The comments from the judges of the biggest literary competitions have left me worried of late. The Orange Prize judge said during the longlist announcement (I'm quoting from The Guardian) "There's not been much wit and not much joy, there's a lot of grimness out there," Daisy Goodwin, the author and TV producer, told the Guardian. "There are a lot of books about Asian sisters. There are a lot of books that start with a rape. Pleasure seems to have become a rather neglected element in publishing . . .I think the misery memoir has had its day, but there are an awful lot of books out there which had not a shred of redemption in them. I'm more of a light and shade person and there does need to be some joy, not just misery . . . I was surprised at how little I laughed … and the ones where there was humour were much appreciated I can tell you."
And then, on the night of mentioning the winner of the debut Sunday Times EFG Private Bank, the world's short biggest award for a single short story, one of the judges said: "I think perhaps my role as a judge was to look for witty or upbeat stories, which were hard to find . . . There were quite a lot of bereaved children."
I deeply respect the decisions of these highly respected judges. Some of them have done this sort of thing over many years. However, I am a little uncomfortable with highlighting humour as the most decisive factor for naming a winner in a competition.
Take Petina Gappah's stories for example. In many of them, something or someone dies. But there are plenty of moments in which one laughs, and laughs a lot, as a matter of fact. It is a monumental skill to weave a story that has some tragic moments in it with lots of humour. The Mupandawana Dancing Champion, for example, has a lot of such humour. Great, great and absolutely amazing humour. At the end, the dancer dies while in the act of dancing. Should the singular act of the dancer dying be the key determinant of whether Petina's story is successful or not?
I have used Petina here as a mere example, because her book, Elegy for Easterly, is an absolute marvel. But there are many other writers who pull off the trick of blending humour with tragedy. Should we say the days when such stories won big awards are gone? Just wondering.