Awarding “the best” is always fraught with contention, as any avid sports fan will quickly tell you. Be it a Hall of Fame induction or an MVP honour, there is almost never universal agreement on any winner. The Baseball Hall of Fame, as it is well known, has never once had a unanimous inductee. Hell, we can’t even come to agreement on what these awards are even honouring. Stipulations, context, interpretation and good old human stubbornness conspire annually to thrust every winner into a pit of swirling, petty controversy. Art, it seems, is no different.
As I put serious thought into my Leacock Medal Challenge over the past few weeks, I realized that I was diving into a similarly divisive debate. What exactly is the Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour rewarding? Is it the best book that is funny or the funniest book? Anyone with even a passing familiarity with bathroom humour knows that “good” and “funny” don’t necessarily concur. And what constitutes funny, for that matter. Humour easily rivals music on the subjectivity scale.
The Leacock Associates webpage doesn’t offer much help in clarifying this predicament. Five mandates are listed but none of them specifically state what the award recognizes other than to confirm it is an award for humour. Turning to our friend Wikipedia, the globally accepted authority on everything for those too complacent to demand credentials, we find a definition for the Leacock Medal quoted from the Canadian Encyclopedia which is totally trustworthy because it’s published by a non-profit organization headed by prominent Canadians. That may sound facetious, but it surely beats Wikipedia’s credentials.
Anyway, the Canadian Encyclopedia states that the Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour is awarded to “the Canadian writer of the best book of humour.” That interpretation is clear enough to me. The winner is not necessarily the funniest book but rather the best book that is funny. Let’s be honest, if it was simply the funniest book, Steve Smith (Red Green) would be a six time winner by now. Alas, the medal seeks to honour a little bit more than just a good gag and I’m inclined to agree with that sentiment. So for the purposes of my little challenge, I’m going with the Canadian Encyclopedia’s declaration and will choose the best book that is funny.
I must admit this is all just a little bit disingenuous on my part since I’m only reading the three short listed novels. Were I a reader/reviewer with even the slightest scruples I’d have at the very least read all ten long list finalists. As it stands, I’ve only read one of those long list books in addition to the three short listed titles, that being Under Major Domo Minor by Patrick DeWitt.
Okay, let’s get to the whole point of this meandering post; picking a winner. I did indeed read and review the three short list finalists for the 2016 Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour; When the Saints by Sarah Mian, Poles Apart by Terry Fallis, and Republic of Dirt by Susan Juby. This proved an enjoyable experience but one far more difficult than I anticipated.
For starters, and let’s just get the unpleasantness out of the way right off the bat, I sincerely disliked Terry Fallis’ Poles Apart. I struggled a great deal writing such a scathing review of a book by an author I’ve otherwise enjoyed immensely. This outing was a complete miss in my estimation and I’m perplexed as to how it managed to make the short list. There’s no denying Fallis is popular with the anonymous Leacock judges, having won or been shortlisted several times in the past decade, but this time I strongly feel such an honour was unwarranted. I’d even go so far as to say that DeWitt’s Under Major Domo Minor was a superior book and more worthy of short listing that Poles Apart.
Having relegated one competitor to the scrap heap, one would think my decision would have gotten easier but that was hardly the case. I enjoyed both When The Saints and Republic of Dirt but also found myself flummoxed by both. These books are very different and yet remarkably alike. Both focus on the lives of down-to-earth, blue collar, small town people. Both involve prominent young, confident, wise-beyond-their-years female characters with sketchy home lives. And both use humour while delving into unpleasant subject matter.
That last bit is what left me flummoxed; when is humour appropriate. I’d like to believe I’m not beholden to the noose of political correctness. I’d like to think I’m mature enough to be challenged and able to enjoy a darker kind of humour. But I certainly found myself squirming a little bit as both Sarah Mian and Susan Juby ramped up the yuks while revealing tales of assault, rape, and parental neglect. Thanks to social media, the specter of the Offensive Police is always lurking in the back of my mind and both these books, but especially When the Saints, piqued my inner officer’s attention.
So where does that leave me on actually picking a winner? Struggling. And I suppose that’s a good thing. I may have been naïve to think that one of these books would leave me reveling in the joyous afterglow of non-stop giggling but I certainly wasn’t expecting such depressing subject matter in the finalists for a humour award. For that I must congratulate the Leacock judges despite their egregious fumble on Poles Apart. I didn’t fall in love with When the Saints or Republic of Dirt, but they both left me thinking a lot and for that I’m grateful. Oh, and they both made me laugh too, which I suppose is rather important in the context of this whole humour medal thing.
But when it comes down to making a call I’m going to have to declare When the Saints by Sarah Mian my choice for the Leacock Memorial Medal of Humour. I think I had more audible laughs when reading Republic of Dirt, but ultimately I found it just a bit dull in the middle. When the Saints was not a perfect book but it was very, very good. I laughed and cringed and when I finished I had no idea what to think. But as I read the other two finalists, I grew all the more fond of Mian’s book and the discomfort it caused me. I believe it is the best book that is funny and worthy of this year’s Leacock award. Congratulations Sarah.
This likely means Terry Fallis will win. I’m kind of a jinx that way.