Howard Jacobson: how to write a comic novel

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An RSL/Booker Prize Foundation Masterclass with Howard Jacobson on writing comic fiction.

Recommended Reading

  • David Copperfield or Little Dorrit (These are long novels. If time is short, then Great Expectations. But there has to be Dickens in here somewhere)
  • Persuasion – Jane Austen
  • The Secret Agent – Joseph Conrad
  • The Tale of the 1002nd Night – Joseph Roth
  • Lucky Jim – Kingsley Amis  (The question of whether this remains as funny as it was is interesting in itself)
  • Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth
  • Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter – Mario Vargas Llosa
  • Karoo – Steve Tesich


  • Don’t try to be funny. The best comedy arises out of an embarrassment of seriousness.
  • Don’t give characters funny names. (Dickens used them all up)
  • Underwear isn’t funny. Neither are exclamation marks.
  • Writing about sex altogether is tricky. But inexplicitness is best, except when it isn’t. Do remember, though, that it takes refinement to be gross.
  • Don’t be upbeat or feel-good, and don’t invite your readers to find you or your characters incorrigible.
  • Assume you are writing a tragedy. If your novel is any good that’s precisely what it will turn out to be.
  • Don’t consent to be called a comic novelist. It’s a tautology.

Recorded on: September 5, 2015
Recorded at: Somerset House
Sponsored by: Booker Prize Foundation

Related RSL Fellows

Howard Jacobson 2012