Up to six can play. The rules are simple: each player takes a different volume of Stephen Donaldson’s blockbuster Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, opens it at random, and leafs feverishly through the text. You win by being first to find the word “clench” (or “clenched”, “clenching”, etc). It’s a fast, furious sport, and a round rarely lasts a full minute.
Clearly, Fandom has a tradition of affectionate mockery of the books it loves. Furthermore, Geeks, the cultural group that includes Fandom, tend to value intelligent wit. It seems odd then that Humorous Fantasy isn’t a massive subgenre.
It’s hard to get facts and figures. An industry insider friend says that Humorous Fantasy’s bestseller/midlist ratio is the same as for other subgenres, it’s just that there’s less of it. Similarly, two authors I know who had humorous fantasy series that petered out both said that the main problem was the size of the market. One of them told me about how at conventions people’s eyes glazed when he talked about his humorous series, but lighted up when he talked about other projects.
Of course, you could argue that Terry Pratchett is so prolific and so very good, that he simply absorbed the subgenre. However, in Heroic Fantasy there’s room for Patrick Rothfuss and Joe Abercromby. George RR Martin may dominate Epic Fantasy, but he has peers. It seems that a typical reader has slots for several favorite authors in a couple of chosen subgenres, but just one slot for
Terry Pratchett Humorous Fantasy.
So, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb assuming that Humorous Fantasy isn’t popular compared to other Fantasy subgenres. Why is this?
My three friends each separately put to the market for Humorous Fantasy being the intersection between People Who Like Fantasy and People Who Like Humor, both minorities. One of them pointed out that humor is a personal thing, so hard to craft such as to appeal as widely as say violence with swords.
Without wanting to go all Aristotle on you, there’s are roughly three kinds of humor in Humorous Fantasy, all of which Terry Pratchett demonstrated:
Fantasy Genre as “straight man“. The author plays off the genre either by jumping out of it with quasi-anachronistic references — Pratchett’s shopping trolleys, and grenades as a throwaway line in Harvard Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings: A Parody (do you remember that one?) — putting in awful puns that the characters are not aware of, or else by overlaying the story with an arch or ironic narrative. The problem with this is that Fantasy relies on a pretty fragile suspension of disbelief. Too much of this and the straight man vanishes.
Fantasy Genre as Figure of Fun. We’re talking parody. Looked at from the wrong angle, Fantasy is Mr Bean, inherently preposterous. Much of Color of Magic’s humor came from this and the same goes for all the various sendups such as Bored of the Rings. The problem with this is that it’s only funny if you already read Fantasy and are familiar with its tropes, meaning you like Fantasy. There’s a limit to how much of this you can take.
Fantasy as Arena for Comedy. This is why we read Pratchett: Wyrd Sisters… Guards… Small Gods… Hogfather. They’re comedy in the way Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is comedy. They’re not laughing at the genre or playing games with it. They’re using Fantasy to find the absurdity in the tragic human condition. And they’re being zany.
There are two problems with this:
First, this must be hellaciously difficult to write. It’s hard to show the absurdity in a generic human condition thing without also tweaking the absurdity in the Fantasy setting. Hard, also, to be zany without either making the genre a figure of fun or undermining suspension of disbelief to the extent that the zany just becomes “random stuff”.
Pratchett pulls this off adeptly: Wizards aren’t funny; a community of quirky old bachelors is. The “uncontrolled random generation of a number of anthropomorphic personifications” such as the Eater of Socks is funny, but the characters think so too, making the setting more, rather than less, real.
Second, you can’t do the zany without the human condition stuff to ground it, and looking too long at the absurdity of the the tragic human condition is bruising. Small Gods, for example, was hilarious, but also profound and, if you think about it too much, profoundly depressing.
Perhaps then we’re back to that intersection between People Who Like Fantasy and People Who Like Humor with the rider that, since Fantasy doesn’t support humor particularly well, the People Who Like Humor generally look to other genres for their ROFLs. Meanwhile, the People Who Like Fantasy prefer it without the laughter track… unless Terry Pratchett wrote it.
What do you think?
M Harold Page (www.mharoldpage.com) is a Scottish-based writer and swordsman with several Historical Adventure franchise books in print all of which have funny moments but generally rely on violence with swords for their appeal. His creative writing handbook, Storyteller Tools is available on Amazon.