The Clown Joke

October 16, 2014 Comments Off on The Clown Joke

It turns out Barbara Kingsolver has only written seven books of fiction! And I have read five and a half of them. So on the one hand, life is good. But she’s also written nonfiction (my feelings on which are maybe a topic for another day), and the seventh book of fiction is Homeland, her collection of short stories.

I have categorically hated short stories for a long time. But every time I end up actually reading one, I can’t figure out why I’m so dead-set against the genre. It finally occurred to me that it’s probably because of the poor examples that were shoved down my throat in middle school, once “Reading” turned into “English.”

In ninth grade my class went on a camping trip in the Boundary Waters, and my group’s counselor taught us The Clown Joke: A boy is very excited to go to the circus, but a clown pulls him for an audience participation stunt that humiliates him in front of the crowd. He chokes out, “Fuck you, clown!” and is haunted for the next dozen years or so by all the things he could have said instead. This is where you’re supposed to draw out the joke for as long as possible, listing graduate degrees in comedy and joke workshops he runs and all the cutting responses he belatedly comes up with. Then the same circus comes back to town, and the man arranges to sit in the same seat, ready to have his revenge. Sure enough, the clown pulls him again, makes the same joke… and the man chokes out, “Fuck you, clown!”

The boys in my group howled, and The Clown Joke quickly achieved legendary status. It never struck me as very funny, partly because of the part where you’re supposed to drag the joke out as long as you can. No one ever did it very well, so the listener had to sit through an interminable, very forced list of stupid ideas. It was clearly nothing but a build-up to a punchline, and there was nothing for it but to sit patiently, try to manage a stiff smile when it finally arrived, and excuse yourself as soon as you could.

And these are the kinds of short stories you read in middle school. They don’t give you Barbara Kingsolver in middle school. They give you stupid, facile build-ups to a single line that read exactly like The Clown Joke. Middle schoolers don’t have the capacity to appreciate fine writing and quiet plots, so instead they fed us glorified Clown Jokes, third-rate drivel where you just had to grit your teeth and wait for it to be over. The first short stories I read I took as personal insults. No wonder I hate them!

Breakthroughs feel revolutionary, but of course there is always a lot of work to be done to follow through on them. Reading Homeland would probably be an excellent next step.

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