‘Not funny. Try Punch.’ This, unkindly, used to be the boilerplate rejection letter from Private Eye to those who submitted jokes to the magazine. And the UK’s only prize for comic fiction, the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize, has just doled out the equivalent of five dozen such notes – its judges having decided that not one of this year’s 62 submissions was funny enough to deserve the prize, and that it would therefore not be awarded this year.
In an odd way, I find this cheering. One reason for that is personal. My own first novel The Coincidence Engine was shortlisted in 2011, so I deduce from that that it must have been funnier than every novel published this year. For the record, Gary Shteyngart won the 2011 prize, as he was bound to – though, since my fellow shortlistee India Knight and I had already been planning to share the prize (a pig) if either of us won it, it was galling when he did. What use is a pig to a man as jewish as Shteyngart?
But it’s cheering for wider reasons to do with literature and the culture of prizes. There are so many prizes now, awarded so promiscuously, that it feels like we’re in some literary Dodo zone: ‘Everyone has won and all must have prizes.’ How brave and discriminating of the Wodehouse’s judges to make clear that all must not have prizes, if they’re not up to snuff.
Of course, heartening though it might be in what it tells us about the rigour of the Wodehouse’s judging panel, the news is a bit gloomy when it comes to the state of the comic novel. Is there really not a single novel published this year funny enough to merit a pig?
Don’t know about you, but it makes me want to try to write one. Added incentive: next year’s prize will be a rollover, in the form (they promise) of an ‘extra-large’ pig.