Howard Jacobson: God knows, we like a mirthster, but this smart-arsery is not funny

Laconic cynicism sounds like comedy – we laugh in obedient recognition
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The Independent Online

Nothing is sacred but not every act of satirical disrespect is funny. I say this after reading another of those lists of books which the list-compiler considers grossly over-estimated, or which he contends we only pretend to like and cannot wait for someone (such as him) to tell us we don't have to like at all. What the frisson of rubbishing great books is supposed to be in an age when no one reads great books, I cannot fathom. But it has about as much contemporary relevance as a sermon denouncing the feeding of Christians to the lions.

The most recent, and most facetious, addition to the genre, published in The Sunday Times the other week (it's their second or third go at the like this year) is by Richard Wilson. Not Richard Wilson of One Foot in the Grave, or Richard Wilson the oil sump installationist, but Richard Wilson who pens put-downs for that popular example of spontaneous can't-be-arsedry – which can't be all that spontaneous else it wouldn't need Richard Wilson to write its put-downs – Have I Got News For You.

God knows we like a mirthster in this column. In solemn times it may well be that only jokes will save us. But smart-arsery is to be distinguished from joking in that a good joke illuminates by surprise, whereas smart-arsery lulls us into the rhythm of a joke without ever actually being one – we laugh, Pavlovianly, at the cadence not the illumination. Thus, it is patently not funny to say, as Wilson says of War and Peace, that it is "Way, way too long" – unless you find a short dismissal of a long book in itself hilarious – but laconic cynicism sounds like comedy (think Angus Deayton) and once we have the rhythm of it in our head we laugh in obedient recognition.

Readers well educated in comedy will recall the brilliant Monty Python sketch in which Oscar Wilde and Whistler and George Bernard Shaw bandy witticisms which are not witticisms at all, merely echoes and cadences of witticisms, the merest anticipation of which elicits paroxysms of "sycophantic laughter". Wilson's list of 10 books not to read before you die relies entirely on such sycophancy: the willingness of an audience to be amused in advance of – indeed in place of – anything amusing being said. "The more you find out about Hemingway," Wilson writes, "the more you realise he was ... a terrible macho bore obsessed with bullfighting, guns, boxing and trying to catch big fish." A judgement that isn't sharp, isn't original, and isn't funny. And, in a sense, isn't meant to be.

Wilson admits to being "offensively glib" and "ill-informed". So you can't, without appearing to have no sense of humour, attack him for being either. What's funny – that's to say what would be funny – is his refusal to let respect or judgement wait on knowledge. By which measure, of course, a list of every book that's ever been written and which you needn't be arsed reading (or knowing anything about), because you needn't be arsed reading (or knowing anything about) any of them, would be even funnier. Only I've just made it on its own terms funnier still by virtue of my not being arsed about those who can't be arsed.

So what's the point of this exercise in frankly, my dear, not giving a damn? If comedy is the scourge of the complacent and the affected, what particular complacency or affectation does Richard Wilson mean to mock? Were we night and day reading Proust and Joyce as though our lives depended on them (as, trust me, reader, they do); were Homer and Hemingway all we had for breakfast, and Tolstoy and Jane Austen our only bedtime conversation, I could see reason for a comic assault on our literary pretensions; but where's the fun, the skill or the usefulness in kicking what's already dead? Ten books not to read before you die! What about one book to read before you're 60?

"The Iliad is one of the most boring books ever written," Wilson says. "And it's not just a boring book, it's a boring epic poem." Methinks I see a little erudition poking out of the naughtiness. Epic poem, eh? Soon he'll be telling us about the boring dactylic hexameters in which it's written. Scratch a cynic and you'll find a pedant. But this is a dullard's jesting, whatever its intentions and concealments. And as such it interests me only as it indicates the dullness of the way we read now. Take that word "boring". Only a dull age would give it currency. We do not describe a work when we call it boring, we describe only ourselves. We are bored. That might be a state induced by the work, but if so then it must bore everybody (which the Iliad patently does not), otherwise it is a reflection only on the patience, the understanding and the goodwill of the reader. And he who is vainglorious of his boredom, possesses neither patience nor goodwill.

I would not, were I a teacher saddled with a class of kids who think it's smart to be bored and ill-informed, thank Wilson for his intervention. Daisy Goodwin, though, I would thank on bended knees. We have remarked on Daisy Goodwin in this column once before, on that occasion for being, in our view, a little televisually breathless not to say unbridled in her appreciation of Lord Byron. But today she can do no wrong. Thanks to Daisy Goodwin, a campaign is now afoot to get children to memorise and recite poetry, the carrot being a national poetry recital competition with the finalists fighting it out on BBC television. No doubt Richard Wilson finds Wordsworth boring, a country bumpkin egoist obsessed with daffodils, clouds, Westminster Bridge and a dead bint called Lucy, but I am out of my skin with pleasure at the thought of the young being taught to learn and recite poetry again, the prejudice against rote-learning (indeed against any learning) having wasted the imaginations of countless schoolchildren for the past 40 years.

"Learnt young, the poems will stay in the head for life,"Daisy Goodwin argues, "adding to the lustre of good moments and illumination in the bad." For making which wonderful claim aloud and in prominent places – for daring to confront the sneery egalitarianism of the telly folk who part employ her – I would wish her to be honoured in epic poetry by our poet laureate.

Call it Lustre and Illumination: Homage to Daisy Goodwin. And after that, Mr Motion, a Dunciad denouncing those whom it amuses to be unimpressed by anything that isn't as facile as they are.