A funny thing happened on Booker prize night. And about time too ...

The winner was a writer of comic fiction. Fellow novelist Tim Lott wonders why, despite our heritage of literary laughs, it is the humour of 'outsiders' that tends to pick up the awards
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The Independent Online

Followers of the Booker Prize were quick to point out that claims that Howard Jacobson's win was a first for a comic novel were wildly inaccurate.

Roddy Doyle, D B C Pierre, J G Farrell (twice) and Kingsley Amis have all won the award, suggesting that Jacobson's pre-triumph accusation that bookish types suffered an "anorexic mirthlessness" was misplaced. But it does raise several other questions about British literary culture and female literary culture specifically.

For Doyle, Pierre and Farrell are all essentially Irish writers. Jacobson is very deeply and obviously steeped in Jewish culture and humour. On this analysis, Kingsley Amis is the only dyed-in-the-wool culturally British comic writer ever to take the prize, and that was 24 years ago.

All the above are also, obviously, male. This feeds back into a comment made by Daisy Goodwin, the chair of this year's Orange Prize, about the amount of "misery lit" that she had to read for the award, stories so full of "bereavement, child abuse and rape" that at the end of it she "felt like a social worker". Not a single Orange prize winner has been a comic novelist.

So have the British – who, after all, pioneered the comic novel with Henry Fielding and Tobias Smollett, who established a venerable tradition stretching through Austen, Thackeray, Dickens, Wodehouse, Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh and many beyond – lost their literary sense of humour? Or are British comic novelists, for some reason, granted less licence to be bookishly witty than the Irish or the Jews? And what about the women? Is it true, in fiction, as used to be said of stand-up comedy, that women can't "do" humour?

It is obviously untrue that British novelists are not funny or clever enough to win the Booker. Jonathan Coe, Nick Hornby, Martin Amis, Irvine Welsh and Geoff Dyer are all literary writers with a comic bent. You might also mention Alexei Sayle, Christopher Brookmyre, David Nobbs, and William Sutcliffe. But the only one to have appeared on the Booker shortlist is Amis for Time's Arrow, which, being about the Holocaust, was short on laughs. There is David Lodge of course, but it is 20 years since he was shortlisted.

Again, though, all these examples are men. Zadie Smith's first novel, White Teeth, was a brilliant combination of wit and literary merit, but since then she has become progressively sober in her approach.

There are other British women who write with a combination of seriousness and wit, or comedy drama as I tend to think of it. But they are not particularly well known – writers such as Louise Dean, or Anne Donovan come to mind. The exception is Marina Lewycka who is the only woman among 10 winners of the Bollinger Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction.

So we have an odd situation. While in all other areas of comedy such as stand-up, sitcom, drama and screenwriting, the British are – along with the Americans – world leaders, in literature they still exist in a sort of artificially penned off backwater. And the literary equivalent of the comedy of everyday life, familiar on screen from Steptoe to The Office, Marion and Geoff and Made in Dagenham, is never on the prize lists.

I have got a theory about the lack of culturally British humorists on the Booker lists. This is mainly to do with class, guilt and an idea of what constitutes "proper" literature.

Having been at least on the fringes of the literary world for more than 10 years now, I would make one bald assertion – that the upper middle classes, the class from which literary fiction still comes, do not have much of a sense of humour. I know that this is a sweeping statement, but I have been to enough dinner parties, literary committees and book launches to assure you that they are not exactly prime material for a knees-up. I've had more fun at funerals.

Laughter, I think, among this class, is seen in a slightly different light to the way it is seen in the rest of Britain. High purpose, or earnestness, is central to their ethos. Asking whether or not someone is a "serious" person in this context has more than one meaning: Not only whether the person of whom the question is being asked is sufficiently high minded, but whether they can be taken seriously in the first place, and in this context, wit and humour are viewed with suspicion.

I have witnessed this somewhat po-faced attitude time and time again. The normal way of communication in this country – which is laced with irony, self-deprecation, piss-taking and mockery – is, on the whole, somewhat lacking among senior academics, intellectuals, literary critics and editors of literary imprints. The furrowed brow very much trumps the tickled rib.

There is also at this level a confusion between the pure comedy novel – of which the perfect example might be anything by P G Wodehouse – and what you might call the dramatic comedy. I agree that the place for "pure" comedy novels is probably not the Booker prize lists. But the comedy dramas – developed at their highest level in the United States with Philip Roth, J D Salinger, Joseph Heller, Jonathan Franzen, Anne Tyler, Kurt Vonnegut and countless others – are often in this country blurred in the critical imagination with the lighter, "entertainment only", pure comedies.

So how do these other cultures – English-Jewish (Jacobson), Irish (Doyle), Australian-American-Irish (Pierre) and English-Irish (Farrell) – slip through the net? The answer – as with so many cultural questions in English public life – is colonial guilt. In short, it is seen as acceptable to reward comedy if you are somehow defined as Other. Humour is still seen as essentially vulgar and/ or shallow but the defenders of High Culture recognise that vulgarity is popular, and on some level they know that comedy – being part of the language and ethos of Shakespeare – cannot be permanently shrugged off.

When you're really looking for serious work, of course, one returns to the old template of the academic/ moral/high-minded novelist, of which there are countless English examples – Anita Brookner, Ian McEwan, Graham Swift, Kazuo Ishiguro, Hilary Mantel, Alan Hollinghurst and so on. But one has to throw a bone to the cultural ex-colonies now and then, for form's sake. Hence the intermittent critical success of the "cultural minority" comic novel.

This is the only explanation I can find to fit the facts. We have a wealth of brilliant British comic writers, working in a tradition that goes back further than in any other country, but they are consistently sidelined.

The outcome remains absurd, and comic writers remain historically undervalued. As the Booker winner himself pointed out in an article, shortly before he took the prize, in this country there is a "false division between laughter and thought". Jacobson's triumph has undermined, but not changed that fact.

Which is a travesty – because literature that is both comic and dramatic is the form of writing that most resembles life. For what is life if not tragically absurd?

I might have a theory about why humour is critically recognised only at the cultural fringes, but I have no idea why it has become a largely male domain. Women are not less amusing than men, and they're equally adept at screenwriting and comedy acting, so why they should so underperform in the literary world is a matter of puzzlement.

But I do have a suggestion to redress the balance. At a time when 70 per cent of fiction is bought by women, and in a world where British female writers enjoy equal status and far superior sales to men, the Orange prize is an anomaly that no longer makes any sense.

Convert it into the Orange Prize for Comic Literary Women's Fiction, however, and it might promote talents that are both unappreciated and underperforming. In other words it might become a good joke instead of a tired one.

And the more laughter we get from either gender in the literary world, the closer we'll come not only to the authentic beat of the nation, but to the pulse of life itself.