John "The Gneech" Robey (the_gneech) wrote,
John "The Gneech" Robey

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We Are All Wodehouse

The list of people who think of Wodehouse as a primary inspiration is full of people I admire; Douglas Adams is right at the top of it (he basically described his own style as a Wodehouse pastiche), Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie are on there, and so on. And I wouldn't fool anyone if I tried to claim that the Brigid and Greg Fictionlets hadn't come largely from my reading of Wodehouse, and Bertie and Jeeves in particular.

But I do have a problem about that, which is this: there are too many neo-Wodehouses out there. Every novel I pick up that seems like it would fall roughly into the same genre as a Brigid and Greg novel, also seems to be inspired by Wodehouse -- except they generally try to "serious it up" somewhere along the way by introducing Not-Bertie's drug-addicted sister and tossing in copious amounts of sex, swearing, or people swearing while they have sex.

There's also the little problem of believability. A couple of weeks ago, The New Yorker ran a story which is gone from the site now, but had a title along the lines of "What It Was Like to Be Dead" about a man whose wife's long-lost first husband reappears after having got amnesia in the Vietnam war and wandered off to Scotland. In this story, the Not-Bertie narrator mentioned getting something "right in the beezer" and my suspension of disbelief went right out the window.

Dude. Seriously. "Right in the beezer" might be something that an airheaded Etonian might say in the 1930s -- it is not something that some cynical middle class American guy would use while talking about his marriage falling apart.

For that matter, what's the deal using a light, airy, "I'm not Bertie Wooster, I promise" voice to narrate what is essentially a depressing (and supposedly philosophical) story? I hope you don't mind spoilers, but the story ends with the narrator's life turned upside down and the wife headed off to what the narrator is pretty sure is going to be a life of misery -- and the Wodehousian pastiche that was all over the front of the story is quickly tarnishing by the end.

Why do the pastiche at all if it's not what you want to write? I presume the waxing philosophical at the end is the writer's more natural voice ... was the Wodehouse a crutch to get you started? Or a disguise to trick me into reading what I thought would be Story A, only so you could switch up and hit me with Story B halfway through?

Thing is, this is typical of pretty much all the neo-Wodehouses I encounter. They start out with fluff (which Wodehouse would be the first to tell you is what he wrote), and then halfway through they suddenly want to be taken seriously and start lobbing drama at you. Wodehouse once said of his work that he wrote musical comedies, except with the music taken out. Not so, the neo-Wodehouses, who seem intent on writing The Sound and the Fury with an Etonian airhead narrating it.

An important exception: I would like to mention Four Weddings and a Funeral here as being this kind of neo-Wodehouse thing done right. For one thing, while I'm sure Richard Curtis had read Wodehouse, he doesn't just copy Wodehouse. Charles may very well be an Etonian airhead, but he is enough of his own character to not fall into the "Not Bertie" category. For another, even though there is some drama in the story ("...and a Funeral"), it is an important story element rather than just feeling like it came out of nowhere to "heavy up" the film -- and things go right back to being funny again.

Anyway, I'm not sure what got me ranting on this today; it's just something I've been thinking about in regards to the B&G story I guess, and I woke up wanting to get my thoughts down. Sort of a "Note to myself: DON'T DO THIS!" kind of thing. As I once said of R. E. Howard and my fantasy stories, I want my work to be mine, not Wodehouse's. :)

-The Gneech
Tags: reading, writing
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