Writing Right with Dmitri: 'Splaining, and How to Avoid It
There is a tendency among certain people from the UK to try to explain Monty Python to others. This usually happens right after you've stated that you don't particularly like them. Or the Goon Show, or 'Carry On' movies, or any other form of British humour. They will reply by telling you at length what the joke is about, and why you should be laughing. This behaviour makes you try to be elsewhere quickly.
I've lived in three countries in my life, and several regions of the United States, and known people from many different parts of the world, and that minority from the UK are the only people I've ever known to do this. Germans do not attempt to explain German humour: you get it, or you don't, and they aren't offended. 'Different countries, different customs,' they say. Greeks are too busy laughing to explain jokes. Besides, the main thing is to have a good time. 'Oraia einai!' is their cry as they smash a few more plates.
You know what I'm talking about when I say 'splaining, right? Feminists started the term by accusing men of 'mansplaining' – telling them at length what they, the women, already know, and probably better than the man who is droning on. I'm sure they're right, although I've known both men and women who do it. Sometimes I think it's a combination neurological tic and attempt to control the conversation. Thus I have just accused a h2g2 friend of 'Britsplaining' humour to me.
Now, it occurred to me that in this day and time, we as writers have a peculiar problem: we're not sure when and how to explain things. On the one hand, a dropped reference that nobody understands will irritate the heck out of our audiences. They won't get what we're saying, and worse, they may be offended because we appear to be talking over their heads. It might sound like the kind of inside joke meant to exclude, and we don't want to exclude anybody.
On the other hand, if we explain, we run the risk of insulting their intelligence. They may decide that we think they're ignorant – like the person 'explaining' local humour. It's a genuine quandary, and one I'm all too familiar with.
As a kid growing up, I had the awful habit of not being interested in what everyone else was interested in. Instead of following current tastes and fashions, I had – in the words of my nearest and dearest – my 'nose in a book' all the time. Result: I knew way too much about stuff nobody else was remotely interested in. Now, I didn't regret this, but it left me with a problem in conversation. Not only with my contemporaries – heck, I knew my fellow fourth-graders weren't into whatever-it-was I'd just read – but adults. Adults can get really touchy if a ten-year-old starts telling them weird factoids. But I liked to share.
I developed strategies when I wanted to share a tidbit. 'You know, Mom, what you were saying about that lady in church reminds me of a character in that novel by Dickens, you know the one?' By sounding out her knowledge on the subject, I was able to insert my (hopefully relevant) example without coming across as an insufferable know-it-all.
This is harder to do on a page, but you can do it. One good way is to provide clues in the context. Here's an example:
Gran'ma says she hopes that when I git to be a man,
I'll be a missionarer like her oldest brother, Dan,
as was et up by the cannibuls that lives in Ceylon's Isle,
Where every prospeck pleases, an' only man is vile!
Eugene Field, 'Jes 'Fore Christmas'
Yes, this is an awful poem. Yes, it shows poor taste on the part of the public that it became popular and much-anthologised after it was penned in the 19th Century by a man who was known as the 'Poet of Childhood' but made scary faces at kids when their parents weren't looking. I detest Field and all his terrible poems. That said, as a child, I got the reference in that stanza. But I doubt you did. So I will Past'splain.
It says something nice about human progress that you probably didn't get the reference to 'Ceylon's Isle, where every prospect pleases, and only man is vile.' This is a line from a missionary hymn entitled 'From Greenland's Icy Mountains'. The tune has also been used for 'Take Up the White Man's Burden', which will give you an idea1. So, when young Will is being awfully cute in telling the audience that, being a real boy's boy in late-19th-century America, he only likes he-man stuff, he's also dissing his grandma's piety. He goes on to explain that since Grandma hasn't ever seen the Wild West Show or read the life of Buffalo Bill, she doesn't realise that he'd rather be an Indian fighter than a missionary. Will is a real peach, as they would have said. It isn't the casual racism that bothers him. It's the implication that missionaries are a bunch of wimps, and Will's an incipient imperialist.
This sort of explaining can be tedious, to say the least. It can also seem not to be worth it. After all of that, you get the reference. But you may wish you hadn't. So, how do we insert this sort of information into our writing without a) insulting the audience, and b) sounding like a bleeping encyclopedia? Here's my attempt.
Will received his Christmas present from Grandma eagerly. It was obviously a book. Could it be the one he was hoping for? The new illustrated edition of The Life of Buffalo Bill? He'd been sighing over the display copy in the window of McGee's Emporium for a calendar month. The cover showed Buffalo Bill Cody himself, charging over a rise in the plains, with a horde of cowboys and Indians at his back. How he wished the Wild West Show would come to his little town of Smithfield. Full of excitement and hope, he tore into the wrapping.
And his face fell. Mom said he was never to show disappointment at a gift, but he couldn't help it.
The boring, plain brown cover of the book read Hudson Taylor's Spiritual Secret. Aw, heck. It was about a missionary. Will hoped he got et up by the cannibals. It would serve him right. Missionaries were boring. Will particularly hated that song from church, his grandmother's favourite, 'From Greenland's Icy Mountains', and how it went on about the 'spicy breezes' that 'blow soft o'er Ceylon's Isle, where every prospect pleases, and only Man is vile.' Personally, Will preferred action, the viler, the better.
Will never read the book, so he never found out about Hudson Taylor's hair-raising adventures during the Boxer Rebellion. The Boxers were scary enough to satisfy even the most blood-thirsty of Midwestern kids. And so he grew up to become a bank clerk, and never had any real-life adventures at all, whereas his pious cousin Sid, who did read Grandma's missionary gift books, ended up in the Philippines and met Frank Laubach and the Moro people. But that's another chapter.
Okay, still maybe more than you wanted to know. But at least you aren't left in the dark.
One of my personal favourites for humour is the 1960s television sensation, 'Hee Haw'. This show was very important to those of us with Southern mountain ancestry because we usually felt left out of the mainstream. And here were the old 'country comics', bringing our regional humour to the national television screen. Baptist churches even changed the hours of the Sunday evening worship service so that we could all go home and watch 'Hee Haw'. This was a major development.
I would not begin to attempt to explain 'Hee Haw' to an outsider. But in this clip from the 10th anniversary special, the singers give you an explanation, of sorts, for their long-running gag song, 'Pfft, You Were Gone'. It's a plaintive love ballad with a twist. The montage may amuse.
Hillbilly-'splaining: Billy Carter was former US president Jimmy Carter's redneck brother. He owned a petrol station, a traditional occupation for rural Southerners, and was much sought-after by reporters seeking to embarrass the president.