No Laughing Matter

Any reader in Britain, of serious literature, might be disheartened to learn that sales of the recently short-listed Booker novels are, for the most part, in the low thousands (one of them has sold around two thousand copies); meanwhile, most poetry collections sell less than a thousand copies.  However - and this is the funny part - memoirs by comedians sell tens of thousands, making millions of pounds.  Apparently, this year's Christmas season, which began in publishing on September 29, features a number of comedy books, which sellers hope will hit the jackpot.  This may be fun on Christmas Day.  It is not good for culture, however popular.  The truth is, poetry has a particularly hard-sell in a culture, like Britain's, where the default setting is a guffaw, or chortle.  Poetry can never compete with stand-up, for even when it is light and witty, it is not Comedy; nor is poetry sex, drugs or rock and roll - the other obsessions of the marketers who peddle to us.  Comedy is a UK obsession, and, kept in its place, it is harmless good fun.  But Comedy has infected the British psyche.  Double-entendres, snickers, and cheap shots perforate and proliferate the fabric of our days.  Lewd puns and madcap stunts riddle our evenings.  With all the belly-aching jolly good fun, where is the time to sit quietly, and read (on Kindle or paper) a thoughtful work, that might demand actually having to feel deeper emotions, such as fear, loss, love, or empathy? Let us stop pretending that Poetry is popular.  You measure the popular by how much it sells.  The books that sell in the UK are by comedians.


Guido said…
This should not be a surprise. We are entering some of the worse economic conditions since the 1930s. It is well worth seeing one of the best movies from that era 'Sullivan's Travels' to understand why people might prefer comedy now.
Poetry Pleases! said…
Dear Todd

Poetry used to sell in this country. Roger McGough's 'The Mersey Sound' (from memory) sold over a million copies in the 1970's. Then our cherished poetry editotrs in their infinite wisdom commenced and continued publishing stuff that was tedious, obscure, pretentious and self-regarding. Over the last thirty years they have done a thoroughly professional job of turning the British public right off poetry which is why even first-rate poets struggle to shift copies these days.

Best wishes from Simon
David Clarke said…
Good point, Todd, although it isn't just comedians. Musicians, actors, footballers, in fact anyone in the 'media' soon ends up knocking out an autobiography that sells by the barrow-load for the Christmas hols. If it's any consolation, and to judge by my family, most of them are given as gifts and then left unread. Actually, that's not much consolation, is it? Why can't they all buy poetry books as unwanted gifts?!
Alan Baker said…
I have a theory that the ubiquitous nature of comedy in the media is a symptom of the decadence of our society. Most of the comedy is pretty safe - satirists like Rory Bremner don't get a look in any more - and comedians are regularly invited onto Question Time and newsnight (where they appear to dry up and have nothing to say). It all helps to prevent serious discussion about what our leaders are up to.
Anonymous said…
I'm a little uncomfortable with the suggestion that comedy is something to be 'kept in its place', and that its sole function is to be 'harmless good fun'; saying the same thing of poetry would be rather philistine. I'm also uneasy with the suggestion that comedy and poetry are in direct competition with one another. I enjoy the work of Amy Blakemore and John Finnemore, of Thomas Hardy and Jeremy Hardy, of Clare Pollard and Eddie Izzard; that I have an exclusive interest in neither comedy nor poetry causes me no particular grief.

There is a difference between a popular interest and sales figures. The gap is caused by a lack of active engagement and participation. It is easy to participate in comedy: one tells a joke and wins a laugh or a wry smile, and example set by comedians encourages this engagement. It is rather harder to participate in poetry; the barriers to entry are in many senses much higher, and poets do very little to make them seem scalable.

I would suggest that comedy's financial success is partly due to the recent facilitation of mass public participation in comedy and comics' engagement with their fanbase (who are also their market). Poetry has different constraints, but the biggest thing holding poetry back is the failure of poetry educators and activists. Blaming the public or blaming the success of another art form is unhelpful at best. Society today is more reliant on text than it has ever been; internet social networking is almost exclusively text-based. How have we as poets failed to cash in on this attention, and what can we do to rectify the situation?

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