Contemporary Black Humor Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Contemporary Black Humor

The following entry presents an overview of black humor, a type of literature that uses darkly satirical comedy in order to ridicule and express the absurd reality of the world.

Black humor is a term primarily associated with a group of novelists from the 1960s and 1970s whose work was characterized by frenzied comic elements combined with a profound sense of alienation and despair. On the American literary scene, novelists typically considered as black humorists include John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Joseph Heller, Ken Kesey, Kurt Vonnegut, and Bruce Jay Friedman. Writing during the postwar years, many of these authors sought to present a viewpoint in contrast with the sense of euphoria and victory that swept the nation during this time. Their works are characterized by feelings of alienation and emptiness, presented within a darkly comic setting. While works such as Heller's Catch-22 (1961), and Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) are now counted among the best examples of black humor, at the time of their publication, these and other works were dismissed by mainstream intellectuals as subversive and offensive.

Although the term black humor has a long history among the literatures of the world, in the twentieth century it was given renewed importance when French surrealist André Breton used it in the introductory essay to his book Anthologie de l'humour noir (1939). Breton described black humor as “lampooning of social conventions and a profound disrespect for the nobility of literature” and traced its beginnings to the works of such satirists as Jonathan Swift and Charles Baudelaire. Breton felt that rather than it being defined as a literary genre, black humor should be regarded as an ironic and oppositional disposition, one that displaces social restrictions and norms. In the United States, the term became increasingly popular during the politically and socially turbulent 1960s and 1970s, and was used to describe writing that varied in context and subject but, in general, was a reaction against a homogenized postwar society. With the publication of several short story anthologies, including Nelson Algren's Own Book of Lonesome Monsters (1962) and Bruce Jay Friedman's Black Humor (1965), writers of this style received heightened critical attention. While both anthologies contained a variety of authors and writing styles, all the pieces in the collections were within a tradition of sharp social criticism and helped identify major authors who could be characterized as black humorists.

Although works of black humor share several characteristics, critics have had difficulty defining the style, and there has been ongoing argument about whether black humor is a genre or a writing style. Max F. Schulz, a renowned critic and author of Black Humor Fiction of the Sixties (1973), writes that the movement can be best described as a response by a group of writers who “share a viewpoint and an aesthetics for pacing off the boundaries of a nuclear-powered, war-saturated, chemically saturated world.” Similarly, Alan R. Pratt, whose Black Humor: Critical Essays (1993) provides a survey of a variety of contemporary assessments, also shies away from a specific definition of black humor. Instead, writes Pratt, black humor novels share two traits that surface in most texts: a humorous treatment of the absurd or morbid, and a refusal to offer any solutions to the institutions and reality being ridiculed in the texts. The difficulty in defining black humor is also addressed by Mathew Winston in an essay on the ethics of contemporary black humor. According to Winston, literature of black humor exists both within and beyond the bounds of traditional satire, largely because black humor does not “assume a set of norms, either implicit or explicit, against which one may contrast the absurd or grotesque world” depicted by the author.