Wednesday, September 15, 2010
A Defence of Puns
Wordplay. For a long time I have been amused by the British distrust of it. But even though I say 'British' it would be more accurate to specify 'English', as the Celtic Nations don't share the same attitude. English readers and critics... Ah! They seem to regard wordplay with a soul-wrenching horror. The use of homonyms, mondegreens, pataphors, lipograms, palindromes and even alliteration can reduce them to quivering lumps of unhappy protoplasm. And as for puns... perish the thought!
However, the English are experts at putting on a brave face. They certainly aren't softies and they know how to convincingly disguise fear as exasperation. When they encounter a pun in a text, they don't hide behind the sofa but grit their teeth, roll their eyes and utter one of three following words, almost as a protective formula: "Groan!", "Ouch!", "Argh!" Once the final echoes of the chosen utterance have faded, they enter a period of refusing to take the remainder of the text seriously. No matter how profound the themes, how original the style, the text has become a bitter thing in their eyes, an ordeal, a slough of despond. For the English reader, the pun is an unforgivable solecism.
I am an author who enjoys wordplay and therefore I frequently encounter this attitude among English reviewers and critics. My own view is that wordgames are a bonus to the major elements of a work of fiction, the sidedish or pickle to the main feast, so to speak, and should not be confused with the main course. Surely it is generous of a writer to provide this bonus rather than simply presenting a plain ungarnished meal? It's rarely perceived that way. The English critic will seize instantly on the sidedish and examine it almost exclusively, insisting that it somehow stands for the true feast. This is bizarre.
I once ended a story with the sentence, "It was a killer peruke from Wigan." A silly, throwaway line. The story in question was one in which I had reversed all the conventions of orthodox ghost tales: the main point was to experiment and subvert the form with a playful application of logic. I added that final line as an afterthought, as a wink or gherkin. One reviewer insisted on using it as conclusive proof that jokes were the entire point of my story. I had made it easier for him to ignore the fact that the piece was actually about ontology. Perhaps he didn't know what ontology was and thus was grateful I had provided him with an escape route.
Readers and critics in other countries don't suffer from the wordplay-phobia of their English counterparts. I used to believe that one of the reasons I am more highly regarded as an 'ideas writer' outside England is because in translation my works are shorn of the distractions of my wordplay; but in fact many of my translators make great efforts to replace my untranslatable puns with puns of equal value in their own language. In one Russian anthology every single example of wordplay in my contribution had its own explanatory footnote. I was deeply touched by that dedication.
One of the reasons that wordgames (especially puns) are disparaged by English critics is because there's an assumption that the most respected English-language writers of the past avoided them entirely and only employed sober language. But in fact it was the mid-level authors (Henry James, John Galsworthy, Jane Austen, etc) who adopted that approach; the truly great masters relished the use of wordplay. I need only casually mention Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare. As for the modern masters: James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Flann O'Brien, Gilbert Sorrentino, Vladimir Nabokov and Donald Barthelme, among many others, have all proved themselves adepts at convoluted wordplay.
So what books would I recommend as the finest repositories of wordplay that I've encountered? What are my top five volumes in this category? Well, to make such a selection I first must ensure that the works are entertaining not only for their wordplay. The wordplay mustn't be the main point, but a bonus; yet it must be a bonus good enough to carry the other essential qualities without interfering with them. So then. What do we have? In reverse order, I suggest:
(5) Barefoot in the Head by Brian Aldiss,
(4) Larva: A Midsummer Night's Babel by Julián Ríos,
(3) Zazie in the Metro by Raymond Queneau,
(2) Froth on the Daydream by Boris Vian,
(1) Infante's Inferno by G. Cabrera Infante.
This is very interesting to know. I have never given the whole thing much thought before. Good piece.
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