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[GUEST POST] Rebecca Adams Wright (THE THING ABOUT GREAT WHITE SHARKS) on Grim Subjects and Dark Humor

rawRebecca Adams Wright is a 2011 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop and a former University of Michigan Zell Writing Fellow. She has an MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan and has won the Leonard and Eileen Newman Writing Prize, So to Speak magazine’s 2009 fiction contest, and a late-night Emily Dickinson poetry challenge. She is a former slush reader for Clarkesworld magazine.

Rebecca’s stories have appeared in Day One, The Account, and Daily Science Fiction and her nonfiction has appeared in Children’s Literature in Education. Her short story collection, The Thing About Great White Sharks and Other Stories, will be released by Little A in February, 2015. Rebecca lives in Ypsilanti, Michigan with her husband and daughter.

The Importance of Dark Humor

by Rebecca Adams Wright

Having just published a story collection called The Thing About Great White Sharks, I find there are two questions I’m being asked a lot. It’s easy to answer “is that title for real?” But the other question—“oh, is your book funny?”

That question requires a more careful response.

The truth is that I hope my collection is funny, at least in places. But I’ve found that when I lead some readers expect humor, they dismiss the book as insubstantial. Others, when they read a few of the stories, seem surprised by the dark material—war, heartbreak, violence, grief—that’s riding the coattails of laughter.

Dosing grim subjects with humor is such a satisfying and long-running technique that our speech is full of phrases to describe it. “Black comedy.” “Gallows humor.” Yet most humorous writing, much like science fiction and fantasy, has traditionally been undervalued and dismissed as lowbrow, facile, or somehow irrelevant to the ongoing cultural dialogue that is Art. I used to work at a library and am still meeting readers who believe that comedic texts are incapable of engaging with Serious Topics of Great Importance. These sad sacks are the same folks who seem honestly convinced that science fiction and fantasy are meant for children or, at best, for adults stuck waiting for buses.

How ridiculous. Ever since science fiction was born—arguably, in the electric atmosphere of Dr. Frankenstein’s lab—it has grappled with some of the most fundamental problems of what it means to be human, to experience suffering and transcendental joy, to exist within and operate upon the natural world. Science fiction and fantasy are wrestling with the same powerful, often bleak ideas encountered in the best mainstream literature. I would even argue that speculative writing, with near-limitless possibilities for narrative voice and perspective, is sometimes better poised to explore ideas of such magnitude. And humor, with its unique ability to help us withstand suffering and awkwardness and the perversity of life long enough to fully examine it, can only aid in our comprehension of these ideas.

Speculative fiction with the ability to make us laugh is one of our best tools for gazing out (or in) to the biggest unknowns in our universe and ourselves. It offers a pretty clear lens for looking at some of the more uncomfortable known challenges of our species, too.

Many successful science fiction and fantasy novels released in the last few years demonstrate this engagement with both humor and the larger human experience. John Scalzi’s Redshirts, with its hilarious and agonizing tale of stepping on the small fry. Any of George R.R. Martin’s immense, bloody, wry, and deeply political Song of Ice and Fire novels. Andy Weir’s abandonment narrative The Martian.

You get the idea. But since this whole train of thought originated with a story collection, it seems appropriate to mention here a few short story writers I admire, in part, for using humor to address difficult material:

Kelly Link. You can pick up almost any one of her dark, dreamlike collections and find yourself laughing all the way to end of the world. Or to a very strange coming of age, or into a field full of unlikely rabbits. People will lose each other and themselves, grapple with both grief and vertigo, and some will (spoiler) get eaten. My current favorite of Link’s books is Magic for Beginners. Her new collection, Get in Trouble, promises to be equally astonishing.

Andy Duncan. Dense, beautifully-crafted prose that will transport you to the heart of the American South, or Soviet Russia, or a Middle Earth that never was. Wry understatement, colorful vernacular, and the mesmerizing voices of Duncan’s protagonists lure you in to stories not afraid to tackle systemic racism and modern eugenics (among cheerier topics). How his stories can contain so much heart while taking on such ugliness, I’ll never know. But his latest collection, The Pottawatomie Giant, made me laugh aloud in public spaces and look sort of cracked.

Alissa Nutting. Most people are familiar with Nutting these days because of the attention paid to her bold novel Tampa. It’s a gut-punching read about sex and power, and I recommend it. But before Tampa, Nutting released Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, an equally moving story collection which follows women from pornographic reality shows to stew pots and makes us laugh at the absurdity of gender norms even as we’re crying for the characters those cultural expectations destroy.

Karen Russell. Like many of the authors on this list, Russell is a genre-bending writer whose work has been published all over. Her stories drop the reader into evocative, fully-realized settings (often historical) where the dangerous and satiric are to be expected. Looking for wolf girls unflinchingly “civilized” by nuns, modern day vampires trying to blunt their own violences under the Italian sun, or families stalked by evil on the American frontier? Look no further than St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves or Vampires in the Lemon Grove.

Howard Waldrop. If you’ve never read Waldrop’s kooky, deprecating narratives, you’re missing out. Stories like “Night of the Cooters”, “Ugly Chickens,” and “Flying Saucer Rock and Roll” celebrate character and the wacky beauty of pop culture while exposing (among other things) class conflicts, the absurdities of bureaucracy, and our own self-importance. You can find a whole treasure trove of science fictional gems in Things Will Never Be the Same: A Howard Waldrop Reader: Selected Short Fiction 1980-2005.

These are just a few of the wonderful dark humorists who inspired me as I was writing The Thing About Great White Sharks. (The full list could go on forever.) If you pick up one of these collections, or any similar read, I hope you find as much value as I did in tumbling down the rabbit hole into a place where it is impossible not to examine that long, dark tea-time of the soul.

1 Comment on [GUEST POST] Rebecca Adams Wright (THE THING ABOUT GREAT WHITE SHARKS) on Grim Subjects and Dark Humor

  1. I adore Waldrop’s Ugly Chickens. When I hear of some acquaintance’s exotic plant or animal of study – I often mutter about “ugly chickens” to their utter befuddlement.
    Occasionally, one will recognize the reference and we share a smile.

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