It’s 1983. I’m in the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh talking to a journalist called Martin. He’s writing a piece for Vanity Fair about the three women performers at the festival. I’m meeting him with the aim of a free glass of wine and compliments. Like many performing visitors, I’m living in a cupboard and more than happy to come out for a free anything and ponder (along with Martin) just why I might be funny, if indeed I am, given there are so few of us. I give it my all. My day usually starts in the afternoon I tell him, when I wake with a hangover, queue for the communal loo, go through my ten minutes of material for the rest of afternoon, try not to be sick, then perform it all on stage, preferably with clean hair. Martin wants more background.
“Were your parents funny? Did they tell jokes at home?”
“They were more… storytellers,” I say.
“No, Isle of Wight and Prague.”
“So why do you think you’re funny?”
“I’m inappropriate. I find that funny.”
“What’s funny about being inappropriate?” he asks.
I keep trying.
“Well, like finding it funny when someone walks along the street, falls over and then pretends they haven’t? that’s funny,” I offer.
“And do people laugh at you or with you?” continues Martin.
He looks curious. Or kind. I can’t decide.
While women have always told funny stories or written funny prose, the lack of visibility or parity with men will continue
Later we do a photoshoot where I’m asked to jump up and down on a mattress. Jenny Lecoat and Meera Syal aren’t asked to do this. In the published article Jenny is described as “gamine” and “mischievous”. I am just airborne.
This incident demonstrates how far we have come in 40 years. Last year’s Edinburgh festival hosted many, many more women and hopefully none of them were required to justify their credentials to appease a curious journalist. But in 1983, women who were placed in the comedy section of the Edinburgh brochure were not considered normal due to their rarity factor. There was also a lack of ease with women “taking the lead”, which is generally required when executing comedic content.
And while women have always told funny stories, performed sketches in their parlours or written funny prose – since… well, since forever – unless such witty narratives are championed, the lack of visibility or parity with men will continue. If it isn’t normal to see women’s wit on the page, it’s less likely publishers will feel comfortable investing in them. And don’t start me on the Instagram output and writer “profile” needed by publishers in their role as gatekeepers to their own profit margins.
However, discrepancies in the encouragement of women in literature and the amount of visibility they get are not new.
When the twenty-year-old Charlotte Brontë requested some literary feedback (aways a risk) from poet laureate Robert Southey, she was advised to put down her pen altogether. “The more a woman is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it,” he explained. Robert cancelled himself further with another caution about women and their quills. “Once you are a mother, you will no longer seek in imagination for excitement.”
Perhaps such discouragement was because nineteenth-century publishers simply preferred the lunch company of Oscar Wilde, HG Wells or Bernard Shaw – safe in the knowledge that women authors were cooking theirs at home rather than going out to eat a free one.
With such a pessimistic view of the future of women writers, it was a clever trick for the Brontë sisters to change their names from Charlotte, Emily and Anne to the less vexing Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell in order to get published. But would it always take trickery to get seen and heard as a female purveyor of words? How far have we actually come since the Brontës tricked the literary establishment with their name change and Jane Austen served as an almost stand-alone woman comedic observer?
Quite some way. The 1970s saw a swathe of witty women’s novels alongside their male counterparts. Muriel Spark, Penelope Fitzgerald and Stella Gibbons were in the same bookshops as Leslie Thomas, Tom Sharpe and Kingsley Amis. But were they being championed? It was only after Philip Larkin proclaimed Barbara Pym “the most underrated writer of the twentieth century” that she went on to be nominated for the Booker prize.
And while most might agree this was a good outcome, is it only male recognition that is the driver for witty women writers’ visibility? Is it always the publisher who decides what is made visible? Probably. Which may have been why, in 2015, Vida: Women in Literary Arts was set up to look at gender parity in the literary landscape, proving the need for more women writers was there, as well as the appetite to know more. Their research has been a baseline for evolving awareness and debates addressing the parity issue.
No longer are we at the whim of publishers’ “boarding-school” taste in women’s literature
As recently as 2017, when twenty out of 24 bestselling funny books on Amazon were written by the second sex, there was still no prize exclusively celebrating both wit and women. The audience is there, though. During lockdown the book-buying public more than doubled, with a growing take-up of humorous fiction by women. On tv and film, witty female writers are leading the comedic charge, with Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Sharon Horgan, Michaela Coel, Daisy May Cooper and Derry Girls’ Lisa McGee continuing to break new ground. Since 2018, more women have featured in the landscape of literary prizes, whether nominated or winning. So Netflix and other cash-happy companies would do well to plunder from this newly-curated list of witty novels, instead of recycling old stock.
And while women’s wit has always been present, it is also continually evolving. These days, their novels are less about gags and more about new voices. Anger is funny. Bitterness is embraced. Novels can circle the globe and demonstrate the multitude of ways women express humour about the darkest, most urgent topics – grief, sex, guilt, class, race, workplace sexism.
No longer are we at the whim of publishers’ post-war, middle-class, “boarding-school” taste in women’s literature. At last, there’s the glimmer of a desire to connect with all areas of our society, in all areas of creativity. Comic women authors from lower socio-economic backgrounds, as well as various ethnic backgrounds and variables are underrepresented. “You have to see it to be it,” the phrase made famous by Billie Jean King, about girls needing to be inspired by seeing women play sport, is a phrase often used in funding pitches to The Arts Council, and with good reason. Unless we champion hilarious novels written by women, nothing will change. And who doesn’t need to celebrate the ridiculous that is now? In the words of Muriel Sparke: “Ridicule is the only honourable weapon we have left.”
Helen Lederer is a comedian and author. She set up The Comedy Women in Print Book Prize to celebrate and encourage wit and talent in women’s writing