Book clinic: which books will make me laugh out loud?

From Martin Amis to Robert Robinson, our expert recommends the writers who provide a funny respite from real life

Q: I want to be entertained and to laugh out loud. I don’t want anguish or sadness; I don’t want family saga. There’s enough of that in real life.
Cathy Timberlake, 70, north-west England

A: Andrew Martin, author and critic, whose new novel, The Winker, will be published by Corsair in June, writes:
No writer should be taken seriously unless they can be funny. The opposite opinion seems to obtain among literary prize-givers, even though writing funnily requires great technical skill and the ultra-fine tuning of a sentence. Here is Martin Amis (or the sexually scheming Charles Highway) in The Rachel Papers: “I dried myself, showered in talc, and slipped into my most daring underpants.”

A funny book keeps being funny, and I’ve read The Young Visiters (sic) by Daisy Ashford three times. It’s a faux-naïf novel, or perhaps genuinely naive, given the author might have been nine years old when it was published in 1919. It begins: “Mr Salteena was an elderly man of 42 and was fond of asking people to stay with him.”

Evelyn Waugh is extremely funny (particularly in the first half of Decline and Fall), as are Nancy Mitford and Alan Bennett, but this is quite common knowledge. It’s less well known that the late quiz show host Robert Robinson was a brilliant comic essayist. People thought him smug, whereas in fact he was modest. Here he is, writing about Henry III in Prescriptions of a Pox Doctor’s Clerk: “I know little about the kings of England, but if there’s one king I know less about than any other, it’s Henry the Third.”

Laura Thompson’s recent memoir of her grandmother, The Last Landlady, has prose as well sprung as any of the above, and proves that literary humour survives even in these po-faced and puritanical times.

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Andrew Martin

The GuardianTramp

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