Critic, Book World

How’s this for comic irony?

A month ago, the oh-so-serious Pulitzer Prize for Fiction went to a comic novel for the first time in decades.

But today, with a stiff upper lip, the judges of the Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction announced that they could not find a novel witty enough to win their honor. I kid you not. For the first time in the prize’s history, no award will be presented this year.

Informed of their decision, one major U.K. publisher said that was the funniest thing he’d heard all week.


(Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize)

But who’s laughing now? Presumably not the Brits, who have looked to the Wodehouse award since 2000 to point them toward the funniest works of fiction. Alas, none of this year’s 62 submissions “prompted unanimous, abundant laughter from the judging panel.”

In a statement released Wednesday, David Campbell, one of the insufficiently amused judges, wrote, “Despite the submitted books producing many a wry smile amongst the panel during the judging process, we did not feel [that] any of the books we read this year incited the level of unanimous laughter we have come to expect.”

P.G. Wodehouse, the patron saint of the Wodehouse Prize, sets a high bar, but the judges have had no trouble selecting worthy winners in the past, including Howard Jacobson’s “The Mighty Walzer,” Ian McEwan’s “Solar,” Helen Fielding’s “Bridget Jones’s Baby” and even “Super Sad True Love Story” by — gasp — the American writer Gary Shteyngart.

So what could be making our English colleagues so grumpy?

Claire Armitstead, associate editor of culture for the Guardian, notes that this year has seen plenty of funny novels, but they “use humor to deal with really painful issues.” She cites Roddy Doyle’s “Smile,” which is full of wit and classic Dublin wisecracks, but is at its heart a devastating story of ecclesiastical child abuse. “It would,” she concedes, “somehow seem ‘off’ to give it the Wodehouse Prize.”

The judges don’t release the list of submissions, so there’s no way to know what books they were selecting from or even if this year’s hilarious Pulitzer winner — Andrew Sean Greer’s “Less” — was considered.

But Armitstead blames the Wodehouse judges for not thinking like real comedians and breaking the rules. “If the prize were to extend to nonfiction,” she says, “there would be a standout winner: Craig Brown’s ‘Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret,’ which is brilliant and hilarious.”

The winner would have received a case of Bollinger Special Cuvée, a complete set of Wodehouse books and a rare breed pig (seriously).

Next year, the judges promise to award the winner an extra large bottle of Bollinger and a particularly enormous pig.

Now that’s funny.

Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.