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2018: The Light Brigade


This week I'm thinking about attempting a definition of "light fiction," my preferred tag for the genre of comedic, but also unserious novels and short stories that flourished in English between the reign of Queen Victoria and World War II.

Let's start with that phrase: comedic but unserious, which at first glance sounds like a tautology. But a moment's thought can produce any number of works that are both comedic in tone or incident and serious about moral or existential concerns: satire like Gulliver's Travels, picaresque like Don Quixote, the major novels of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, more modern work like A Confederacy of Dunces or Infinite Jest. Comedy is not necessarily the handmaiden of frivolity, and throughout history — at any rate in the comedic work which has survived — it has not been.

It's equally a simple exercise to think of hundreds and thousands of unserious works that are not particularly comedic: romance novels, action movies, superhero comics, spy thrillers, slasher flicks. Which isn't to imply that these works can't be taken seriously, especially on a craft or cultural-history level, but only that when they have anything true to say about life that a child of ten does not already know, it is as an extra feature rather than part of the baseline model. Which, I feel I need to underscore, is entirely fine. Entertainment for its own sake is a good and beautiful thing, and a ruthless demand for gravitas is more characteristic of adolescent than adult tastes.

The same is true of comedic unserious, or (for brevity's sake) light, fiction.

Although I should acknowledge that the term "light fiction," which only started being used regularly in the late nineteenth century, has historically included non-comedic unserious work too. Here is a quote from an unsigned 1909 roundup of recent fiction in New York weekly The Independent:

And now for some of this reading matter put forward this spring for our entertainment only, with no afterthought of provoking reflection or discussion, dissension or assent. There are here adventure and mystery, and crime and its detection, brave deeds and gentle wooing, all the ingredients that have served since light fiction began, and that will have to suffice until light fiction ends. Detective novel merges into tale of crime, and both are allied to stories of adventure. You pay your money and you take your choice.

"Adventure and mystery, crime and its detection, brave deeds and gentle wooing." A twenty-first century translation of what 1909 meant by those terms might be: Action, Horror, Crime, Mystery, Fantasy, and Romance. The standard pillars of what we now call genre fiction, in fact. So where do I get off wanting to reduce the term "light fiction" to meaning purely comedic fiction, as though that constitutes a separate genre and not just an approach to all sorts of material?

Well, for one thing, we do say "genre fiction" now — which has the useful benefit of not necessarily implying frivolity, moral unseriousness, or evanescence, in accordance with genre's growth in stature since 1909 — so "light fiction" is a term without a common use outside of retrospective studies, and it may as well be applied to this. For another, I am currently writing and will continue writing about this genre, or subgenre, or (I freely admit) theoretical genre, and some kind of terminology is going to be necessary, if only so I don't have to spend half a sentence rounding up my definitions every time I mention it.

The sort of thing I am writing about is more specific than a general term like Humor or Comedy can be made to cover: Aristophanes, Molière, Buster Keaton, and Maria Bamford are all peerless masters of Comedy, but the way they express their comedic genius is not by means of narrative prose in the popular press; and the somewhat more literary term Humor still encompasses comic essays, wry memoir, witty apothegms, and light verse, none of which is fiction. Even a useful phrase like "comic novel" is still too broad: many ballyhooed comic novels, from Laurence Sterne to Kurt Vonnegut, are never really unserious.

Then too, the distinctions 1909 made between light fiction and its unnamed opposite no longer really apply: the lecture-hall values of "provoking reflection or discussion, dissension or assent" are laughably inadequate as a description of the functions of serious literature in postmodernity, and indeed only that Comstock-era sham civilization could have believed that art consists of a series of propositions. The vast middlebrow edifice of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century — the endless shelves of bildungsromane, problem novels, künstlerromane, psychological novels, historical epics — no longer has the grandeur it once did, now that their contemporary equivalents are generally described even by their champions as awards bait, or in the case of problem novels, after-school specials.

Indeed, I'd be tempted to suggest that the average, or even outright bad, novel of light fiction (in either the wide sense or my narrow one) from the first half of the twentieth century is easier to read with enjoyment today than the average serious novel of the same period. But I recognize that I may be an outlier here, especially in the narrow sense: for the average reader, who may well find that antique detective stories still retain their grip as logic problems and antique fantasy stories still grip as works of the imagination, antique humor is more often opaque or unpleasant than it is funny. And I would never claim that all light fiction is actually funny, any more than all romance is touching or all horror is frightening. That it is trying to be is what makes it part of the genre.

Another argument in favor of narrowing the term light fiction in the manner I propose is that while it was common for critics and educators of the period to dismiss genre (or proto-genre) writing as light fiction, few of the actual writers they applied the term to would have applied it to themselves. Writers of love stories, no matter how frivolous, thought of themselves as writing about the eternal theme of passion constrained by society, in the line of the Brontës or Dante. Writers of detective fiction characterized themselves as evaluating weighty matters of justice, guilt, and human wickedness like so many miniature Dostoevskys. Adventure-story writers could point to countless writers from Homer to Hemingway for their literary bona fides as dissectors of the cosmic dance of Man versus Nature.

There was, however, one tribe of writers who (sometimes) didn't mind calling their work light fiction: and that was the writers of humorous stories. I first encountered the term in self-descriptions by P. G. Wodehouse, and further investigation found self-confessed lightness noticeably more frequent among British writers than those native to the United States, where the literary atmosphere of Uplift and Purpose in the years before World War I was too unyielding for any but the hardiest of its denizens to ever consciously admit to a frivolity. 

But bringing up Wodehouse also brings up my final reason for insisting on using the term light fiction to denote the genre within which he worked and excelled: because, contrary to the praise bestowed upon him from well-meaning boosters in literary sections of newspapers for fifty years, and despite the fact that he remains eternally in print while the bulk of his friends, colleagues, rivals, and forerunners languish forgotten on library shelves, Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was not a sui generis freak of literary nature. He was operating within a coherent, if admittedly heterogeneous, literary tradition, that of magazine fiction, and he had his antecedents, his peers, and his descendants like any other successful writer. He did much to shape and organize the genre of light fiction — or at least the gravitational pull exerted by his success did, until the conditions which had made light fiction possible changed until it no longer was — but just because he was the leader in the field doesn't mean he was alone on the pitch.

Part of my project, then, in claiming the term light fiction is to attempt an accurate, even a systematic valuation of the whole of the genre, not just a few semi-canonical superstars with immense gifts and lasting popularity such as Wodehouse, Damon Runyon, and one or two others. So I'll spend a bit more space here trying to sketch out some of the theoretical conditions of the genre and the material conditions which supported it.

Embedded in the name light fiction is, as I have already suggested, a necessary element of fictional narrative. Comedy is liable to break out into any aesthetic form — as its Greek root κωμῳδία, song of revel, implies — which means that unlike Mystery, which has formal narrative requirements, or Fantasy, which has requirements of (non-)plausibility, fictional narrative is not necessarily its natural form. Since Comedy is just as often a mood or a tone as it is a formal genre, lashing it to narrative has to be done to keep it from jumping overboard at the siren song of every literary joker; even though Wodehouse himself said he was operating, as a humorist, in the same vein as Robert Benchley or James Thurber, because their comic métier was the essay (regardless of how unchained from documentary fact), they are not part of light fiction.

The other half of the phrase is just as necessary. Light fiction must be light: it may have its serious moods, but it is bound to the two primary meanings of the word "light" — it may not be sustainedly heavy nor sustainedly dark. The dictum that comedy is tragedy that keeps going until the happy solution to the heavy weather of the middle acts is found only somewhat applies here: while naturally plot complications must arise, up to and including murder, they are never to be taken wholly seriously by the reader. Heavy fiction can be forbiddingly dull, and dark fiction can be gleefully unpleasant: whatever light fiction is, whether for good or ill, it aims to be both entertaining and pleasant.

Which means it is also often, perhaps even always, untruthful. When light fiction is historical, it is bad history; when it is contemporary, it is bad sociology; when it is speculative, it is bad science. That is part of its pleasure: it is frivolous, it is willfully irresponsible, it is a caper cut for its own sake. It can be actively harmful in supporting the injustice and exploitation of the status quo and so it is, perhaps, inherently conservative, as like Elizabethan comedy it implies a just and harmonious world in which, once the complications of this particular plot are over, it is possible to live happily ever after.

A third meaning of light — one found in cooking — also applies here: the chewiness of melodrama or the soppiness of sentiment is just as fatal to light fiction as the darkness of tragedy or the heaviness of social realism. Although light fiction often includes a romantic interest (and in fact the romantic comedy is one of its many descendants), it never includes passionate romance or indeed any strong emotions: another way in which it is untruthful. The first dictate of comedy is to be funny, even if that means eliding honesty or sincerity; and to the degree to which this means propping up traditionally masculine attitudes at the expense of the traditionally feminine, it is another and subtler form of upholding injustice.

And like a lighter-than-air balloon, it is easily popped: just as no adult reader should be able to take its plot complications seriously, so too should no adult reader be able to believe in the moral order posited by light fiction. At its best, indeed, it can posit such an entire inversion of the declared moral order of its day, an inversion in which authority exists to be undermined, crimes ranging from petty theft and smuggling to blackmail and arson are not only permissible but the only way to live, gold-digging flappers are more honest and virtuous than grand dames, and anyone who dares to set pen to paper is a chump or an egotist or both, that the reader is simply carried along on the story's own logic, unable to reflect or discuss, dissent or assent. But class relations are never seriously challenged by light fiction (that would be too heavy), nor is colonialism ever anything but background noise (that would be too dark). The result is a sort of anarchism in which servants know their place: a contradiction in terms, or in other words, a joke.

There is one more thing that light fiction always leaves out, one of the primary reasons it can no longer exist as a living form but remains trapped forever in the bounds of history: sex. Of course sex has been a fruitful subject for comedy since humanity has been recorded engaging in either, from the earliest Greek comedies to the most recent episode of any comedy podcast, and one of light fiction's nearest antecedents, French farce, thinks of practically nothing else. Nevertheless, and probably due more than anything else to the globally peculiar cultural attitudes of the British and American empires in the late nineteenth century, light fiction in English, regardless of subject matter or the class strata of its characters, is always characterized by a certain degree of politesse. Characters may be entirely sexless, as in Wodehouse, or leave sex strategically out of their memoirs, as in Anita Loos, or even, as in Thorne Smith, be caught up in as smutty a delirium as ever ran riot in an Eldon Dedini cartoon — but neither the messy physical realities nor the equally messy emotional realities of sex can find any purchase in light fiction: it is, once more, fundamentally untrue.

As the famous blurb (originally from a letter to his school chum and writer of sea stories W. Townend) that every Penguin edition of Wodehouse used to include puts it:

I believe there are two ways of writing novels. One is mine, making the thing a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right down deep into life and not caring a damn.

Strictly speaking, of course, “a musical comedy without music” describes not Wodehouse novels but stage comedy — which was hugely influential on light fiction, but was not light fiction itself. If The Importance of Being Earnest were a novel, it would be — well, it would be entirely different, which is why it is a play; but one of the engines of light fiction in the first decades of the twentieth century was a furious effort on the part of a certain cross-section of writers, Wodehouse very much among them, to reproduce more and more exactly the effects of a really good stage comedy, like The Importance of Being Earnest, between the boards of a popular novel. 

And just as an aside, there is a vast space between “ignoring real life altogether” and “going right down deep into life” — most middlebrow fiction, and indeed genre fiction, throughout history occupies that space. In fact, although his formulation suggests that his way of writing fiction springs from a kind of oversensitivity to real life, neither the Wodehousian nor the hardboiled schools actually care a damn; it is only that Wodehouse is adept at using stage business to cover it up.

Wodehouse was a member of the first generation to grow up with light fiction as a living practice. (In fact, I place the historical bounds of light fiction, 1880 to 1975, exactly coterminous with his life.) Although there had been plenty of comic fiction throughout the nineteenth century, and even gentle comic fiction, with everything heavy, soppy, or dark left out — Northanger Abbey is, I think, the earliest example of light fiction I know — it was not until the late Victorian period that extensive industrialization, cheap resources (thanks to colonial exploitation), and widespread literacy resulted in the mass-media explosion of print which also birthed all the other great twentieth-century genres, from mystery to science fiction.

Magazines and newspapers had printed short fiction since the eighteenth century, but they were relatively little-read and bound to a subscriber model; with the advent of, in successive order, the penny press, commuter lines, four-color printing, and the eight-hour work day, both supply and demand for printed material skyrocketed. On the industrial model, increased production meant increased specialization. Gone were the days of Dickens and Thackeray, whose triple-decker novels were capacious enough to contain every genre, so that Bleak House runs through horror, the detection of a mystery, plenty of comedy, and a sentimental love story all in one rambling narrative — the new mass markets for genre fiction required selection and focus, a commercial discipline for the writers of light fiction as it had been an aesthetic one for Poe.

Or, indeed, for stage comedy. The late nineteenth-century West End comedy was a model of efficiency, with three-act structures as rigorous as any studio screenplay; and since theatrical attendance was as requisite and habitual for anyone who wanted to be in touch with the cultural conversation as a Netflix subscription is today, its discipline was drilled into fiction writers, both literary and popular, practically by osmosis.

And so light fiction, gathering strength around the turn of the century, grew to seasoned adulthood by the time of World War I. With few exceptions, it did not address the War: it was too heavy, too dark, fit only for poets and Naturalists. But the heady irresponsibility of light fiction came into its full flower in the roar of the 1920s: the surface pleasures of jazz and gin could be spun into a never-never land which blithely ignored racism or alcoholism, and even the Depression, which landed the popular magazines the same punishing blow suffered by every other entertainment industry save Hollywood, only slowed light fiction down slightly. What really did for it was World War II, and especially its aftermath: the bleak unfunniness of Fascism, the breaking of the spells of of isolationism in America and colonial hegemony in Britain, the impossibility of poetry after Auschwitz, the sleepless specter of the Bomb.

In 1950, Wodehouse wrote to Townend on the occasion of the shuttering of The Strand, the magazine which had birthed iconic late-Victorian characters like Sherlock Holmes and Raffles, and where the bulk of Wodehouse’s mature work was published in England before being gathered together in book form:

How on earth does a young writer of light fiction get going in England these days? When I was breaking in, I might get turned down by the Strand and Pearson’s, but there was always the hope of landing with Nash’s, the Story-teller, the London, the Royal, the Red, the Yellow, Cassell’s, the New, the Novel, the Grand, the Pall Mall, and the Windsor, not to mention Blackwood, Cornhill, Chambers’s, and probably about a dozen more I’ve forgotten. I was looking at the book of acceptances and payments which I kept for the first five years of my literary career, and I note that in July 1901 I sold a short story to something called the Universal and Ludgate Magazine and got a guinea for it. Where nowadays can the eager beginner pick up one pound shilling like that?

The irony inherent in his asking the question is that there were no, or virtually no, young writers of light fiction in 1950; those who might have inclined that way were aimed instead at movies, television, comics, and genre fiction. The literary cultures of the English-speaking world had shifted so drastically, even tectonically, between Wodehouse’s youth and his golden years that the schoolboy sporting stories and sugar-spun romances on which he cut his teeth had vanished into thin air, replaced by racy “true confessions,” sitcom teenagers, and (for the lucky few young writers) first novels in which wit, if any, was secondary to undigested fragments of psychoanalysis.

Literary cultures die hard, however, and traces of light fiction can be detected even past Woodstock. An argument could be made for its postmodern renaissance in figures like Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, or Carl Hiaasen; but someone else will have to make that argument. My concern is with Wodehouse and his era, as eccentric or even as unreasonable as that may be.

And here is where I put all my cards on the table. I am only writing about light fiction in the first place because P. G. Wodehouse called himself a writer of light fiction, and when I was a young man more frequently visited by paralyzing depressive episodes during which the only culture that didn't hurt too much to absorb was Wodehouse, I longed for an easily-discoverable way to read more books that were like (even if not as good as) Wodehouse, in the same way that Agatha Christie addicts or Frank Herbert fiends have unending rows of cozy mysteries and bombastic space opera at their disposal.

I saw soon enough that if there was a genre to be pieced together from Wodehouse and his coevals, I would have to do the piecing-together myself. So I started digging into the past, into the vast iceberg of literary production below the surface of the kept-in-print. I found humorous anthologies he had edited or at least prefaced, and began to dig through the bibliographies they pointed me to; I read through the writers he corresponded with, searching for a glimmer of resemblance; I took to libraries and archives and paged through the bound volumes of magazines in which he was published to find affinities and echoes; I scoured the shelves of used-book stores and online archives for contemporary novels and story collections that looked as though they might be at about the same pitch of unseriousness; I plowed through the review sections of contemporary literary journals hunting for descriptions that touched a responsive nerve.

I've been doing this digging, on and off, for nearly twenty years, and I think I've about established the outer perimeter and some of the major landmarks of this half-forgotten civilization. There are now some forty writers I'd put on par with Wodehouse at his consistent high average, many of whom flicker in and out of print, and there are some hundred-odd further fellow-travelers who, if not achieving greatness, still have their pleasures; not to mention the host of mediocrities and excrescences which fill out the bibliographies of every genre. What I intend to do with this series, The Light Brigade, is to document this theoretical genre, its lines of influence and connection, as far as my reading and research takes me. I don't expect it to strike a chord with many people; as far as I can tell, I am the only person who has ever thought to chase this particular wild goose.

But I will try to be interesting as well as informative.