Use Humor in Literary Fiction? Are You Serious?

Rhonda Browning White

Literary fiction often weighs in as heavy, and that’s no laughing matter. Literary novelists and short-story writers sometimes hold up a mirror to the reader, letting him or her see their own preconceived notions, flaws, or misinterpretations in new light, providing an opportunity for growth and change. Fiction writers often tackle difficult subjects, such as lies, divorce, abuse, and death. We are not strangers to tension and conflict; rather, we work hard to ratchet up the pressure on our characters, twisting our plots until we—and our readers—are gasping for air.

What better way to breathe, then, than to laugh?

Many of the best authors of serious literary narrative know the value of sprinkling a dash of humor here and there in their otherwise serious fiction; it’s a great way to disarm the reader and provide a necessary bit of lighthearted respite from a dark or dense story. A humorous scene, or even a deftly delivered one-liner, can be the equivalent of taking a steaming teakettle from the stove to release the pressure just before the whistle blows, only to quickly put it back on the heat, creating even more tension as we wait for the shrill shriek that we know is soon to come.

The late Flannery O’Connor was a true master of literary fiction, and even her darkest stories of corruption and grim reality are illuminated by sparkles of comedic laughter. She uses humorous character names (such as Manley Pointer to describe a randy Bible salesman in “Good Country People”), and religious ignorance (“‘What do I need with Jesus?’ he asks. ‘I got Leora Watts.’” in her first novel, Wise Blood). One of her most heartbreaking stories, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” tells us of an entire family murdered by escaped convicts while on a road trip instigated by the grandmother in the family. In spite of the horror, O’Connor allows us still to laugh over the thoughts, actions, and dialogue of the grandmother. “Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.”

Another strong example, Leslie Pietrzyk’s This Angel On My Chest is a collection of stories linked by grief. In each, a young female protagonist deals with the loss of her husband—a tragic and heartrending premise if ever there was one. Yet Pietrzyk finds a way in each of these stories to make us smile, if only through our tears. In “The Circle,” a group of female widows meets regularly for friendly conversation that always ends up on the topic of loss. When the protagonist finds her late husband’s secret journal, she tells the ladies about it, and they ask if she’s read it and what it contained, suspecting an affair.

. . . “He didn’t—?” Suellen asked.

“No,” she said. “He didn’t cheat on me. Or if he did, he was smart enough not to write about it.” Her half-smile, nervous, making the other two nervous, so the laughed lightly.

“That’s super-dumb,” Suellen said. “Dear Diary, Today I fucked a waitress I picked up.” And then they did laugh for real.

And so does the reader. This snippet of lighthearted banter in such a somber scene reminds us that, even when dealing with grief and death, it’s okay to live and to laugh.

Likewise, literary fiction doesn’t get much more searingly serious than Tim O’Brien’s tormenting story of the Vietnam War in The Things They Carried. Yet the author still gives us permission to laugh—a much-needed break amid the vivid horror—which allows us not only to catch our breath, but to see that gallows humor was necessary to the survival of those soldiers who fought the war.

In the story, we meet Rat Kiley, a soldier on the verge of complete mental breakdown, who tries to feed an orphaned baby water buffalo. When the animal refuses to eat Rat’s pork-and-beans, he kills it, but not in any humane way—he tortures it by shooting it many times, intentionally prolonging the animal’s death to cause it as much pain as possible, thus reflecting his own pain. It’s then easy for the reader to dislike Rat, to despise him, to never want to hear word of him again. Yet less than a dozen pages later, we’re chuckling over his braggadocios ways:

Among the men in Alpha Company, Rat had a reputation for exaggeration and overstatement, a compulsion to rev up the facts, and for most of us it was a normal procedure to discount sixty or seventy percent of anything he had to say. If Rat told you, for example, that he’d slept with four girls one night, you could figure it was about a girl and a half.

These opportunities to smile are what allows us to keep reading a story that’s rife with dreadful scenes and devastating anguish.

It’s important to note that the humor in these serious narratives is delivered in small doses—too much would undermine their poignancy. The fleeting nature of their comicality or absurdity mirrors the evanescent quality of our own personal experience with humor and laughter in the real world. This light brush with funny moments preceding or following a story’s gravest scenes makes it more believable to us, more relatable, more real.

This realness and emotion is what we all want from the stories we write; to move our readers to laughter and tears. Add a little humor to your next work of heavy literary fiction, and allow your readers to laugh. You’ll smile at the results—I’m serious.



Rhonda-Browning-WhiteRhonda Browning White resides near Daytona Beach, FL and works as a ghostwriter, editor, adjunct professor, and Realtor. (She does what it takes to support her writing habit!) Her work appears in HeartWood Literary Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Steel Toe Review, Ploughshares Writing Lessons, Tiny Text, New Pages, South 85 Journal, WV Executive, Mountain Echoes, Gambit, Justus Roux, Bluestone Review, in the anthologies Appalachia’s Last Stand and Mountain Voices, and is forthcoming in World Enough Writers: Ice Cream Anthology, by Concrete Wolf PressRhonda recently was awarded the Sterling Watson Fellowship for the Eckerd College Writer’s Conference: Writers in Paradise. She blogs about books, writing, and celebrating life at “Read. Write. Live!” found at , and about the craft of fiction writing at She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Converse College in Spartanburg, SC.