What’s The Funniest Novel?

What is the funniest novel? And where do we begin with a question like that?

Humor, on the one hand, and taste in literature on the other hand, are two such highly subjective categories, that the possible range of answers is wide and contentious. Which, after all, makes it such an interesting question. We like thinking about these sorts of questions, because there’s no real answer: it’s the process of seeking out possible answers and debating amongst alternatives that’s so satisfying.

To start, The New York Times (“What’s the Funniest Novel Ever?”) poses the leadoff question for us:

“… which raises the question: what’s the funniest novel ever? There’s a difference, of course, between the greatest comic novel (“Don Quixote”? “Tristram Shandy”? “Ulysses”?) and the novel you find the funniest.”

Their short but sweet list looks like this — and there are some good suggestions to be found in the user comments section of the article:

“Here are some nominees from editors at the Book Review: “Lucky Jim” (which got the most votes), David Lodge’s “Small World,” “The Code of the Woosters,” “Leave It to Psmith,” “Bech: A Book,” “Sabbath’s Theater,” Carl Hiaasen’s novels, Jim Harrison’s early novels (“Warlock,” “A Good Day to Die”), Richard Russo’s “Straight Man,” Michael Chabon’s “Wonder Boys,” “Catch-22″ and “Candy.” Waugh, Gogol and John Mortimer received votes, too, and one colleague who is usually not given to laughing out loud while reading said, “‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ and ‘The Anatomy Lesson’ both made my stomach hurt.”

Then there is The Guardian’s grand list of comedic novels (listed alphabetically, by author) which comes in four parts. I think The Guardian has the best — and by ‘best’ I do mean balancing both literary tastes with actual humor — and perhaps most extensive list of humor/comedic novels you’re likely to find; I’d make it highly recommended for those that are interested in this sort of thing (although if there are better lists out there, I would love to know them):

Of course, I thought of some novels I felt warranted inclusion on the list, but such is humor, and such is literature when it comes to the vagaries of list-making. And, this in itself is a smaller part of The Guardian’s incredible, ambitious list project — 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read. The 1000 Novels list is a must-read itself. Be sure to give it a visit if you’re looking for novels to discover. There’s pretty much something for everyone.

Esquire (“The Funniest Books Ever, part one” and “The Funniest Books Ever, part two”) also weighs in with a list of their own. I found a few I’m going to have to add to my ever-growing reading list (always wanted to read David Lodge’s Changing Places.) The lists sticks close to contemporary writers, covering names both familiar (Philip Roth/Portnoy’s Complaint, to Kingsley Amis/Lucky Jim) and less-familiar.

Update: and here is Esquire’s “The Funniest Books Ever, part three.” Good job, Esquire. A pretty solid list all in all. Personally, I found Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End one of the funniest novels I’ve read recently.

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While we’re at it, let’s also mention mention NPR’s piece, “The Funniest, and Scariest, Book Ever Written” about Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. Metafiction, bicycles, black boxes. What a funny, strange, curious book that was.

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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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