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We read so much about the fame enjoyed by established authors, but it can be easy to forget they were not always such creatures of success, that they were once young, and sometimes lost too. J. K. Rowling lived off food stamps for a time; George Orwell was frequently homeless; even the revered C. S. Lewis received over 800 rejections before he was able to sell any of his writing.
Those who are skilled and fortunate enough to become accomplished writers seldom make their starts with immediate bestsellers or unanimous critical praise. Some authors do not even enter into the business of writing until their later years. While people frequently ask where acclaimed authors are now, lately I have been ruminating on where they were at my age. At 21, were they earning bachelor’s degrees? Getting married? Sifting through publishers’ letters in hopes of finding something other than another rejection? My curiosity has led me to examine the younger days of three black comedy writers, who developed into esteemed writers in their own time.
A Very Brief History of Black Comedy
Many writers have fascinating background stories, but today I want to focus on authors with an affinity for the darkly droll. Black comedy first peaked my interest when I read Charlotte Perkins’ short story “The Yellow Wallpaper”. An exploration of mental illness and its interplay with reality, it provides myriad examples of this type of humor that arises from stressful, grotesque or life-threatening situations and manages to be funny in the face of, or as a result of, such events. “Humour noir” was coined by Surrealist theoretician Andrè Breton in 1935, first catalogued in his Anthology of Black Humor. Though it includes excerpts from 44 other writers, the anthology credits Jonathan Swift, author of such unforgettable works as Gulliver’s Travels but also the 1729 satirical essay “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burden on Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick“, as the architect of black humor. The objective of black comedy is typically to induce the reader to experience both laughter and discomfort, often simultaneously—an experience with which readers of Perkins and Swift are intimately familiar.
Here are three authors of black comedy I’ve handpicked:
Thomas Pynchon (1937— )
Noted works: V, Gravity’s Rainbow
Where was he then? Cornell
At 21, Thomas Pynchon found himself in a place fairly familiar to most young adults today: college. After excelling in high school and graduating at 16, Pynchon was awarded a scholarship to Cornell University, where he studied engineering physics until he left to serve in the Navy his sophomore year. He returned to Cornell in 1957, at which time he transferred to an English degree program. Like many aspiring writers, he was on the editorial staff of his school’s literary journal, The Cornell Writer. (It may interest you to know that a copy of its first issue would drain you of about $1250 today.) During this time his first short story, “The Small Rain”, was published in the literary journal. By 22, Pynchon had earned his BA with distinction. Though he quickly began publishing his writings after that, he had to work as an engineering aide for Boeing for the next few years. Not long after V was published in 1963, Pynchon was awarded the William Faulkner Foundation Award for the best debut novel of the year. Needless to say, Pynchon never went back to Boeing.
Though his academic performance was well above average, Pynchon’s college career was much like mine, and likely yours. Oh, except for the part about starting school several years early. And the whole leave-temporarily-to-join-the-navy thing. And the bit about switching from engineering physics to English, and still managing to graduate with distinction. Okay, so actually he was pretty much as extraordinary in college as he was when he wrote Gravity’s Rainbow.
Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977)
Noted darkly comic works: Lolita, Pnin
Where was he then? Cambridge
Like Pynchon, Vladimir Nabokov had a more eventful youth than most. A personal favorite of mine, Nabokov was trilingual in English, French and his native Russian before he reached his teens. He published his first collection of poems in 1916, while he was studying in St. Petersburg at the Institute Ténichev. Revolutionary rioting in 1917 forced Nabokov and his family to move temporarily to Crimea and then to England, where Nabokov enrolled in Cambridge. Though he was largely dissatisfied with university life, he managed to graduate in 1922 with degrees in French and Russian literature. Soon after, his family moved to Berlin where, sadly, his father was murdered. Nabokov continued to write, usually at night due to incessant insomnia, and to live in the city where he would soon meet and marry his wife, Vera Slonim. He was able to subsist partially by publishing poems, translations and criticisms, but he had to supplement his income by teaching tennis, giving English lessons, acting as an extra or cast member in films and theatre productions, and by creating some of the first Russian crossword puzzles.
The only part of Nabokov’s story that rings familiar to me is his disillusionment with school. His penchant for languages, international moves and family tragedies are not the usual course for the average 21-year-old. I think it’s safe to say his accomplishments as a writer—and there are many—are all the more impressive for his tumultuous youth.
Kurt Vonnegut (1922–2007)
Noted works: Slaughterhouse Five
Where was he then? Prisoner during World War II
Kurt Vonnegut, like Pynchon, attended Cornell and wrote for one of their publications, The Sun. He studied chemistry as a self-professed “lousy student”, but he never earned his degree. At 20, Vonnegut joined the army and was sent to Europe, where he was soon taken prisoner at the Battle of the Bulge. Anyone who has read Slaughterhouse Five will be familiar with what happened next: he was sent to Dresden, where a deluge of incendiary bombs were dropped by the Allies on 13 February 1945. Vonnegut and his fellow POWs survived the firestorm in a slaughterhouse, but they soon experienced the carnage first hand when they were tasked to gather the remains of the dead, which included 60,000 civilians. Around this time, Vonnegut’s mother committed suicide. Before he achieved literary success, Vonnegut worked in advertising at General Electric while writing fiction during his spare time.
Considering his backstory, Vonnegut’s appetite for dark humor should come as no surprise. By the time he was my age, Vonnegut had seen more terrible things than most people have in their whole lives. Sadly, he experienced later tragedies as well including the deaths of his sister and brother-in-law, not to mention his divorce and his difficulty coping with his son’s bipolar disorder. As Vonnegut would say, “So it goes.”