This is no. 97 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
At a recent writing conference panel, a group of writers and I sat at the head of a packed room and spoke for well over an hour about women and humor. It was an interesting conversation; we all cared deeply about the topic since our writing contained different forms of comedy. Since the panel was so well attended, we wound up fielding a tremendous number of questions once the session was over. There were many good questions, but one stuck out in particular: A woman inquired why one of the writers didn’t think that self-deprecating humor was a valuable form of comedic writing.
The response was that self-deprecating humor is often lazy, that it is choosing to focus on the negative aspects of the self instead of engaging with the larger picture of the outside world. The person who asked the question responded with the fact that they were queer, and that self-deprecating humor felt important to them and their coming out process, so therefore it felt significant to their writing of queer characters.
I considered that response for the rest of the afternoon, and in fact, I am still thinking about it today. I would absolutely say that what I find funny in writing (and in life) sits inside the realm of the self-deprecating. I like joking around about my work as well as joking around about myself—throw my Word doc in the computer recycling bin, throw me in along after it, that kind of thing. Self-deprecating humor, to me, is funny. But I also understand that not everyone finds the same things humorous. Taste is subjective, right? Well, humor is too.
When I think about self-deprecating humor, I often attach it to my queerness. When I was first coming out—or perhaps even before I was all the way out, just one toe out the door—I was thinking about who I was as a person and how I wanted to be seen. I did not, in fact, want to be a lesbian. It made my life (stuffed inside an evangelical, very Southern Baptist family) extremely difficult. So upon coming out, my go-to resource was humor that was self-deprecating. It was easy to poke fun at the things that made me weird or different—the things I did not, in fact, wish to be. It is a way in which many queer people learn to process things. By making fun of ourselves, we are better able to understand the things that we can’t seem to uproot.
Not every queer person forms their sense of humor from a place of self-deprecation. But if my humor started out from this specific site, then perhaps self-deprecation has essentially formed my identity and therefore influences my writing.
When applied to queer work, self-deprecating humor becomes a touchstone not only for the author, but for the queer reader. Consider Peter Kispert’s recent short fiction collection, I Know You Know Who I Am (Penguin Books, 2020). Many of these stories contain characters hiding behind a facade. By presenting themselves packaged as a lie, they are able to deceive others for some form of gain—generally, intimacy. But if we consider that so many of these lies are built upon the fact that the characters dislike themselves, then the humor is obviously self-deprecating. To sit with a character who creates a fake friend so he can have something to talk about with his boyfriend, then paying an actor to pretend to be that fake friend? Hilarious, but also deeply self-loathing. I need to make up something better than me to present to this person in order to keep them, it tells the reader. Funny and sad all at once!
There is much to be mined from self-deprecating humor, especially if we remember that it can deeply inform characterization in fiction. After all, writers are always searching out ways to flesh the “bag of bones,” as Thomas Hardy put it. Maybe that bag of bones is rooting around in the dumpster. Maybe that bag of bones wants to fight a raccoon over the carcass of a rotisserie chicken. Maybe that bag of bones winds up with nothing to show for it but a fistful of grimy chicken fat and maybe they hate themselves for it. And hey, you know what? Maybe that’s a little bit funny.
Kristen Arnett is a queer writer based in Florida. She is the author of the novel Mostly Dead Things (Tin House, 2019), which was a New York Times best-seller, and the story collection Felt in the Jaw (Split/Lip Press, 2017). Her writing has also appeared in the New York Times, North American Review, Gulf Coast, Guernica, and McSweeney’s, among other publications. Her second novel, With Teeth, is forthcoming from Riverhead Books in June.Thumbnail: Jackson Simmer