Category Archives: On writing

Writing tips and stuff like that.

Francine Prose makes a Charlie of herself

This morning, I discovered the Grauniad was running a blog post in their Comment is free section, entitled I admire Charlie Hebdo’s courage. But it does not deserve a PEN award. It is signed by somebody rejoicing in the moniker of Francine Prose. Yeah, I thought so too, but apparently it’s her real name. As far as I can tell, her forte is writing constipated verbiage reminiscent of the more indigestible 20th century French authors… and indeed, she won a prize for translating Marguerite Duras’s L’amant in 1988. However, whatever her writing talents, we glean from this that her understanding of written French is considered to be pretty hot.

The subheader to her post is:

The award is for writers and journalists who tell us the truth about the world in which we live, not drawing rude caricatures and mocking religion.

Where to start? For somebody who is supposed to be a high-flying professional wordsmith, she shows abysmal lack of understanding of what constitutes satire. For someone who is supposed to be bilingual, she displays appalling ignorance of French culture. Needless to say, she also exhibits all the characteristics of never having read a single copy of Charlie Hebdo in her puff.

Most of her Guardian piece is taken up with a list of names that she would have preferred to win. On this subject, Ms Prose, neither Chelsea Manning nor Edward Snowden have ever been journalists. Their inclusion is a red herring, no doubt to try and give your own complaint more apparent validity. It’s also a pity that you go on and further scuttle yourself with moronic pronouncements like this:

But I also don’t feel that it is the mission of PEN to fight the war on terrorism; that is the role of our government. Our job, in presenting an award, is to honor writers and journalists who are saying things that need to be said, who are working actively to tell us the truth about the world in which we live.

Yes, dear: satire is one way of presenting things that need to be said, and Charlie Hebdo is one of those rare publications – like Private Eye –  that report stories not covered by the mainstream media. Incidentally, governments can’t fight terrorism if they’re being undermined by simpering idiots who fixate on a couple of cartoons and parrot the “oh noes, we mustn’t upset the [insert religious group here]” bollocks. Fighting terrorism is a group effort. Don’t whine that it’s the government’s job and wash your hands of it.

If journalism’s job excludes denouncing terrorism, racism, or religious bullying, then what’s left? Surely, surely, this can’t be  an enormous case of snit on the part of Ms Prose simply because Charlie Hebdo often expresses itself in a far earthier manner than her own middle-class, white heroes?

I have looked upon Charlie Hebdo – I’m a subscriber – and found it amazingly well written. Prose that would not disgrace a prizewinning novel (we begin to see the origins of Francine’s sour grapery) describes the misery of a Rom camp wandering from eviction to eviction, unable even to get a decent burial for their dead. The current edition contains an extract from an essay by Charb which neatly nails Ms Prose and her ilk, making the point that those who say “islamophobia”, when the real problem is racism, are abetting the racists. It’s a 2-page spread, beautifully argued and eminently readable, whether or not you agree with the conclusions.

The final paragraph of Prose’s monumental hissy fit begins:

The narrative of the Charlie Hebdo murders – white Europeans killed in their offices by Muslim extremists…

White Europeans like Mustapha Ourrad and Ahmed Merabet? Straight guys like Stéphane Charbonnier, aka Charb? Monuments of the patriarchy like Elsa Cayat?

White Europeans like the nice chap who picked up my dropped copy of Charlie in the Metro last week and handed it back to me with a huge, conspiratorial Senegalese wink?

Bitch puh-leeze.

On writing: a funny thing happened on the way to the blog…

English: A photo of a cup of coffee. Esperanto...

It runs in every writer's veins (Image via Wikipedia)

Being funny on purpose is not easy. Ask any professional jokester. Whether they’re commenting on current events or churning out a sitcom, it’s draining work. You see, what is amusing to you may not strike your audience as such, quite the reverse. If you’re lucky, they may find it offensive. Hey, at least it’s a reaction. If you’re unlucky or, more likely, untalented, they may find it deadly boring. If you want to make people snort coffee through their noses you first have to sweat coffee over the keyboard. Yes, writing requires a lot of coffee (or tea). Psychoanalysts would probably describe us as oral- or anal-fixated.

Fair enough. I would describe psychoanalysts as arseholes; not that I have a fixation about them, you understand.

What? Oh yes, writing, any type of writing. If you’re serious about it, you have to be relentlessly self-critical. You have to be prepared to show your efforts to friends and family, and not be mortally humiliated when they say “meh”. This will happen a lot. It will hurt. It should hurt. If it doesn’t, you’re too insensitive and are in the wrong job. Try politics instead.

Do you know what the most frustrating part is, though? When you’ve slaved hours over a piece (and it takes far longer to write good comedy than straight prose), sent it off to the editor or producer, or hit ‘Publish’ and that’s it. It’s finished, could be better, but on the whole you’re not ashamed of it. Then, on the day your tender baby is delivered into the pitiless, ravening maw of the uncultured public, it gets laughs in all the wrong places. If it gets laughs.

In turn, actors have the same problem. What they think is hilarious in a script probably will not coincide with the author’s views on the subject. Nor will it coincide with the audience’s; you have to be prepared to move swiftly on when an expected laugh fails to materialise, or pause when the audience guffaw at what seemed a perfectly uninteresting line during rehearsals. Moreover, not content with continually screwing up your comic timing with displaced merriment, every single fucking audience will laugh in different places every night. No wonder entertainers all seem neurotic.

So, to my point: the author is the worst possible person to decide which are the really rib-tickling parts of his or her work. I still don’t understand why my throwaway description of that toothless industry watchdog, the PCC, as a “piece of wilted, deliquescent lettuce” on another blog got more chuckles and retweets than quips here that even the SO categorised as: “Yeah, s’pose it’s OK.” Similarly, Ken over at Popehat remains totally bemused at the wildfire spread of his invitation to an annoying troll to “snort my taint.”

This, in short, is why you should never, ever, self-publish a book entitled I say funny things*. Especially if you have poor spelling and can’t be arsed to proof-read your own web pages. It is not for you to decide if you are funny. Nor even your family, heartwarming though it is to make them smile.

The only people who can tell you if you’re genuinely funny are complete strangers. Cherish the stranger. If you’re ever going to make a living out of humour, they’re the ones who’ll be paying your rent and coffee bills.


* I did wonder at first if I was doing the right thing in linking to the site of the poor, deluded woman – she thinks you can reconcile science, feminism and biblical literalism – who made this embarrassing faux-pas. Then I remembered she regularly touts her ebooks on Twitter, where she also claimed “Following the teachings of Jesus, I have put myself next 2 the suffering, the imprisoned, those going thru the worst life“, before going on to patronise and insult complete strangers. Unfortunately, I find I don’t have the nastiness in me to apply Luke 6:31 to her Twattings.