Half-Baked Ideas: On Trying Too Hard, Lemony Snicket, and How Things Work

Chestnut was reading a book called (I believe) The Hero's Guide to Being an Outlaw. I asked her how it was and she said, "Pretty good. You know, it does that funny Lemony Snicket thing where it talks to the readers, but it's trying a little too hard."

Of course I knew what she meant (or thought I did, without reading it), in one painful wince of recognition. Why is it so difficult to walk that funny, irreverent line? Why do we always identify the failure to do it successfully as "trying too hard?" I mean, I'm fairly certain that Lemony Snicket/Daniel Handler tries really, really hard to make his books good and his narrative voice work. And yet, and yet…we don't ever really say, "Not funny enough" or "Doesn't really work" when something tries to be funny in that way and fails, but rather "Trying too hard." It feels so damning, and also such a bad lesson on some level. As if a more removed, less active "cool" approach can ever really help you. I don't think it can, especially when you're writing.

Except that her judgment does resonate with me, and what I want to know is: Why? Is it just that trying (and failing) to be funny means the seams show when they aren't supposed to? Hence there is an awareness of the effort, when there shouldn't be?

Is it the author's neediness?

Is it simply a too-heightened awareness of the way in which the author is playing to the audience? There is a certain disdain in Snicket that plays well (partly because it's false I think, and there is no disdain for the readers), but also because the reader doesn't feel that pressure on the part of the author's need to be liked, or to be funny, or to win the reader over.

Is that it? WHAT IS IT?

This is driving me a little crazy. Perhaps I am trying too hard.

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