Why are humorous books about incompetence so enjoyable?

The Diary of a Nobody and Three Men in A Boat, along with Scoop, are among the most famous and widely enjoyed books in English literature, even if nobody teaches them in college classes, as far as we know.

Actually, all of them are perfectly brilliantly written so it is a pity they are not required reading everywhere.  Humor is shortchanged in accolades all over,  for example, the Oscars.  At least the Diary (by George and Weedon Grossmith, 1892 after appearing in Punch  is included in Oxford World Classic paperback series, also the home of Three Men in a Boat

Why is that?  Humor is some of the most perfectly phrased and balanced writing in the literature, often approaching poetry in the way it relies on choosing the right word every single time.  It seems charged with the same level of inspiration as poetry, where every word counts as a brushstroke in the painting of theme and mood.

In fact, Three Men in A Boat was roundly panned when it first came out in 1889. Jerome wrote in My Life and Times (1926)

“One might have imagined … that the British Empire was in danger. … The Standard spoke of me as a menace to English letters; and The Morning Post as an example of the sad results to be expected from the over-education of the lower orders. … I think I may claim to have been, for the first twenty years of my career, the best abused author in England.”

Why was it and is it so popular? Jerome Nicholas writes on jeromekjerome.com:

What was entirely new about Boat was the style in which it was written. Conan Doyle, Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson were widely read and highly popular but Jerome differed in two respects: his story was not of some fantastical adventure in a far-off land, peopled by larger-than-life heroes and villains, but of three very ordinary blokes having a high old time just down the road, so to speak; and, in an age when literary grandiloquence and solemnity were not in short supply, Jerome provided a breath of fresh air. In the preface to Idle Thoughts, Jerome had set out his stall: ‘What readers ask now-a-days in a book is that it should improve, instruct and elevate. This book wouldn’t elevate a cow.’ He used everyday figures of speech for the first time (‘colloquial clerk’s English of the year 1889’ as one critic described it) and was very, very funny. The Victorians had simply never come across anything like it.”

It was the first blow against the silly artificiality of Victorian novels and verse, then. But the reason for its popularity enduring undiminished through several very different ages remains something to define, if you ever can. One thing which is key, in our opinion, is the gentle fun made of the obvious incompetence of all three leading characters in the book.

Most humor depends on safely interrupting competence of almost any kind, returning human nature to its proper, unguarded and undressed status of ground level nude wrestling with reality in vain to make it match all the foolishness of what we construct in social fantasy – high position, self importance and all other things which adults use to pretend they are not still children at heart, and not apt to make a mistake or be exposed as foolish at any time.

This is the banana skin theory of humor and the other day we can across a reference to a man who has developed this theory to its fullest, but unfortunately we cannot now remember his name or where we read it. We hope to eventually. This is a good example of what we mean. We are revealed as dignified fools.

Anyhow, Three Men In A Boat is sublime in its gently making fun of human vanity by poking holes in its supposed competence, and incompetence breaks out on every page. You can get a free copy from Amazon on Kindle or Touchpad via its free Kindle app. You can also get Diary of a Nobody.

Jerome;s sequel is equally as good, and concerns Germany and the Germans as much as it does the adventures of the same three men on a bicycling trip through the control obsessed nation, and Jerome’s satirical comments, made well before World War I, are interesting to compare with what happened since.

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