Of Beauty and Despair

Does truly great literature have to take after Darth Vader? Does it have to come from the dark side? Do we need to examine sorrow, adversity, the underbelly, the river of tears, the filth and the madness before we can be taken seriously? Books of the ‘light and fluffy’ kind will never be considered literature.

Conflict of course is core. Without conflict there is no story, without obstacle. And we by instinct feel obstacle to be a negative thing, a shadow. But it is also a fence we climb over and the view from a fence can be quite lovely and the  bounties that open out before us absolutely glorious. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a fan of the triumph over adversity book or the Hollywood ending. What I really want to talk about here is nuances of shadow and light.

This topic is something I have often thought about and this post was prompted by something Dan Holloway of the Year Zero Writers said “Writing, and especially reading, is not about smiley. It’s about reaching deep deep down, pulling out something deeply ugly and bringing it screaming into the (candle)light.”

I am taking his phrase out of its original context and plonking it down here but it made me think about whether there is a place for  ‘smiley’, comedy, light and joy in well respected literature.

I am a fan of Monty Python and the Coen brothers and the terrific children’s TV show based on the books by Terry Deary;  Horrible Histories. The scenes and sketches can often be grim, grotesque, based in grisly fact. The juxtaposition of humour and darkness creates a discordance that elevates the joke further. Beckett’s dark humour was applauded and he remains a literary giant to this day.

This is one area where darkness and light work together. My personal philosophy and one that filters through to me as a writer is that darkness and light are two sides of the same sphere, loss is on the reverse side of love, laughter holds the echo of tears, summer the remembrance of winter. As I have mentioned before I wrote a personal book/journal The Book of Joy when going through a difficult period in life. It could just as well have been called the Book of Utter Devastation or the Book of Grief. The grief was documented and the Joy that became the title of the book was found in the shadow of that grief. I described beautiful things, people, places that gave me solace while the pain still remained.

Sometimes its cool to be dark, sometimes it seems that the mud of life is more real than anything else, more worthy of elaboration. And writing about blood and mud and guts is wonderful when done beautifully. But its where there is the absence of any kind of glimmer of light that I find it relentless, hard to take. I was going to say ‘and not in essence, true’ but yes, of course there are aspects to life where situations are irredeemable, darkness permeates. What writers on the dark side are doing is embracing the murk and elevating it through their carefully crafted attention, the beauty of their phrasing. But in most situations, even the most dire moments of self-loathing there may be a wisp of optimism, a pulse of outward looking, love, remembrance. Even if it is fleeting, flares up and dies, it is real, it is what brings the other side into sharp relief (ironic phrase there).

Recently I was developing an idea for a novel. It would be on the literary side of mainstream, lyrically written. It involved someone’s search for identity, exploring the choices we make in life and what is lost along the way. I developed the idea, wrote passages, became passionate about the book and couldn’t wait to start. As November 2009 approached I also began to jot down amusing phrases that came at me quite randomly, I envisaged some strong main characters and began to feel the guts of a comedy sci/fi fantasy rising out of the stew of my unconscious.

When the novel writing challenge Nanowrimo arrived I found myself drawn to starting the comic fantasy novel rather than the more serious one. The wry style of writing gave me back the energy I needed to keep going to write 50,000 words in the space of a month. I read it over now and I laugh out loud. This is quite thrilling and surprising since I already know the jokes! In many ways I was exploring the very same themes in this book as I had envisaged doing in the more literary version. Was this in fact the same book being told in a completely different style? And will the style prevent it from being taken as seriously as the first novel might have been, should it of course gain readership.

It has often been said that a comic piece is difficult to write well. As a general principle it is often difficult to find a humourous novel. One of the most memorable moments of my reading life was when as a young teen I was moved to tears by a passage in Dicken’s ‘Dombey and Son’. I couldn’t believe that a book had had the power to make me cry. But a book that can make you laugh out loud is a terrific thing. But not laughter in a vaccum, rather that wry laughter that is a counterpoint to the less than wonderful things that may be happening to characters in the book or indeed to you in your life.

After my comic novel, I may go back to my more serious novel with its undercurrent of loss, inevitability of death and all the other very nigglely human things we carry with us. But if I do not juxtapose it with comedy, I will use beauty. My main character may feel a fist around her insides and escape outside where the air is round and cold like newly scooped ice-cream and the pink streaked cirrus are breathing.

Should darkness be allowed to stand alone, without beauty and light? Can a humourous writer ever hope to be considered literary? What do you think?



My comic NaNoWriMo novel became  Housewife with a Half-Life the heartwarming tale of Susan Strong who saves the universe with her space friend Fairly Dave now published on Amazon.



  1. Hi Alison 🙂 Undoubtedly there is place for humour – I was trying to think of examples as I read your post, and Lolita and most of Kundera came to mind as great examples of the most profound literature that contain swathes of humour. Houellebecq, too, has laughs a-plenty.

    My reaction is, I think, against a certain kind of supposedly avant garde literature that is based around sex and jokes. It’s particularly there in performance reading, in a way that is opposite to writing. I agree it is harder to write comedy than about the dark places, but it’s much easier to engage an audience by making a quick knob gag or saying boobs than it is to stand in front of them and bare your soul’s deepest pain. I think, in other words, I have a problem with modern performance reading I see as lazy – there are lots of very important, very unfunny issues out there. It’s VERY difficult to engage audiences about them. But that’s not an excuse for not trying.

    Which isn’t to say humour hasn’t a place – just that it has slightly too much of one amongst the current young, trendy literary set – and it comes at the price of substance. Which is. A. Bad. Thing.


  2. “Should darkness be allowed to stand alone, without beauty and light?”

    Darkness. Beauty. Humour. Light. I don’t think writers have to choose between them.

    “Can a humourous writer ever hope to be considered literary?”

    DBC Pierre. Mark Twaine.

  3. Dan, I see what you are saying. A lot of our experience is dumbed down these days, packaged in digestible chunks with instructions included and health warnings just in case we sue. Cheap laughs are often got by using cliché and convention. Cliché and convention are not always a bad thing, they are handles people use to identify experience. Psychologically we look for ‘ways in’. Children begin by having the potential to utter the whole gamut of human sounds from all languages but within a short time lose those that are not in their culture. Of course handles and boxes can be used insidiously to blind people and stop them broadening their experience and understanding. Your performance work smashes the boxes and let the truth flood in.

    What I was saying about comedy was that it can come from a dark place. It can be a different style of expressing pain or discordance with the world. It can be a device used to access and express a range of human emotion and experience not just the funny ha ha experience. The dark raw emotion pieces are absolutely necessary, powerful and beautiful in their expression. They possess an energy that can be primordial, instinctive. And dark things need to be said and heard. But there is room for poignancy which I see as that yearning which is the juxtaposition of loss and outward intent, an amoebic thing really, the pushing outward and the not getting, the not getting but the pushing outward anyway. It is the dark counterbalanced by the rising dawn or by the sunset, which as we know means the sun and the glory will soon be gone.

    Marcella, DBC Pierre is a fine example (I will have to re-read Mark Twain) of the darkness in comedy. And I agree that we can powerfully use a combination of styles to register human experience.


  4. Hi Alison
    Very thought provoking post.
    I think people instinctively put pen to pen paper to try and puzzle out the darkness in their lives. I always try to put some light in with the darker pieces because human instinct always seeks hope.
    I think black humour can be the most brilliant and this can be observed in film a lot, ie. Mike Leigh etc. People connect to a real story.

    I do think the dark, raw pieces are vital especially in our airbrushed world.

  5. I must say I love all the examples people are giving – Mike Leigh and the Coens are very much personal favourites – Mike Leigh’s Naked is always in my top 10 films ever – David Thewlis’ performance (and the writing of the part) is about as perfect an examlpe of profound, uneasy humour as one could find.

  6. This put me to thinking. I myself prefer the light to the dark. That does not mean I don’t read the dark and enjoy it. My usual stance is there is enough of that in the real world. Even in the dark moments though , if we look hard enough there can be a slight glimmer of light. A kind word, a smile or even just the sun shining.

    1. Hi Donna, Ann, Brigid

      Thanks for your comments. I agree that its important to look for the light, if we are to represent human experience in a rounded way we need to see how all aspects of life are not far from one another.

  7. Hi Alison,

    Great post and great question here – which I believe in the affirmative. While it is not considered a literary heavyweight, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is, in my opinion, a brilliant piece of comedic literature – and I believe it does come from a slightly dark space – Douglas Adams’ sense of humor borne of the same womb that gave us Monty Python – and you might agree that Kurt Vonnegut offers a good chuckle in the face of misery. Tom Robbins in another author in this light who understands comedy is essential. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is a genius of it and carries a good deal of weight as well. There is substance with the laughs.

    We rarely ask this question of films – some of the greatest ever made were comedies – I’m always curious why literature has to be something on some elevated plain, which makes no sense to me. Human beings are dark and hilarious and there is nothing that says we cannot explore this side of ourselves and have it just as respected.

    I agree with Dan in that there is a whole commercial kick of adolescent humor and horror and romance that is so bare as to be made of candy floss – but I think we can recognize those when we see them and give them the fair dismissal they deserve. They may fly off the shelves at Borders, but they never really last, thank Pete.

    Thanks for a great post,

    1. Hi DJ,

      Thanks for your great reply. I totally agree on the film versus literature thing. I suppose you need to prove that your comedy or wry angle has substance, isn’t just fluff/candy floss. A related question I want to explore further is how to mine the truth from cliche and make it resonate again. I say this because my comic piece strays towards cliche sometimes which is an abhorrence but cliche is a handle that helps people orient themselves. What good comedy can do, perhaps is lead you by the hand towards cliche, give you a sense of security and then blow you out of the water with a fresh angle.

      ‘Dark’ comedy (here we go again with dark) is a way of introducing the light. Are there other ways?

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