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Humor can work the same way in fiction by building similar bonds and forming another layer of subtext.Both humor and subtext make generous assumptions about the audience’s intelligence, compassion, and attentiveness; an author who uses subtext takes the risk that the reader won’t pick up on it, losing the thread of the story, just as the comedian takes the risk that the audience won’t understand his joke, settling into a serious silence.He’s always playing against the language barrier for a laugh, but while he’s misunderstanding everyone and being misunderstood, our understanding of him as a performer deepens as our laughter effectively says, “We are so simpatico, you and I, that we both understand not just what you said, but what you were trying to say, as well as everything that was implied by the discrepancy.” So, just as with subtext, the rewards of humor are a deepening bond with each successful communication.We’ve all broken the ice with a joke in the company of strangers and felt a good laugh cementing a friendship.
Continuing on from my previous posts on the subject—in which I discussed and provided an example of humor as a literary tool and a sense—I want to get into the meat of my argument today and look at the relationship between humor and subtext.
Maybe you’ll get so involved in the circumstances as to hazard an informed guess at the identity of the murderer—but unless it is a particularly literary crime novel, you won’t ever have to wonder at the inner workings of the main detective, the emotions that she may be hiding from even herself, or what her struggles imply about the human condition.
It is the mental and emotional work involved in all that implying that turns a lot of readers of off literary fiction, but for those that stick with it, the rewards are great.
But my own personal search for a good ice-breaker has made me realize it is a quixotic (and greedy) quest.
When you think about it, what phrase could appeal to all audiences everywhere?
I don’t think anyone has written so clearly on subtext as Charles Baxter does in his short treatise, , which I highly recommend and am greatly indebted to.