“HISTORY repeats itself,” said Karl Marx, refining Hegel, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” But it is not just history. At the moment, it seems that most non-fiction writing is undergoing an essential transformation from gravity to comedy in the battle to reach a wider readership.
since Aristophanes wrote The Frogs in 405BC, comic writing has thrived on
its ability to appropriate and subvert the conventions of an existing genre and,
by doing so, to find a more immediate means of engaging with its audience than
the serious original.
might even be said that comic writing is the inevitable evolution of any mode of
written communication: newspapers spawned satirical magazines; science fiction
spawned The Hitchhiker's Guide; war reporting spawned P. J. O’Rourke;
and, in recent years, since the likes of Laurence Van Der Post, Wilfred Thesiger
and Bruce Chatwin have between them exhausted the world's undiscovered places,
travel writing has had to evolve in a new comic direction to keep readers
interested, so it spawned Bill Bryson.
Bryson's winning formula (since Notes Front a Small
Island was first published in 1995, he hasn't produced a non-bestseller) is
simple: he approaches his subjects with a combination of curiosity, warmth,
affected incomprehension and self-deprecation.
that almost every other travel writer has seen the rewards to be reaped from
such an irresistible blend and followed suit, Bryson has cannily transferred
these qualities to the field of science writing. Undaunted, his readers have
remained loyal and a week after publication A Short History of Nearly
Everything (Doubleday £20) sits in his usual perch atop the bestseller
the same time, journalist and
comedian Mark Steel has produced Vive la Revolution (Scribner
£10.99), subtitled “A Stand-Up History of the French Revolution”. Comic
histories are not new, of course; the
genre was defined by Sellar
and Yeatman’s masterly 1066 and all That, first published in
1931, and any parent or teacher will concur that facts are much more digestible
to young readers when sugared with a bit of humour - Terry Deary's Horrible
Histories series is hugely popular with children. And if children learn more
cheerfully and easily through a comic approach, why shouldn't the same
principles apply to books aimed at the adult market?
Ten years ago, science, history, politics and
philosophy were largely the province of academics writing for other academics.
Then came a discernible shift, arguably occasioned by Dava Sobel's bestselling Longitude
in 1996, whereby writers
- both academic and lay - began to make incursions into these disciplines in
lively books aimed at general readers. The introduction of a novelistic
narrative voice and efforts to reanimate and humanise historical characters all
helped to rekindle a public appetite for subjects previously inaccessible to all
but the most dogged of general readers. Where once the word “historian”
conjured images of threadbare cardigans and dust-laden archives, it has now
become synonymous with primetime series and million-pound book deals.
the comic approach is simply the next step along the road to accessibility. Both
Steel and Bryson avow the same motivation in their introductions: to cut through
the pomposity and dullness of much serious writing in their chosen fields and
produce a book that would be read and, crucially, enjoyed by non-experts
like themselves, people who wanted the answers to questions they were afraid
sounded stupid. “What exactly is a proton?” or “Why did the
But both these books, as well as being great reads, are far from
insubstantial; both are meticulously researched (Bryson's took three years) with
comprehensive indexes (in Steel's, the juxtaposition of Kurt Cobain and William
Cobbett testifies to the breadth of his reading).
Smart, comic non-fiction is clearly the future. If only more comic writers could be persuaded away from endless novels and downstairs-loo guides to relationships and instead towards palatable humorous studies of, say, the history of the Middle East conflict or the single currency, they'd be read by thousands, and within a very short time we'd be a supremely well-informed nation.
On the bus or the Tube, we'd routinely exchange amusing anecdotes and trivia about the Hundred Years War or the discovery of DNA, and everyone would be a winner on Millionaire. It's an ambitious vision, yes, but one worth fighting for.