This year, literature's biggest prizes for fiction, the Pulitzer and the Booker, went to novels by American writers of color: Viet Nguyen's The Sympathizer and Paul Beatty's The Sellout, respectively. Both books owe a debt to Ralph Ellison's 1952 classic, Invisible Man, in that they depict protagonists struggling to reconcile their self-perception with the false images society projects on to them. W.E.B. Du Bois termed this "double consciousness," the "sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others." "I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces," begins The Sympathizer; while the The Sellout opens with, "This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I've never stolen anything." The difference is that The Sympathizer, like Invisible Man, is primarily a tragic text with elements of dark humor, but The Sellout is pure comic absurdism from start to finish, about an African American man named Bonbon Me on trial before the Supreme Court for attempting to reinstate slavery and segregation. While we've become accustomed to stand-up comedians—from Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor to Dave Chappelle and Hari Kondabolu—tackling the issue of race in America, the comic novel feels undervalued, if not ignored by the Literary Establishment.
In part, this is a problem facing all comic novelists, as Howard Jacobson, author of The Finkler Question, the last comic novel to win the Booker in 2010, argued in the Guardian: "There is a fear of comedy in the novel today—when did you last see the word 'funny' on the jacket of a serious novel?" Although he says that "stand-up comedy is riding higher than ever," he also cautions that "we have created a false division between laughter and thought, between comedy and seriousness, between the exhilaration that the great novels offer when they are at their funniest, and whatever else it is we now think we want from literature."
For writers of color, there is also the question of subject matter. Jacobson, a Jewish Londoner, is surely aware of the difficulties of taking a comic approach to the historical oppression of Jews, which is why Mel Brooks's films Blazing Saddles and The Producers remain controversial to this day. The same is true for black writers. In 1935, Richard Wright wrote in the New Masses about Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, that she was maintaining "the minstrel technique that makes the 'white folks laugh' and showed 'no desire whatsoever to move in the direction of serious fiction.'"
The comic novel feels undervalued if not ignored by the Literary Establishment.
Similar criticisms have been leveled at Ishmael Reed, who wrote, amongst others, a comic novel about slavery called Flight to Canada. But his influence can still be seen on the next generation, writers like Junot Díaz, Percival Everett, Colson Whitehead, and Paul Beatty himself. Nonetheless, Wright's comments about Hurston have not been lost to history; the fear of being misunderstood by white audiences remains, that they might miss the irony and revert to laughing at black characters. As Richard Pryor said, "There's a thin line between to laugh with and to laugh at."
We see this fear come to life in Percival Everett's darkly funny novel, Erasure (2001), where the narrator, an author whose surname happens to be Ellison, writes difficult, theoretical novels while being dismayed by the success of books that rely on grotesque stereotypes of black people. Ultimately, he pens his own parodic version called Fuck, which becomes a bestseller. Fuck ends with the narrator saying, "Look at me. I on TV," while Erasure itself ends with "'Egads, I'm on television." High culture or low, Everett seems to be saying, "our version" only enters the mainstream when it mutilates itself into congruence with "their version," and this is the root of Paul Beatty's fear of being misread. "I get nervous when things don't make people nervous," he said in an interview with Playboy, before telling told the Wall Street Journal, "The part that scares me with the satire label is that there's an implication of being entertaining."
These dangers notwithstanding, by refusing to abandon the comic "race novel," Beatty and his peers have gone on to influence a new generation of writers working in this genre. This year we have seen two highly acclaimed debuts by writers of color in Kaitlyn Greenidge's We Love You, Charlie Freeman, about a black family who move to the all-white Berkshires to try to help a chimpanzee learn to speak, and Jade Chang's The Wangs vs. the World, about a Chinese American family of millionaires who lose everything after the 2008 financial crisis.
When I spoke to Jade Chang she confirmed Beatty's influence, referring to his first novel, The White Boy Shuffle (1996). "It was maybe the first book I'd ever read that talked about race with humor," she said over email. "I think humor is useful for anyone trying to speak an uncomfortable truth. A recognition of the absurd often goes hand-in-hand with a recognition of injustice."
The Wangs vs. the World features a character called Andrew, whose difficulties in attempting to be a stand-up comedian mirror those facing the comic novelist of color. "The word 'microaggression' wasn't widely used when I first started writing this book," Chang explained. "But Andrew starts out doing comedy that comments on the daily indignities of being a person of color in America. The stand-up sets in the book were an interesting balancing act because Andrew is aware that he's speaking to mostly white audiences, yet he is still determined to center his own voice and experiences."
In other words, it's the same problem of "double consciousness" addressed, more than 60 years ago, in Invisible Man, a term that's a near-perfect synonym for irony. Andrew is attempting to turn an in-joke into an "out-joke," revealing the inadequacy of "their version" as well as his own. But lowering your defenses in this way requires confidence not only in yourself but in the humanity of one's audience—particularly one's white audience.
Rajeev Balasubramanyam's latest novel is called Starstruck. Follow him on Twitter.