The Subjectivity of Humour

The problem with humour is it is subjective, occasionally some readers do not get a joke, because at the end of the day what one reader is amused by another may not be. My Hannibal Smyth books are somewhat satirical in places, based in an alternative steampunk modernity. Hence a lot of ‘real’ people turn up in odd places. Mr William Gates is a mad scientist and arch rival to Professor Stephen Jobs. There a not entirely successful Russia airship captain called Putin who thinks rather a lot of himself and likes to ride a horse around with his shirt off because he likes to think of himself as a Cossack . Then there is the somewhat shady arms dealer who justify’s selling arms to terrorist out of a twisted sense of patriotism, “If British soldiers are going to be shot at then we owe it to them that they are are shot at by proper British bullets” who ‘may’ be based on a prominent Brexiter and Tory back-bencher… While the next Hannibal novel may include Doctor Musk who is building a giant howitzer on top of a volcano in the South Pacific in order to take a literal moonshot as part of his plan to claim mars for humanity, or possibly just himself …

The point I am getting to here is, I find these all this objectively funny, and while what I write is not out and out comedy I make no bones about the satirical elements that get written in to the wider story. Indeed I make a point of describing the novels as steampunk satire. But, as I say, humour is subjective and such jokes may not be to everyone taste. I had a disappointing review which complained the satire ruined their immersion in the alternative fantasy they were reading. Which is a fair criticism if that is how they felt, except one struggles to suppress the urge to point out that the books are described as satirical all the time, and frankly  respond to that review with the phrase ‘read the blurb’. But as a wise man once said, then utterly ignored, you should never read your reviews…

Another prominent factor in the humour within the Hannibal books is a fair share of word play. Certain phases are repeated, because the narrator (Hannibal himself not me) uses them habitually, you know, in the way real people do. This is also to do with a stylistic choice on my part, it feels real to me because real peoples speech patterns do this. Real people will always have certain phases they over use, or come back to time and again. In writing Hannibal one of the things I did was construct Hannibal’s voice, which is complete with certain stock phases he uses and adapts to different situations. So a phase my morph in its reputation. In part these are running gags, in others they are simply how Hannibal speaks. Without them his voice would be less identifiable both to me and I like to think for the reader.

However, this too presents its own challenges at times. While readers are used to characters repeating phases, the narrators they may be used to probably tend to do so to a lesser extent and in fairness there is a difference between a character speaking and a narrator telling a story. But Hannibal tells his story’s in a very personable way, again a stylistic choice, he is a first person narrator, but he is telling the story to the reader, as if the reader is sat in a bar with him, or a gentleman’s club , or perhaps just at a bus stop with him. The personable nature of the narration invites the use of stock phrases, and the humour with which Hannibal is telling the tale also invites other linguistic tricks and repetitions.

This personable style of narration is deliberate, it is also a little unusual, a little  and it does occasionally jar with the odd reader. It is a style that is not that common in novels, but tends to crop up in short stories often. I used it several times in Passing Place when the piano player was told a story at the bar and when I decided it was how to tell Hannibal’s story (it was originally written in third person) the stories and the character came alive for me, but occasionally a reader will find it jarring. Which again is fair enough, I don’t expect everyone to love these novels, trying to please everyone only leads to writing bland, trite novels that have never been what I wanted to produce. And for the most part readers do seem to get the sense of Hannibal telling them the story and only them, and it works as intended.

His style of personable narration also lends itself to subtly morph along the way, the way good running gags do. For example one character who first appears pretending to be a maid on a airship, but is most defiantly not a maid, gets described by Hannibal in a ever lengthening way through out the first novel and in parts of the second (though she is a major character in the second novel and so her moniker is less appended for most of it. The majority of readers find funny and humorous as was intended and  I get good feedback in general for that character and other running gags that pop up due to Hannibal style of narration. And even when I don’t people read the second novel (so I assume they liked the first).

However, I also get the occasional bad review from people who just haven’t got some of the jokes….    Occasionally people miss a joke entirely, I had one America reviewer who confused Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth, and thought the whole book was an excuse for me to insult the royal family…. Which somehow missed the point that all the jokey and occasionally insulting references to the 200-year-old Queen Victoria,  still in power due to ‘reasons of a nefarious nature’  are Hannibal’s way of rebelling against the Imperial establishment and the stagnated British society he grew up in… There were simply put humour on his part. But humour, its subjective… Occasionally someone will miss the joke… In this case for the reviewer I missed the mark by so much I wasn’t even aiming at the right target. Which again is fair enough (except that it wasn’t, the review I found later, almost exclusively trashes books in a troll like fashion, but such are the wonders of the internet.)

This whole post all started as a reply to a question on face book about humour in books, steampunk books in particular, and my attempt top explain to the questioner that Humour is subjective. There are a lot of steampunk books out there with humour in them, in fact the majority of them in my experienced, because steampunk is by its nature a fairly humorous genre… But some readers will always miss the joke and I get my fair share of those who do. But most readers seem to love Hannibal so I’m not shutting him up any time soon, even if he does insist on going off on a witter at times, he mostly keeps on track, so small victories, and all that ….

Stylistic choices I made when I started writing the Hannibal novels add to those occasional missed targets when it comes to readers. For style, like humour is also subjective. Which oddly enough is why I write in different styles. Maybe, Cider lane, Passing Place, and the Hannibal novels all have different styles ( in the case of Passing Place lots of them), they also have different humours come to that. Hannibal’s personable style is his alone, it is what makes his voice distinct both for me and I hope for the reader.


This entry was posted in amreading, amwriting, books, fiction, Hannibal Smyth, Harvey Duckman, humour, indie novels, indie writers, indiewriter, novels, opinion, reads, sci-fi, self-publishing, steampunk, writes, writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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