Praise of Folly

For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn? Mr Bennet, Pride & Prejudice

The idea for this post was jokingly suggested to me on Twitter (by @hprw), when I said “Just seen blog on Ways To Build Your Topic Pipeline. I’m not taking social media seriously: I fantasised about a chocolate transport system.”

I know I laugh more than I probably should. Inappropriate humour has got me into some pickles, and thank god I never did any of my jobs with the single-minded zeal of one who wants an office career because frankly I wouldn’t have made the cut. I’m the one who makes cakes for meetings and mutters Dorothy Parker snipes to make people giggle.

When Erasmus went to stay with his friend Thomas More in 1509, he had a week before his books arrived, so he decided to amuse them both by writing about how silly people are and what fun it is to laugh. OK, there’s a bit more to Praise of Folly than that. Any book that has footnotes taking up more space on the page than the actual words is hardcore. But my point is that satire has a long history, and the need was never so acute than on days like these, when we are all snow-mad and somebody is trying to promote it as being a ‘Blue Monday” on Twitter.

I’m writing this as two burly builders are, channel-tunnel-like, attacking opposite sides of a wall with pneumatic drill things. Any time now they’ll meet in the middle and we’ll have a celebratory glass of port. It’s quite noisy. Today, I’ve given up any pretence at finishing my novel and have been excessively diverted by people on Twitter. This has kept me sane. Laughing is probably the most important thing we can do. It brings us together, makes us forget – for however fleeting a moment – the recession, grinding daily annoyances and lack of sleep. It is now prescribed in hospital to speed recovery, by serious people with serious evidence-based results graphs. Somebody in a laboratory has proved that laughing is good for us. That is a brilliant thing.

But back to Erasmus. He makes fun of everyone but, since I’m a writer, I found the ire reserved for them the best. Just a few:

They add, change, remove, lay aside, take up, rephrase, show to their friends, keep for nine years and are never satisfied. And their futile reward, a word of praise from a handful of people, they win at such a cost – so many late nights, such loss of sleep … and so much sweat and anguish. Then their health deteriorates, their looks are destroyed, they suffer partial or total blindness, poverty, ill-will, denial of pleasure, premature old age and early death, and whatever remaining disasters there may be.

Does any of this sound familiar? It’s good to know that it’s the writing destroying my looks, not the inhuman lack of sleep inflicted on me by my daughter.

But Erasmus is convinced the humorous writer lives an easier life:

The more trivial the trifles he writes about the wider the audience which will appreciate them, made up as it is of all the ignoramuses and fools.

He single-handedly defends the popularity of 50 Shades, five hundred years before EL James first got that twinkle in – well – wherever she felt it:

What does it matter if three scholars can be found to damn his efforts, always supposing they’ve read them? How can the estimation of a mere handful of savants prevail against such a crowd of admirers?

And on plagiarism? Can that really have been going on all this time?

Even better sense is shown by those who publish other men’s work as their own, with a few verbal changes in order to transfer to themselves the fame someone else has worked hard to acquire … when they’re on show in the bookshops, every title-page displaying their three names, which are mostly foreign and evidently intended to be spellbinding, though Heaven knows these are nothing more than names.

And do you get annoyed when book reviewers seem to puff their friends’ books, only to be puffed in their turn? Nothing is new:

But the best joke of all is when they praise each other in an exchange of letters … one ignorant fool glorifying another.

He lets poets off more lightly:

Poets aren’t so much in my debt … their sole interest lies in delighting the ears of the foolish with pure nonsense and silly tales.

An agent once told me that the humorous novel has gone out of fashion, so I was delighted to read Mark Richards’ comments in a recent “What UK Fiction Editors Want In 2013” round-up collated by the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency. Mark is Commissioning Editor at Fourth Estate:

“… books with at least some comedy in them. I mean ‘comedy’ in the widest possible sense: it definitely doesn’t necessarily mean jokes; it may not mean laughs, or even smiles, but I do think there should generally be at least an awareness of the potential comedy of situations, or of characters.”

Hallelujah. Long live pure nonsense and silly tales.