More Valuable?

I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid, all you needed to do to make my day was to hand me an inflated balloon. Didn’t matter what color. Just hand me one and I’d be happy. And when it would pop, as inevitably it would since I was the kind of kid who quickly popped balloons or broke things because of my less-than-gentle grasp, I would be devastated. But for those moments of having that balloon, all was right with the world.

Birthday-Balloons

What is it about a balloon that brings such joy? The fact that they float? Their roundness when inflated? I dunno, but I’m done trying to analyze the appeal. Let’s just leave chalk them up to fun, okay?

While pondering the issue with balloons, I couldn’t help segueing to the issue of humor in a story. I’ve pondered this issue many times, because I’ve had conversations about the subject over the years. These conversations raised the following questions: Are serious stories more valuable than humorous stories? Is the entertainment factor of a humorous story equal to that of the entertainment value of a balloon—here today and probably popped tomorrow? In other words, not long lasting?

By now, you might be calling for my head for daring to equate humorous writing with balloons. Rest assured—that is not my assessment. As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, I’ve been thinking about the subject. Part of the reason for my pondering comes from conversations in which I’ve heard unfavorable comparisons made between humorous writing and writing of a more serious nature with humor writing deemed as the lower life form. I’ve also been told that you’re not a “real” writer unless you write War and Peace, Antigone, or something else of a serious nature.

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I’ve heard similar thoughts uttered about graphic novels and picture books—basically that their brevity of text and higher ratio of pictures (the nature of both types of books) make them entertaining but not as valuable as, say, Ulysses.

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I think we all know that such comments are subjective, rather than constructive. Anyone who has ever written a graphic novel or a picture book knows how difficult it is to write a good one. Because of the marriage of text and images, every word has to be chosen carefully.

Same with humor. Don’t believe me? Then read something by Dave Barry, David Sedaris, or Tina Fey.

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The funny thing is (and yes that pun was intended) humor is sometimes discounted, because the value of laughter is discounted. But you have only to Google laughter is good medicine to find many videos on the medicinal value of laughter.

I’ve had bouts of depression over the years. At those times, I often turned to books written by this guy:

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Sir Terence David John Pratchett or Terry Pratchett

At those times, books with a somber tone would have gone over like the proverbial lead balloon. Even when the cloud lifted, I turned to Terry’s books. Many have a gorgeous combination of humor and pathos—not an easy combination to get right.

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Don’t get me wrong. I love a good tragedy. Macbeth is one of my favorites. And I’m totally loving Babylon 5, a series created by J. Michael Straczynski that I somehow missed in the 90s and can now see, thanks to Netflix. It has a wonderful combination of humor and agonizing tragedy. Season 2 is heartbreaking!

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I’m reminded of this passage from Ecclesiastes:

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: . . . a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh. Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4

Sometimes a heartbreaking story or angsty poetry “speaks” to me. Other times, a laugh-out-loud-funny book is just what I need. So I can’t value one over the other, because they both meet a need at a particular time.

Getting back to the balloon, there’s a time for them too. While recovering from an illness or surgery over the years, nothing heartened me more than a cheerful balloon floating above my bed. There are some things, you never let go of. Balloons are one of those joys I never outgrew.

If you like John Cleese, click here for a great video on laughter. (And no, it’s not a Monty Python video. Sorry.)

Balloons from happypartyidea.com. Terry Pratchett photo from Wikipedia. Book covers from Goodreads. Babylon 5 image from brainstomping.wordpress.com.

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40 thoughts on “More Valuable?

  1. When I talk to my daughter, I sometimes describe a book or a film as good storytelling. Something might not be high literature, or even aspiring to literature, but it can still be a story that is told really, really well. And I’ll love it for that.

    • Sandra, I thought of you and how hard you work on your stories. So I think we could use a paradigm shift in regard to valuable literature. I love that picture books like Sylvester and the Magic Pebble are considered some of the best books of all times.

  2. I don’t read a lot of humorous books, but there is a place for them. I laughed a lot reading Bill Bryson, think it was called In The Woods. And sometimes in the midst of a ‘serious’ book there can be a humorous episode that makes you laugh.
    Thnk you for this post that I can share with James-you know what he is like with ‘boons’!

  3. That ticked all my boxes L. To get humour right is just as much of an art as ‘serious’ stuff. I just read War and Peace and Anna Karenina back to back (they were the books I was saving in case I ever went to prison – that doesn’t look likely now as I’m a model citizen, almost.). Tolstoy uses a wry humour even in these great tomes, especially AK. No, they’re not laugh out loud, but I believe that anyone who loses there sense of humour has gone off track. The first thing that fascists, religious fundamentalists and the extremely politically correct suppress is their sense of humour. Humour grounds us and to me is one of the best human qualities.
    All the time you smiling at them balloons, you know you still qualify as a member of the human race. 🙂
    Ps. Love Bab 5. Well written series.

  4. I get into the humor vs serious writing debate. Though, I do wonder if there are any ‘humorous’ parts in ‘War and Peace’. Personally, I think having at least one character with a sense of humor in a story brings more reality to the overall world. Most groups have someone who cracks jokes or pulls pranks or does something to lighten the tension. That’s really what humor is about and why there are people who react to tragedy with humor. I think it’s a very overlooked and misunderstood subject when it comes to writing.

    • Hi Charles, yeah, W&P is not exactly laugh out loud stuff! But I do think Tolstoy uses a subtler mocking humour to portray Napoleon and most of the Russian generals. And of course, there is plenty of banter between the rank and file troops, most aimed at the Germans! I suppose what I understood as humour was Tolstoy’s scything insight used to level the pompous nature of the powerful. I found myself, if not laughing, smiling a lot – which I didn’t expect considering the grim nature of the war depicted. Maybe I’m wrong about Tolstoy, but I’ve never met a person of integrity yet who has no sense of humour!

      • I’ve met people with no sense of humor, but the interactions didn’t last long. I crack too many jokes and come off as a ‘fool’.

        One thing I thought about while reading the post was how Shakespeare would put some barbs in his plays. They probably lose impact today due to the language change, but I’m sure there was some sass even in his tragedies. Maybe a laugh can help a reader/viewer release some pent up sadness/anxiety over the tragedy part and make room for more.

      • I appreciate Shakespeare’s wit (and also Jane Austen’s). Humor is a nice balance to tragedy. I look at it like black outlining on a drawing–it helps the illustration stand out. One helps the other to stand in sharp relief.

      • I agree with you. Some of the most tragic works have a vein of humor, albeit of a grim sort as you mention. That’s why I don’t see why some believe that books need to be one thing or another: totally serious or totally humorous. Life is composed of both.

  5. I’m with you Linda, there is something about balloons that just make me happy. Your post made me think of an old short film called, The Red Balloon. In the film, a yound boy follows a red balloon through the streets of Paris.
    I love to read a book with a character that makes me laugh out loud.

  6. You are so right! It’s subjective and dependent on a person’s need at the time. I enjoy all genres but as I get older, humor is what I crave the most. Life is filled with so much seriousness – humor is my most effective medicine out of the 200 I take! 🙂

  7. You make a lot of interesting points here, Linda.

    About people saying that something with higher word-to-picture is more valuable, does that mean painters and sculptors may as well toss their work in the trash? There are so many ways to say something and often, may the writer gods not strike me down, words by themselves are inadequate.

    And the idea that humor is also of lesser value than solemnity? What a crap life those people must have to only see black and never experience white. They take themselves too seriously! Sure there are times I just want to pop a balloon so it goes away because I’m not feeling happy. But then there are those times where I want to gather them up by the thousands and jump around in them and then tie them together so I could float away.

    BTW, which Pratchett book should I read first?

    • They were talking about books rather than paintings and other art work. And yes it’s sad when people put others down because they prefer one type of work to another.
      If you want to read the books in order, you can start with The Color of Magic. It features wizards. I didn’t start there though. I started with Mort and recommend that as a good place to star if you just want to jump in. If you like police procedurals, I recommend Guards, Guards, which is the first of the City Watch miniseries. I highly recommend that series!!!

  8. Wonderful post–and I love how the balloons came back in the “like a lead balloon” remark. As you say and others have commented, we need all kinds of books, serious and humorous, different ones at different times. And each writer is gifted with the ability to write different things. That’s kind of the beauty of it, isn’t it?

  9. Humor is also quite effective for making political arguments. Everyone (well maybe not everyone but most people) like a good poke at those in power, something from which a lot of Shakespeare’s comedies and other medieval humor is drawn. To some extent, that’s the same impulse that fuels a lot of middle grade bathroom humor, because its something that makes fun of and outrages those in power who need to be taken down a notch (aka adults).

  10. It’s pure snobbery. It’s the more educated people who read books like War and Peace, and know who MacBeth was. Therefore they feel superior to the rest of us yokels and our reading material is therefore to be dismissed. Whether comedy, or sci fi it’s not “literature”. Why? Because their MFA says they’re right.

  11. Excellent post, L.Marie!
    It’s like the Almond Joy commercial: Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t.
    Sometimes I love comedy, sometimes tragedy. I read a lot of books, and my favorites remain the well-written, well-told stories that combine both…serious conflict WITH lines and scenes of surprising and effective humor. Whatever the genre–mystery, sci-fi/fantasy, horror, mainstream– my favorite authors weave both into the story.

  12. Pingback: With A Lot of Help From My Friends | The Accidental Cootchie Mama

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