A funny thing happened on the way to the tumbrel. Or the DNA lab...
 Stephanie Meritt, The Observer, June 15, 2003

“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.

Ever 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.

It 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.

Now 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 charts.

At 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.

So 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 Revolution start?”

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.


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