Favorite Humorous Stories – Mark Twain

No survey of humorous stories is complete without including those of Mark Twain. Having assigned myself the recent task of choosing three of my favorites, I have spent many happy hours immersed in the pages of his funny tales. My chief resource has been Mark Twain. Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852-1890, published by The Library of America, (1992), from which all quotes are taken. My choices are completely personal, based not so much on a story’s literary merit but on its capacity to make me laugh. Some people will immediately take issue with me for not including Twain’s famous story “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” (first published November, 1865), which was later reprinted as “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” True, it’s a great funny story, but for me it lacks the sheer absurdity and audaciousness that characterize Twain’s best stories. So here are my three favorites. You’ll just have to read his stories and make your own list.

When I read “How I Edited an Agricultural Paper (first published July, 1870), my first impression was how well it applied to our current fact-challenged times. Twain did write for a variety of small newspapers and magazines, so I suspect there is a seed of truth upon which the story is based. It begins as the narrator temporarily fills in for the editor of an agricultural newspaper, who goes on vacation. Upon his return, the editor reacts indignantly to what his temp has written in his absence: about turnips growing on trees, the “moulting season for cows,” that “the pumpkin, as a shade tree, is a failure,” and discussing oyster beds under the heading of landscape gardening. Twain comes right back at the editor in equally indignant terms, claiming that he his articles have greatly increased the newspaper’s circulation (as fascinated readers clamored to find out what the new guy would write next). Twain’s final rebuttal to the editor makes this story as fresh as the day it was written: “… I tell you that the less a man knows the bigger noise he makes and the higher salary he commands.” Remind you of any “news” commentator or talking head you know?

“The Story of the Good Little Boy Who Did Not Prosper” (first published May, 1870) tells the story of a boy named Jacob who “always obeyed his parents, no matter how absurd and unreasonable their demands were…” So right off the bat, with the title and opening line, we are given ample clues of the writer’s own attitudes toward childhood and the prevailing popular sentiments surrounding it. We learn in the story that Jacob read his Sunday-school books with great passion, and admired the little boys portrayed there. In fact, his greatest ambition was to be put in such a book himself. But no matter how hard he tried, nothing ever went right with him. He tried so hard to be good but, unlike the good little boys in the Sunday-school books, never got his reward. In his life, it was always the bad boys who came out on top. Finally, he encounters one such group of bad boys, as they tethered together a pack of dogs and were about to attach some empty cans of nitro-glycerine to their tails. Jacob happens to sit down on one of these cans and, well, you can see where this is going. I’ll leave it to you to find out what happens to poor Jacob. Let’s just say, it was not a pretty sight. Twain concludes, “His case is truly remarkable. It will probably never be accounted for.”

Last but not least of my favorite Twain stories is “Cannibalism in the Cars (first published November, 1868). On a train to St. Louis, the narrator tells of meeting a stranger, a “mild, benevolent-looking gentleman,” who sits down beside him and relates a “strange adventure, speaking sometimes with animation, sometimes with melancholy, but always with feeling and earnestness.” (I love that introduction. Not only does it set the mood for the story, but it’s an apt description of the way the author himself wrote and spoke.) The stranger relates the events of an evening train ride from St. Louis to Chicago. Aboard were twenty-four passengers, all male. Later that evening, it begins to snow hard, and eventually the train comes to a complete halt, trapped in the middle of nowhere by a huge snow-drift. Days go by, and the men get hungrier and hungrier. They have plenty of wood aboard with which to keep warm, but not a lick of food. On the seventh day, one of the men makes a grim announcement: “Gentlemen,—It cannot be delayed any longer! The time is at hand! We must determine which of us shall die to furnish food for the rest!” The methodical manner by which one of them is elected, with the passengers voting on the issue as if they were members of Congress, is hysterical. It also demonstrates my long held opinion that no topic, no matter how repugnant or unthinkable, is taboo for a humorist. Remember this story was written when the tragic fate of the Donner Party (1847) was still fresh in people’s minds. At last, the train survivors sit down to their gruesome feast, “with hearts full of gratitude to the finest supper that had blessed our vision for seven torturing days.” In delicious detail the stranger recounts the culinary qualities of the man they had just consumed as well as the others to follow (yes, they went on to elect and eat others). I will leave it to you, dear reader, to see how the writer could possibly end such a tale. Bon appétit!







Note to Amazon: Holding books hostage not a good business plan

I joined over 900 authors in signing Douglas Preston’s excellent letter protesting Amazon’s recent strong arm tactics with book publisher Hachette and its authors. It was published as a two-page ad in last Sunday’s edition of the New York Times. (For the first time in my literary career, my name appears on the same page as Stephen King, Avi, Paul Auster, Scott Turow, and Barbara Kingsolver!). I have been a long time supporter of Amazon and, like the other authors, do not take sides on the Hachette-Amazon dispute. But what Amazon is doing is wrong. As Preston notes in his letter, “None of us, neither readers nor authors, benefit when books are taken hostage.”  You can read the entire letter here  http://www.authorsunited.net/


Writers: On Learning to Fail Gracefully

Ever heard of the Fitz-Greene Halleck? Didn’t think so. How about Herman Melville? Sure, everyone’s heard about him. Yet both were failures, in a sense. At one time, Halleck was one of the most famous poets of his century. Now he’s pretty much a nobody. And while Melville’s classic Moby Dick continues to be read and revered today, it was largely ignored by the reading public of his day, who much preferred his early inferior works. These and other examples are explored in this wonderful witty essay by Stephen Marche in the NY Times Sunday Review. It is a must read for all writers as well as would-be writers – “those who have failed to be writers in the first place.”  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/27/opinion/sunday/failure-is-our-muse.html?_r=0

How Not to Become Extinct

Despite one of his best known works How to Become Extinct, Will Cuppy’s books show no sign of ever going the way of the dodo. His pithy, curmudgeonly style of satiric humor influenced many writers, myself included. He died in 1949, but his works are still funny and relevant today. I find his 1931 classic How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes especially useful at parties and reunions. Fortunately most of his books are still in print and available at Amazon  http://www.amazon.com/Will-Cuppy/e/B001H6IZDU/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0


Favorite Humorous Stories – Woody Allen

Choosing the next writer to include in this series was a no-brainer. Known to many chiefly for his legendary movies and comic routines, Woody Allen was also a master of the humorous short story. But selecting which three stories to include here was a difficult task, one that forced me to spend the better part of a morning rereading some of his story collections. Not a bad way to spend some time. No demons or dark thoughts could survive against the relentless onslaught of Woody’s absurdity.

I’ll start with “The Kugelmass Episode.” If you’ve never read the story, right off you’re wondering, Who the hell was Kugelmass and why should I care? Since you’re hooked already, I’ll tell you. Kugelmass is a professor at City College who’s unhappy with his marriage. So he seeks the services of a magician by the name of The Great Persky, who promises to bring some excitement to his life. He tells Kugelmass to climb into a cabinet where he “can meet any of the women created by the world’s best writers.” All Kugelmass has to do is choose a book and Persky promises to project him into it for however long he wishes. Choosing Madame Bovary, Kugelmass proceeds to have an passionate affair with Emma, while at the same time dismaying literary professors and students the world over who puzzle over the sudden appearance of Kugelmass as a new character in the book. I’ll stop there. You’ll just have to read the story to find out how the affair turns out.

Another of my Woody Favorites is “The Shallowest Man.” Like most of his stories, it starts in some familiar setting in Manhattan and is told in the first person by an urbane narrator who is usually well-versed in literature, art, philosophy and the latest trends in modern culture. While sitting in a delicatessen, the narrator Koppelman brings up the name of Lenny Mendel as “positively the shallowest human he’d ever come across, bar none,” and then proceeds to tell a story backing up his claim. The story is deliciously cynical, and I’ll leave it to you to decide whether Lenny truly deserves this title.

One of the things I most like about the story “This Nib for Hire” is the preposterous name Woody gives to one of the characters—E. Coli Biggs. It is safe to say that no other writer in literary history ever considered using E. coli for a name. The main character, Flanders Mealworm, is offered a job by film producer Biggs to write a novelization of a classic old movie starring the Three Stooges. Flanders, who considers himself  a writer of serious literature, flat out refuses, then reluctantly decides to sacrifice his integrity for promised riches. Check out the story to see how the novelization works out.

Many of Woody Allen’s stories first appeared in The New Yorker. “This Nib for Hire.” can be found in his book Mere Anarchy, while the other two are part of the collection Side Effects.


Favorite Humorous Stories

Picture1This was going to be a top ten list of my favorite humorous stories that have influenced me the most as a writer. But I got into a nasty argument with myself about which ones to include. Since I seldom win these arguments, I quickly conceded defeat. So I decided to write this instead as a series of installments, each focusing on one writer. That way I can live with myself and don’t have to choose just one story.

Where to begin? For me that’s easy. From early on I was always attracted to writers who could not only set me to convulsive laughter, but make me wonder how in the hell they did that. Thurber was one of my earliest heroes. For sheer range of wackiness and imagination he had few equals. And his stories still hold up well today.

Three of his stories immediately come to mind. I think my favorite is “The Night the Bed Fell,” from his autobiographical book My Life and Hard Times. I do think “autobiography” is a stretch when applied to these stories. It is hard to believe that anyone’s family members could be that crazy, or that events described by the author could have really happened that way. No matter. The stories are pure fun. In fact, they inspired me to write my novel The Family That Wasn’ta middle grade fantasy about a boy who finds his family so impossibly crazy that he writes them out of his life by imagining a new perfect family in which he suddenly finds himself living.

A close second is the story “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox,” from Thurber’s later book The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze. I love the way this story starts, as if everything is perfectly normal in General Grant’s camp: “The morning of the ninth of April, 1865, dawned beautifully. General Meade was up with the first streaks of crimson in the eastern sky.” But history is about to be turned on its head. I wonder how many people, after reading this story, have gone to the Internet seeking information about Grant’s drinking problems. It’s a perfect little gem of alternative history as only Thurber could imagine it.

And how could I not include the much-anthologized “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” from the 1942 classic My WorldAnd Welcome To It. After seeing the preview for the latest movie version of this story, all I can say is, save yourself the agony and read the story instead. There’s a good reason it’s been published in so many collections. Not only is it laugh out loud funny, but it’s perfectly constructed in every detail and guaranteed to make a writer despair of ever being able to write a story like that. Now that’s a good role model! 

You can find all of these stories in the recent collection Writings and Drawings by James Thurber, with selections by Garrison Keillor, published in 1996 by Library of America. 

I’d love to hear comments on your favorite humorous stories.

Your Editor: Saving You from Yourself

How many of us would have read a novel or gone to see a movie if its title were Trimalchio in West Egg or The High-Bouncing Lover? Yet those were titles under serious consideration by F. Scott Fitzgerald before his editor convinced him to change it to The Great Gatsby. The rest is history. You can read more about the relationship between the editor Maxwell Perkins and writers such as Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, and Ernest Hemingway in this excellent article recently published in Publishers Weekly http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/pw-select/article/59767-why-all-self-publishers-need-a-good-editor.html

The point should be obvious: if even great writers such as these needed editors, then you do, too.The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector,” Hemingway famously wrote. “This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.” But let’s face it, most of us lack the ability to see our writing in clear, objective fashion. We are too close to our writing. Our precious words are too much a part of ourselves. And they will not go gently into the trash bin. Yet time and again I hear fellow writers tell me that they do all their own editing, or that their English teacher sisters, aunts, or spouses do it for them. Yes, we all need to edit ourselves as we write and revise. And we can all use a little help from critical readers. But there comes a time when we must divorce ourselves from our work to see it as others—namely readers—might see it. And that is where your editor comes in.

Some writers are fortunate to have editors assigned to them by their publishing houses. Other  writers, like myself, have had the good fortune to work with magazine or newspaper editors whose job it is to shape a rough manuscript into a thing of beauty. And I think of all the good editors at literary journals around the globe who tirelessly read our submissions, rejecting most of them, but finally choosing ours to represent their publications or, more rarely, sharing their helpful comments on what would make a story or poem work for them. I am grateful to these editors, too, who have helped me become a better writer not only by accepting my work, but by rejecting it. Some of these editors have even become friends. Yet, with the increased availability of self-publishing options, so often today writers rush into self-publishing without first vetting their work in this time-honored fashion.

Despite my early positive experiences with editors, when it came time to publish my first novel I too was pig-headed. After all, I was a pretty mean editor myself (or so I thought). I also had the help of my lovely spouse and first reader. Best of all, I had my sister “editor,”  who—you guessed it—just happens to be an English teacher. What else did I need? A lot, it turned out. The self-publishing process was a painful, brutal, but ultimately useful lesson in just why I needed an editor. As Exhibit A, one example comes to mind. The original working title of my middle grade novel was actually “How to Get Rid of Your Family.” It sounds like the main character killed and chopped up his family, then stuffed them into the trunk of a Chevrolet wagon. Fortunately cooler heads prevailed, and I changed the title to The Family That Wasn’t. Though the book was eventually self-published and went on to favorable reviews, I could have saved myself a lot of trouble by having a professional editor in the first place. Oh well, some of us have to learn the hard way.

Which brings me to the real reason why I wrote this post. I’d like to introduce you to my friend and editor—not my wife or sister, but one who does this for a living—Kate Robinson. I’ll let her tell you why need an editor:

Each writer has a different approach to the writing craft. For me, the creative process is as essential as taking my next breath. I write to understand, exploring life’s mandala through the perspectives of “reality” and “imagination.”

Why hire an editor?  Sometimes writers need a fresh pair of eyes, some pre-publication polish, or coaching to hone their writing chops.

Kate Robinson at Starstone Lit Services specializes in proofreading, editing, evaluation, and creative consultation for fiction, memoir, and narrative nonfiction writers. Experienced, thoughtful evaluation and editing of soft sci-fi, fantasy / slipstream, historical, chick lit, thriller, mystery, and literary works; poetry, memoir, and young adult / juvenile fiction and nonfiction. Also available for consultation, editing, and proofreading for textbook and academic writers and publishers, as well as for business professionals: theses, dissertations, journal articles, resumes, brochures, business letters, print or internet advertising, blog and website copy, and mass mailings. Indexing services for selected nonfiction topics and e-book conversions and print formatting for all standard manuscripts.

Reasonable hourly rate, reasonable turnaround. Free 5-page sample edit/evaluation/estimate for book-length manuscripts, 1-3 pages for academic papers / short manuscripts.

Whether an emerging or an expert writer, Kate Robinson will help you birth your fascinating, award-winning book!

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