By Graeme Wood
December 15, 2014
In 2001, I heard V. S. Naipaul tell a skeptical audience in Boston that he could make them laugh by reading aloud from any page, selected at random, from his collected writings. Was he joking? A House for Mister Biswas had indeed made me chuckle, but not 576 times. Many of Naipaul’s books seem sober throughout. Naipaul, however, meant what he said.
About a year later, I found Martin Amis’s memoir Experience in a used bookstore in Bloomington, Indiana. It contains this line, about the novelist James Buchan: “By calling him humorless I mean to impugn his seriousness, categorically: such a man must rig up his probity ex nihilo.”
When I began writing, often about war and other sources of misery, what Naipaul and Amis had said made more sense. There is humor, much of it dark or sick, everywhere—perhaps particularly amid misery. Irony is part of war’s cruelty. Relentless solemnity is a dangerous temptation for any writer who wishes to be taken seriously.
I am still unlearning self-defeating habits of gravitas (some of them perhaps on display here). I suspect myself of writing well when editors or readers find humor where I intended mostly seriousness, or seriousness where I intended humor. These tones should remain in superposition and collapse, like a wave function, only upon judgment by a reader.
The opposite of seriousness is not humor but frivolity. And frivolous solemnity—not the contradiction it seems, but a common mode of discourse—is a bad way to write.
Graeme Wood is a contributing editor of The Atlantic.