I have finished Peter Watts' Maelstrom (pretty happy with it, although the narrative is a bit bumpy in places, and I felt like I wanted a little more closure. But I'm not sure it's a book that invites closure. In any case, while I enjoyed it, I am left feeling as if I did not actually ever reach the end of the book, but set it down meaning to get back to it, and somebody has stolen my copy.) and read the Esther Friesner story in the latest issue of F&SF, which reconfirms my suspicion that being raised by wild Swedes deprived me of some essential component on a sense of humor.
That was a joke, yo.
Which brings me to something that I'm contemplating lately: that perhaps one of the things that goes a long way toward making fiction readable is not taking itself so bloody seriously. IE, playfulness.
Which isn't a new concept--John Gardner talks about it in his rather exciting book, On Becoming a Novelist--the problem of Pollyanna fiction, where everything is reduced in moral complexity until it is so shiny and happy and surfacy that it lacks any real guts and blood, and what Gardner refers to as the antiPollyanna, whose world is so grim and dark and brutal that it descends to the level of self-parody.
And there are a lot of different ways playfulness can work. The characters can have a sense of humor about themselves, or each other. The author can have a sense of linguistic whimsy. The percieved world can exhibit an ironic nod in its treatment of the real external world.
I think it's less essential in a short story, but a novel length work with utterly no sense of humor is, indeed, a tiresome thing. I'm minded of Faye Weldon and Connie Willis, two of my favorite writers, both of whom are capable of being laugh out loud funny in the midst of tragedy, and making it work. And the thing I love most about Peter Beagle--that he can have me crying at the beginning of a paragraph, and laughing by the end. A sense of the absurd? Maybe. Perhaps just sensitive perceptions.
Even Charles Dickens gets the odd zinger in there now and again. My favourite line from Bleak House remains: Spontaneous combustion, of all the deaths there are, and no other! (I'm quoting from memory. Forgive me if I bitched it up.)
Even we Swedes can't take ourselves this seriously all the time.
Rejoice, ye sons of wickedness; mourn, unoffending one, with hair in disorder over your pitiable neck.
--Christopher Marlowe, On the Death of Sir Roger Manwood (translated from the Latin by Arthur F. Stocker)