In this essay at Prospect, Julian Gough lucidly describes the kind of comedy he traces back to the Greeks and that the Russian linguist/theorist/philosopher M.M. Bakhtin called "carnivalesque." In this tradition of comedy, the comedic text (or performance) presents a thoroughly undeceived view of human life, responding to "our endless and repetitive cycle of suffering, our horror of it, our inability to escape it," with unremitting laughter. Although Gough doesn't use the term in his essay, Bakhtin further called such an attitude toward human affairs "radical skepticism." No authority is spared the corrosive perspective afforded by this sort of laughter, no conduct or discourse presented with "straightforward seriousness" can finally be taken seriously.
Such later European writers as Rabelais and Swift were literary comedians of the radically skeptical kind, but, as Gough also emphasizes, it was the development of the novel as a literary form that really gave writers the opportunity to exploit this comedy to its full potential. Gough includes Swift and Rabelais as "novelists," but even though Gargantua and Pantagruel and Gulliver's Travels could be called proto-novels, the tradition of carnivalesque comedy in the English novel would include some of the very first writers to produce what we now agree are novels: Fielding, Smollett, Sterne, as well as their greatest disciple, Charles Dickens. Bahktin admired all of these writers, and the broad, thoroughgoing comedy they practiced--separate from whatever "happy ending" their books supplied--is what Gough seems to have in mind when he writes of the novelist as one "who did not have a holy book. The novelist was on his own. Sometimes he's even a she. There were no rules. The chaos of carnival had found its form. The fool's sermon could be published, could live on."
Gough is right to assert that
The novel, when done right—when done to the best of the novelist's abilities, talent at full stretch—is always greater than the novelist. It is more intelligent. It is more vast.
This is especially true of comic novels, or at least those novels that are truly "comic" in the Bakhtinian sense and not just "satirical." Satire has traditionally been corrective, a way of using laughter to mock attitudes and behaviors the author wishes to reform. In other words, satire is usually another way of "saying something." It is not radically skeptical because it holds out one source of authority--the writer him/herself--as immune from such skepticism. The author's ultimate goal, cloaked in humor, is to be serious about the errors both individuals and society are prone to. He has a point to make, and the point exceeds the reach of comedy. The satirist doesn't willingly satirize himself.
Perhaps this is one reason why, after Dickens, comedy in fiction--satirical or otherwise--recedes in importance, replaced by realism and naturalism, both of which assume the structure of tragedy and essentially express the tragic view of life. This is, of course, "straightforward seriousness" of the highest order, and, as Gough points out, to be taken as a "serious" novelist required privileging tragedy over comedy:
. . .western culture since the middle ages has overvalued the tragic and undervalued the comic. We think of tragedy as major, and comedy as minor. . .
The fault is in the culture. But it is also internalised in the writers, who self-limit and self-censor. If the subject is big, difficult and serious, the writer tends to believe the treatment must be in the tragic mode. . . .
With the occasional exceptions Gough notes--Evelyn Waugh, Flann O'Brien--comedy essentially disappears from fiction, or at least so Gough appears to believe. He certainly does imply that little noteworthy comic fiction has appeared since Waugh, especially in the United States. Through the professionalization of fiction writing via creative writing programs, he writes:
The last 30 years have seen the effects of turning novel writing into an academic profession with a career path. As they became professional, writers began to write about writers. As they became academicised, writers began to write about writing.
And the language of the American literary novel began to drift away from anything used by human beings anywhere on earth. Thirty years of the feedback loop have led to a kind of generic American literary prose, instantly recognisable, but not as instantly comprehensible. Professions generate private languages designed to keep others out. This is irritating when done by architects. But it is a catastrophe for novelists, and the novel.
Here, I'm afraid, Gough really misses the boat. Comedy in fiction--comedy as Bakhtin would recognize it--has flourished in American fiction since at least the 1960s. One of the few postwar American novels Gough mentions is John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. This is a fine book, but it is far from the only "carnivalesque" novel to be found in postwar fiction. (And I'm not sure I would finally identify it as truly carnivalesque, at least not insofar as this kind of comedy requires "radical skepticism." Ignatius J. Reilly is surely a Rabelaisian character who rejects the authority of everything associated with the "modern," but his own superior status--despite his vices--as one who sees through it all is never really questioned, nor is the authority of his anti-modern views, which have been especially lauded by contemporary conservatives who see Reilly as a kind of moral hero.) Perhaps the finest postwar American writer (in my view) is Stanley Elkin, whose work is relentlessly comic in an almost vaudevillian way, and which implicitly includes within its comic purview Elkin's own hyperactive, gloriously excessive style, its at times ridiculously extended tropes and setpieces offered up as the focus of laughter in and of themselves. Gilbert Sorrentino takes fiction itself as a subject of merciless laughter, in novels such as Mulligan Stew submitting all of its assumptions and devices to his inspired mockery. Novels such as Catch-22, Portnoy's Complaint, Gravity's Rainbow, and The Public Burning stretch satire almost to the breaking point, using comedy to deflate even the most "profound" of subjects--war, sex, democracy--and reveal them to be laughing matters like anything else.
Furthermore, despite Gough's quick dismissal of writers "who began to write about writing," this particular mode of postwar American fiction--metafiction--is actually the most radically comic writing yet produced in American or English fiction (with the possible exception of Sterne's Tristram Shandy, which was uproariously metafictional before its time). The fiction of writers like Donald Barthelme, John Barth, Robert Coover, as well as Sorrentino, through its self-reflexivity, its insistence that readers be aware of writing as writing, exposes the act of writing, of fiction-making, to a kind of ridicule. These are the calculations that writers make? Here's how a "story" gets strung together? This is what writers do? In the end, the grand pretensions of fiction are shown to be very artificial indeed, novels and short stories unmistakably disclosed as only words. These writers have been accused of frivolity, of--wittingly or unwittingly--undermining their own craft. But this is the very goal of this kind of comedy. Only by stripping even literature itself of its dignity, of its pretensions to "signify," can fiction keep faith with what I agree with Gough is its real mission: "The task of the novelist is. . .not to fake a coherence that does not exist, but to capture the chaos that does. And in so doing, perhaps we shall discover that chaos and permanence are not, in fact, opposed. The novel, self-renewing, self-destroying, always the same, always new, always… novel… is the art of permanent chaos."
I also agree with Gough that the academization of fiction through creative writing programs has probably discouraged writers from further exploring the possibilities of Bakhtinian comedy. It probably has contributed to the creation of "a kind of generic American literary prose." But I can't agree that it has done so by valorizing metafiction. The problem is not that there's too much postmodernism floating around; it's that there's not enough of it. In my view, only someone who's willfully misreading American postmodernism--the most indispensable ingredient in which is laughter--would say that "Since Joyce and Woolf (and Eliot), the novel's wheels have spun in the sand." Postmodern comedy has taken the anarchic comedy implicit in Joyce and made it explicit. It's the rejection of this liberating anarchy by "professional" Creative Writing that has stultified "literary prose," not the acceptance of a "private language" too influenced by postmodernism. If Gough wants American writers to again see the virtues of his "divine comedy," he could start by urging them to read carefully the very postmodernism he for some reason wants them to think "never happened."