Finding humour in a changing landscape

David Redding Photgraphy // Special to Western News

Mark Rayner is hilarious. But channeling that personal humour – apparent to many in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies (FIMS) professor’s classroom – onto the page requires more skill than many may realize.

Western News book reviewer Kane Faucher recently sat with Rayner to discuss humour, blogging, the future of reading and preparations for the singularity.

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Kane Faucher: In all of your books, you employ humour and satire. Do you consider that vehicle a kind of tool or a weapon?

Mark Rayner: Any tool can be turned into a weapon. (Ask me someday how to turn an innocuous sponge into an IED.) That said, I see humour and satire as story-delivery vehicles more than armaments.

Humour, especially, is a nice way to keep people reading if the underlying subject matter is serious, or even dire. When it comes to satire, I follow the Vonnegut school, which makes fun of our fellow humans – particularly as we project our flaws into our institutions and power structures – but has, at its core, compassion for how darned perplexing this life thing can be for a barely sapient bipedal ape. I appreciate the satire of Swift and Voltaire, but I find I can’t bring myself to be that hard-hearted.

KF: Monkeys, pirates, wisdom-dispensing galaxy-conquering aliens and artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled talking fridges are regular installations in your work. Is it a Gen X thing? Is it a critique using satire and the absurd?

MR: Oh, it’s definitely the latter. I may not be as biting as Swift, but it’s still nice to be able to point out hypocrisy and stupidity when I see it. Absurdity makes it easier for me to do that. Is it a Gen X thing? I’m not sure if it’s fair to burden an entire cohort with my own deranged imagination and weird obsessions. I may be growing out of the penchant for quirkiness a bit too. My work in progress has very little of this kind of absurdity in it, though my sense of humour does still run to the strange and silly. If you want a regular dose of it, follow my blog or my Facebook page.

KF: With changes in the literary industry shifting away from publisher responsibilities to market an author’s work to the author having to take on many of those roles, how has this affected your writing practice? Are you splitting time between writing and promoting?

MR: Absolutely. My last two books I self-published, which means all the promotion rested on my shoulders. But my first two novels were published traditionally – with smaller presses – and I had to do much of the work in those cases, too. I’ve heard from friends who work with large publishers that unless you’re a Stephen King, authors have to expect they will need to do much of the marketing to sell their books. As someone who works full-time, this means my time gets split more than I would want it to. Some days, I’d rather just write, but if I want an audience I have to work at building that, too. This is a reality that many authors don’t understand before they get into the field.

KF: As you teach in FIMS, what is the importance of the singularity as it is featured in your more recent work?

MR: The Fridgularity is a satire of the notion of the technological singularity. For readers who aren’t familiar with the idea, it’s the point in human history at which our machines take over our culture. In essence, history disappears when machines become ‘smarter’ than humans, and we become irrelevant.

This strikes me as a bad idea. So, yeah, there’s a real intersection between my teaching and my writing when it comes to the singularity.

Now, given that Microsoft Word can barely function without Clippy crashing my system, I’m not so convinced it’s even possible to design an intelligent, sapient life form that lives in a computer, or in a robot chassis – never mind the ethics of doing so. Anyway, in the novel, an emergent AI takes over the Internet. All of it. And this has dire consequences for human civilization, generally, and the Internet-addicted among us, specifically. Some of these notions may have come to me as I watched my students obsessively check their mobile phones, or how often they checked their Facebook feeds (this is less common now, the kids are using SnapChat these days).

KF: Scary prognostications on AI by Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates aside, how do you see yourself competing for the diminishing piece of the attention economy as reading tastes appear to slide in favour of the brief tweet over lengthier texts?

MR: My poorly thought out strategy is to keep throwing spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks. It seems to be slowly building an audience, though I can’t really write as quickly as the modern book industry seems to demand. I’m not sure I buy into the hype that people don’t read any more. The evidence is against that, especially if you take ebooks into consideration.

KF: You are demonstrably active on both your blog and the blogging community, including the use of microblog sites such as Twitter. Do you see this as more of a marketing tool, or as more of a lab to test out new writing on an audience – a sort of ‘fly it up the flagpole and see who salutes’?

MR: I see blogging as a different activity from social media. The latter is where I can connect with audience members and to do some (as little as possible) marketing of my own work. Blogging is definitely a bigger deal for me. Partly, it’s content marketing, but it’s also my sandbox. I love to try out short pieces there, to experiment and play with some of the themes of my longer work without the stress of real character or plot development. (Though even flash fiction should have a bit of both.) It’s also a testing ground for larger concepts, such as the Clown Apocalypse.

KF: You alluded to a gradual shift away from the ‘quirk factor’ in your current works in progress. I have to ask, where are you steering your writing focus next? I hate to ask you to dish, but any hints as to where your pen is heading next?

MR: My next novel is about the so-called ‘obesity epidemic’ and is a satire with no speculative tricks, except for the obvious one of asking a ‘What if?’ question.

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Mark Rayner’s two newest books, ‘The Fridgularity’ and ‘Pirate Therapy,’ are available through The Book Store at Western and various online book retailers.