Friday, March 16, 2012

Five top comic novels

Andy Borowitz is a writer and a comedian whose work appears in The New Yorker and at his satirical website,, which has millions of readers around the world. The author of six books, he is the first-ever winner of the National Press Club's humor award, a two-time finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor, and a two-time host of the National Book Awards. He has been called a "Swiftian satirist" (The Wall Street Journal), "America's satire king" (The Daily Beast) and "one of the funniest people in America" (CBS News Sunday Morning).

With Eve Gerber at The Browser, Borowitz discussed five of his favorite comic novels.  One title on the list:
True Grit
by Charles Portis

Last, Charles Portis’s 1968 novel about a late 19th century girl’s quest to avenge her father’s death in the old West. Tell us about the strange characters that inhabit True Grit, why you picked it and what makes it so funny?

The narrative voice of that girl, Mattie Ross, is what makes this book such a standout, and the characterisation of “Rooster” Cogburn, her drunken yet surprisingly effective partner in her quest. As before, I have to demur by saying that describing why something is funny is a pretty good way of making it seem not funny. But I urge everyone who wants a good laugh to read it. Plus it’s very short – a good quality in a comic novel.

The critic Ron Rosenbaum called the author of True Grit “the most original, indescribable sui generis talent overlooked by literary culture in America”. Can you characterise Portis’s place in the pantheon of American comic writers?

In the introduction to the anthology I edited last year, The 50 Funniest American Writers, I pointed out the futility, as it seemed to me, of ranking comic writers – or any artists for that matter – in any pantheon of any kind. The title of the anthology was a joke, something that people who skipped the introduction may have missed. So I’m going to stick with that and plead the Fifth here. I will say that Portis is becoming less and less overlooked as people discover his books. He’s wonderful.

According to Time magazine – and me – there is no one funnier in 140 characters than you. Is comedy in the Twittersphere different from being funny in other forums? What is Twitter doing for and to comedy?

On Twitter, it helps to be timely and concise. But that's nothing new. Mark Twain would have been great at Twitter. But if he had had Twitter he might never have gotten around to writing Huckleberry Finn. Maybe that's what Twitter is doing to comedy – diverting our attention from longer forms into short bursts of funniness. Only time will tell whether this is a net gain or loss. I try not to think too much about it. It's a lot of fun right now.

Finally, what's the funniest thing about reading?

Definitely the typos.
Read about the other novels Borowitz tagged at The Browser.

True Grit also appears on Tad Friend's five best list of novels on success, Willy Vlautin's list of five great books set in the West, and Jonathan Lethem's list of five terrific novels overshadowed by their film versions.

--Marshal Zeringue