In a previous post I explained why I have less admiration for the literary critic James Wood than conventional literary wisdom suggests I ought to have. I don't want to rehearse the argument I made there in discussing his introduction to The Irresponsible Self: Humour and the Novel (available at the Guardian website), although I would like to suggest that the views Wood presents here only reinforce my belief that his very understanding of what "literature" is all about--in his case, literally what it's good for--finally just gets in the way of a broader understanding of what works of literature more generously conceived are actually capable of accomplishing.
This is essentially the burden of Wood's analysis of "humor":
In literature, there are novels. . .in which a mild tragi-comedy arises naturally out of context and situation, novels which are softly witty but which may never elicit an actual laugh; and there are also "comic novels", which correspond to the man who comes up to you and says, "have you heard the one about...?", novels obviously very busy at the business of being comic. Tristram Shandy, for instance, is in multifarious ways a marvellous book, but it is written in a tone of such constant high-pitched zaniness, such deliberate "liveliness", that one finds oneself screaming at it to calm down a bit. The "hysterical realism" of such contemporary writers as Pynchon and Rushdie is the modern version of Sterne's perpetual excitements and digressions.
I don't doubt the applicability of Wood's distinction between "mild tragi-comedy"--what he will go on to identify as "humor" more properly understood--and the "comic" as illustrated in Sterne or Pynchon. I do question the soundness of Wood's implicit judgment that the kind of humor he describes is to be preferred, is in some way more "literary" than the "hysterical" comedy of writers descending from Sterne. That he would use this term, as well as the equally condescending "zany" in referring to this latter comedy makes his valuation of it clear enough, but later he also remarks that "Evelyn Waugh, alas, still represents the great image of English comedy in the 20th century, rather than his subtler and gentler contemporary, Henry Green." That humor deserves to be taken more seriously because it is "subtler and gentler" is the obvious conclusion Wood hopes his readers will draw from his essay.
This "humor" Wood is after he more precisely calls a "comedy of forgiveness," and he uses explicitly religious language rather freely in defining this brand of humor. That James Wood likes to see such humor in the books he reads is fine by me, but readers ought also to know that it is not per se the style of comedy practiced by the "better" writers and that a good argument can be made that the "hysterical comedy" he deprecates is more suitable to a view of literature that demands of "serious writing" that it be more than "gentle," that it in some ways be unforgiving, deliberately withholding reassurance or consolation.
The best definition of this unforgiving kind of comedy, in my opinion, was offered by the Russian critic M.M. Bakhtin, who wrote that "laughter has the remarkable power of making an object come up close, of drawing it into a zone of crude contact where one can finger it familiarly on all sides, turn it upside down, inside out, peer at it from above and below, break open its external shell, look into its center, doubt it, take it apart, dismember it, lay it bare and expose it, examine it freely and experiment with it." Elsewhere Bakhtin writes that this kind of comedy embodies an attitude of "radical skepticism" against all forms of "straightforward seriousness." Paradoxically, then, comedy is itself most serious when it casts doubt on what is otherwise considered to be serious. Nothing escapes the maw of this sort of "radical" comedy, including the pretensions of those engaging in it, and thus it goes beyond what Wood calls the comedy of "correction."
This kind of comedy can be seen in many of the great twentieth-century writers--Joyce, Beckett, Ionesco, such American writers as Barth, Heller, and Stanley Elkin. (To avoid charges of pretentiousness myself, I would also say it can be seen in the films of the Marx Brothers and the sketch comedy of Monty Python.) It can be "zany" or not (Beckett is zany in Waiting for Godot, not in How It Is or The Unnameable, but the effect is the same). But in its refusal to take anything seriously it performs at least as useful a service as does that humor preaching "forgiveness" that Wood celebrates. It asks us to question everything, to be willing to laugh at everything, ultimately to resist the temptation to settle for easy consolation. Wood essentially dismisses this kind of modern writing when he describes "the modern novel's unreliability or irresponsibility, a state in which the reader may not always know why a character does something or may not know how to 'read' a passage, and feels that in order to find these things out, he must try to merge with the characters in their uncertainty." Since our common plight is precisely to live in such uncertainty, what's wrong with this?
In the final analysis my disgreement with Wood is undoubtedly an issue of taste. I don't mean to disparage those who prefer Green to Waugh or Austen to Dickens. I respect many of the authors who employ "humor" of the sort Wood identifies, although I often get the sense Wood doesn't respect those writers whose comedy is "hysterical." But in Wood's own "typology" of humor, the "gentle" comedy he likes seems unavoidably sentimental to me. And in my reading, at least, I have found that the greatest literature avoids sentimentality with the most radical kind of skepticism.