizing comedy of A Confederacy of Dunces. Count me in the group that could not finish the book. I found it leaden and boring, but I know at least two people with whom I share other tastes in books who love this one. Crossen argues that comedy itself is polarizing. I think this may be true more in written than film form, but that is not based on any deep thinking.

Horror is another genre that polarizes and one book that draws both raves and rants is Scott Smith's The Ruins (soon to be a movie). I for one quite liked it, but the almost even split of pro and con reviews on Amazon reveal the range of disagreement.

One possible reason for this is that horror and comedy and almost purely emotional and therefore the reactions are more heated and potentially diverse. With most nonfiction, the author has a thesis and most readers can agree on how successfully the author argues it. Literary fiction is concerned, at some level, with ideas and again readers can rationally argue for why the book works or does.

I would argue that mysteries, which either successfully befuddle the reader's intellect or present social criticism are less emotionally driven by horror or comedy. Science fiction also has a strong rational component. It depicts potential futures and is also quite often a means of commenting on social or political issues.

Because of the need to connect emotionally, it is probably more difficult to write a funny or a scary book. What's more it is harder to determine, based on reviews or even recommendations, whether a comedic or scary book is right for you. I find the lavish praise of Full Moon Over Babylon baffling, but that is because I wasn't in the least bit scared at any point in the book. Others clearly did. And unfortunately, despite whatever other virtues a book might have, if a book fails in its prime mission, you are probably not going to like it.


Anonymous said...

I found Confederacy of Dunces quite enjoyable. Count me in the other camp (I'm hoping I'll be in the subcamp of people who like it AND with whom you share tastes). I have found the book uniquely polarizing as well among friends - but you are the first who has found it boring and leaden. Usually, people tend to dislike it because they dislike - or are irritated by - the character so much that it completely overwhelms their ability to consider the book objectively. Either that or they are wholly frustrated by his one-dimensional approach to everything. Think "The Phantom Menace" told completely from the point of view of Jar-Jar Binks (pretending for a moment that TPM is likable, that is).

Not saying I'm anything special, but I found it easy to separate the character from the book. And I really liked the book.

Tripp said...

I should add that the main character did in fact irritate me to no end. That may be the principal litmus test.

But yes, your taste is fine otherwise.