If you write a funny book, should you say it’s funny?

Question: what’s the most unfunny word in the English language? OK, let me rephrase that: apart from famine, disease, fatal, crisis, virus, Mrs, Brown’s and Boys, what’s the most unfunny word in the English language?

The answer: hilarious. Anything or anyone described as hilarious is automatically set up to be not just unfunny but insultingly unfunny, with reactions ranging from merely hostile to the aggressively violent. They can be funny, witty, comical, even droll, but as soon as the word ‘hilarious’ slips out, they’re doomed. Friends are unfriended, party invitations are torn up, and the area around your desk at work becomes suspiciously spacious.

For most people this presents an uncomfortable but temporary problem. No one likes to be tainted with the ‘hilarious’ tag, but with a bit of thought and planning, you can work your way back into people’s affections with other personal qualities such as empathy (not looking bored while someone complains) or generosity (paying people to talk to you).

But for writers who try to inject their books with a little humour, having the word ‘hilarious’ next to your name is the same as ‘Free virus – please download!’ on your PC. It’s guaranteed to make the blood run cold and the reader skip straight to someone else.

So, if you have a book that tries to lift comedy romance away from the farcical, the unbelievable or the plain daft, how do you go about describing it to your readers or prospective agents? You want them to start reading with the anticipation of having a smile raised but without the arms folded, make-me-laugh cynicism that will have the book deleted or thrown on the slush pile before you can say ‘Laugh out loud!’.

You have four options:

  1. Simply say nothing. Describe the book’s plot and characters and rely on the surprise the reader gets when they discover it’s not only a great story but it’s told with dry wit and humour.
  1. Zig instead of zag. Employ the classic comedian’s tactic of going against popular marketing opinion. So say your book is bloody awful and include a few quotes full of hatred for your work. Note: there may be an element of risk with this one.
  1. Think of different ways to say the h-word. Try amusing, jocular, lively, sparkling, whimsical, pithy, mad, piquant, waggish, epigrammatic… On the other hand, don’t.
  1. Finally, stop trying to be so bloody clever and use the traditional, tried and tested marketing techniques.

 

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