Thanks for talking to me about the six funniest books of 2023, as shortlisted for the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction. Has it been, in your opinion, a good year for comic fiction?
It has been a great year. There were another six books after this that were in contention for the shortlist, so yes, a bumper year. Sometimes it happens like that, you get very lucky with the entries.
You’ve judged a number of literary prizes, including the Booker Prize. Would you say it’s particularly difficult to judge comedy?
I think it’s particularly difficult to write comedy. But judging it is easier because there’s a straightforward laugh test. And the laugh test can be met in different ways; what we’ve learned over the years is that there is such a broad spectrum of funny—from laugh-out-loud, knockabout slapstick, to a subtler, gentler, teasing humour. All are equally satisfying.
When you read great literature, there’s a recognition that great writers tend towards linguistic playfulness, which is both funny and, in the proper sense of the word, comedic. Often the most coruscating political satires are couched in really savage humour, using the weapon of comedy. But a straight-forwarded, good-natured smile to meet a reader is also very effective.
“Great writers tend towards linguistic playfulness”
I remember when we were doing the Booker Prize, all the shortlisted and longlisted books had a great deal of humour. Part of that is your relationship with the writer that develops your pleasure in their language. I found myself smiling at such elegant turns of phrase. So, yes, there are many ways to enjoy and judge comedy.
One of the real joys of judging this prize is that we have two professional comedians on the panel who can tell us how the writer does it, and what’s unusually surprising or clever. Pippa Evans and Sindhu Vee are such super-close readers, both of them, so that’s very interesting as well.
Yes, I love the idea of getting your head around the mechanics of comedy itself. Let’s talk about the books themselves. India Knight’s Darling is first on our list. It’s a retelling of Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love. Why is it one of the funniest books of 2023?
India is reliably funny in everything she writes. There’s pleasure in her voice, and her love of these characters which you can share and revel in. The other special thing is her relationship with the original material; if you’ve got something predicated upon another book, you must look very carefully at what they are bringing, what’s innovative and new and dynamic between the new book and the classic. And India lands it completely. It reminds me in some ways of what Julian Barnes did with Flaubert’s Parrot. There’s such a sweet conversation between India and The Pursuit of Love, and the book is doubly pleasurable for that. It’s such a joy.
Absolutely. There was a rather brilliant BBC adaptation of The Pursuit of Love recently, which brought a new audience to Mitford—myself included. But it can be risky, I suppose, reinterpreting an old favourite. Recently I had a very strong, negative reaction to Curtis Sittenfeld’s take on Pride & Prejudice, which reflected an unconditional love for the source material and therefore my belief that it can’t be improved.
India draws a careful line between homage and appreciation, and also creating something that’s absolutely new. Literature is full of rewrites, adaptations, and the re-spinning of old tales. If you’ve never read The Pursuit of Love, you can still really like Darling. It’s just another level of appreciation you could bring to it.
Next on your shortlist of 2023’s funniest books is Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta by James Hannaham, which is the story of a trans woman returning to life after prison. What did you like about it?
Oh, everything. I mean, the language is just spectacular. It’s clever, it’s beautiful, it makes you look at things through her eyes and hear her voice. You have to read it slowly and attentively because the poetry of the writing demands you pay attention to each phrase. A complete delight. And it’s profoundly, properly shocking in all the right ways—there’s very, very dark humour here.
It’s a study of contemporary America and a revelation of all sorts of issues of identity and prejudice and what it means to struggle. I just loved it. Principally, it’s the voice. It’s very powerful. It’s a totally realised bit of writing, sensational.
I don’t want to tell the story, because that’s part of the delight, the way he tells it. But it is one of those books where whoever you are, whatever your reading experience, this will feel dynamic and thrilling in many ways. The closest comparator I can think of is Percival Everett’s The Trees, which won last year.
Oh, I loved that book. He took such harrowing subject matter and yet wrote a book that made me laugh out loud.
That had some of the same, socially vital, musculature about it. But I don’t want to reduce it to its subject matter, because it’s a really enjoyable read. Every page gives you a fresh turn of phrase, a fresh idea or a fresh line that makes you question language, or all your assumptions, your place—whatever your place might be. So it’s a really extraordinary book.
Will everyone find it as funny as the jury did? I hope so. It’s dynamic, it has a real energy and it is whipcrack funny in the places where you are most shocked. So, yes, I love it.
Your next book represents a bit of a change in tone, I think. This is Mother Hens by Sophie McCartney, about a very messy hen do in Ibiza—that is, a bachelorette party, for the benefit of our American readers. It sounds a bit like Bridesmaids or The Hangover. Does that sound right to you?
I think so. Again, this is laugh-out-loud funny. Just the level of intimacy and exposure… laughter is the only possible response to some of what happens and how it makes you feel. I think it’s really beautifully done. There are four or five beautiful set-pieces, and some great gags. It’s a very good-natured book. It’s the sort of book to take on holiday, or to give to someone in need of cheering up. So, a treat.
“What we’ve learned over the years is that there is such a broad spectrum of funny”
Yes, it’s different in tone and impact to the first books that we’ve talked about, and it’s hard to judge them against each other. And part of me wants to say, look, just read the whole shortlist. There will be a winner or winners, but all of them are so funny and complementary that the shortlist would keep you happy for quite a while.
Great. I have a long journey next week. Maybe this can keep me company. Or how about Murder at Crime Manor by Fergus Craig? I’ve seen it described as a ‘Wodehousian murder mystery’; why is it one of the funniest books of 2023?
This verges into parody—taking very established, familiar archetypes, spinning them around, playing them around and both celebrating gags that you will recognise then doubling down and spinning them again in a new way. So, yes, if you’ve ever read or watched an Agatha Christie, or if you’ve ever read any Wodehouse.. well, I’m not saying he’s in Wodehouse’s league, because, frankly, nobody is. But he’s got some of that spirit and he plays with the idea of what’s funny, satirises both the literary form and the political subjects within the story. It’s very appealing.
I read it straight after Carlotta, and they should almost be read as companion pieces because they are so different, but in their different ways so pleasurable. And a bit like India Knight, Fergus Craig takes period language and gives it a contemporary spin, which is in itself rather clever. Sometimes the jokes are even in the vocabulary.
Sometimes people say that Casablanca is the greatest movie of all time, but also that it’s the greatest B movie. Well, this is like that—it’s a great popular fiction book that plays with the idea of popular fiction, plays with the idea of plot. Can a plot be funny? Yes, it can actually. There’s lots to love about this book: it’s a light read, and a very, very entertaining one.
Next I’d like us to talk about Teen Couple Have Fun Outdoors by Aravind Jayan. It’s the story of a young Indian couple who find themselves featured on a porn site. It doesn’t sound like a funny premise! How does it work?
This was in Sindhu’s original section of the submissions. She said she was reading it on an aeroplane and snorting, while everyone else around was looking at her, like: what are you on? That’s when we all decided to read it. Even if you don’t pick up all the many, many subtleties of in-jokes that are clearly in there, it’s just hilarious line for line. There isn’t an unfunny line in the book! So I think the writer is a comic genius, actually.
It’s funny about the conservatism of parents. It’s funny about what it is to be young. It’s funny about sex—and being funny about sex is quite hard. Very few people pull that off. So I’m thrilled it was submitted, as I loved reading it and it was a complete discovery. I’ve read India before—she’s been shortlisted before—and, obviously, Bob Mortimer is one of the country’s greatest living performers. But this came, to me, from nowhere and I just loved it. I think we all did. I can’t imagine anybody not finding this book laugh-out-loud funny.
It’s also quite short. Quite a few of the shortlisted books are, this year. So I’ve read it two or three times and laughed with new delight each time at things that I missed the last time. It was also a wonderful reminder of what it is to be young again.
Okay, I think you’ve convinced me. And, yes, that does bring us to Bob Mortimer’s The Satsuma Complex. He’s an established comedian and previously published a bestselling memoir, but this is his first novel. Tell us why it’s one of 2023’s funniest books.
He approaches the world with a wicked, mischievous smile. I guess this is what happens when you turn a brilliant, oblique comedic attention to life. He can really write. Obviously we know he knows how to tell a joke, but he also knows the difference between delivering comedy orally and writing something which will still hook and deliver. He can absolutely do it, and you find yourself complicit with him in the way the story turns into comedy. It’s a joy actually, because then you go out into the world with a bit more warmth in your soul. And you think the world is hilarious, that we are all completely ludicrous.
Yes, there are very good jokes in it. But it’s also just a humorous way of approaching the world that feels like a beautiful infusion of sanity. It’s easy to be anxious, concerned, traumatised, disrupted… the world is really difficult. But a bit of Mortimer makes it bearable and amusing, and he reminds you of the joy of talking and telling stories. It’s quite difficult not to hear it in his voice. But it’s like having a new pair of orange-tinted glasses, which makes everything quite strange and glowy—and you realise that the world can look totally different, if you look at it with a squint and from the side. It can be enchanting and funny.
So he makes you laugh, they all do. They all give delight, which is comedy’s greatest gift, and remind us that with good nature and generosity and by embracing human vulnerability and fallibility, you don’t have to see everything in that tragic, melodramatic way the news tells us—but that there is a way to read the world that will be good for you, good for your soul.
That seems like a natural and pleasing place for us to close.
I would say one more thing. These books are all brilliantly edited, which isn’t always the case, and beautifully published. And I love that there were so many others who, in another year, might have made the shortlist. Maybe comedy is the answer—No, that’s too cheap. Maybe comedy is an answer to some of the world’s greatest puzzles.
The winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction 2023 will be announced on Monday 20th November at The Goring Hotel in London.
Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor
November 17, 2023
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