As a literary prize launches for funny female writers, we look back at the books that make us laugh the most.
In 2018, we are blessedly past the point of discussing whether or not women are ‘really’ funny. While women in comedy still face significant barriers, the tired debate about an entire gender’s innate wittiness has been put to bed by all but the most demented of sexists. And thanks to the examples of writers and comedians like Issa Rae, Caitlin Moran, Marian Keyes, London Hughes and Mindy Kaling, those sexists now seem almost quaint. Like people who still believe the world is flat, the evidence is very much stacked against them.
However, according to the creators of a new fiction prize, women authors still don’t get enough credit for writing hilarious novels. The Comedy Women in Print prize (CWIP) was launched by award-winning comedian, writer and Absolutely Fabulous actor Helen Lederer, after she became frustrated at how few women had received the UK’s most prestigious literary prize for funny writers. In 18 years of the annual Wodehouse prize for comic fiction, only three women – Helen Fielding, Marina Lewycka and Hannah Rothschild – have won an award, compared to 16 men.
The longlist for the first CWIP prize will be revealed in March 2019, with the winners announced next June. In the meantime, we’ve rounded up six seriously funny novels by female authors – from the slyly subversive to the straight-up entertaining.
1) Oreo by Fran Ross
This slim novel was originally published to little fanfare in 1974, but got much more attention upon its recent reissue in the UK. A sharp, witty story about a mixed-race girl (the eponymous Oreo) who leaves her African-American grandparents to track down her white Jewish father in New York, it is widely considered years ahead of its time.
This is thanks partly to the book’s exploration of the biracial experience, but also because of its use of unusual literary devices. The pages are peppered with charts, graphs and mathematical equations, the plot satirises the Greek myth of Theseus, and Oreo frequently code-switches between Yiddish, Standard English and African-American Vernacular English (AEVE). That might make it sound impenetrable, but it’s not: it’s wonderfully entertaining, even when tackling heavy issues.
Key quote: “There is no weather per se in this book. Passing reference is made to weather in a few instances. Assume whatever season you like throughout. Summer makes the most sense in a book of this length. That way, pages do not have to be used up describing people taking off and putting on overcoats.”
Picador Classic, £9.99
2) Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny
Why do we fall in love with the people we do, and what do they tell us about ourselves? That’s the question at the heart of this laugh-out-loud novel, which follows sarcastic introvert Graham as he contemplates the differences between his charismatic, expressive second wife Audra and his tough, aloof first wife Elspeth.
Despite their apparent differences, Graham and Audra have built a successful marriage together in a way that he and Elspeth never managed to: they have a home, shared friends, and a son, Matthew, who has Asperger’s. But when Elspeth unexpectedly reappears in Graham’s life, he starts to wonder whether he might not be more suited to her after all. It’s a very witty, occasionally sad and deeply believable portrait of middle-class marriage in all its complexities.
Key quote: “Here they were grocery shopping in Fairway on a Saturday morning, a normal married thing to do together – although, Graham could not help noticing, they were not doing it together. His wife, Audra, spent almost the whole time talking to people she knew – it was like accompanying a visiting dignitary of some sort, or maybe a presidential hopeful – while he did the normal shopping.”
Fourth Estate, £8.99
3) Diary of a Provincial Lady by EM Delafield
Without the unnamed narrator of Diary of a Provincial Lady, it’s safe to say there would be no Bridget Jones. First published in 1930 and never out of print since, this absurdly funny fictional diary gives the inside scoop on life as an upper middle-class housewife in Twenties England.
Pretension, embarrassment and domestic frustrations abound, as our narrator attempts to impress her neighbours, keep her two children under control and resist the urge to openly mock her distant husband Robert. The Provincial Lady even writes like Bridget: think staccato, self-deprecating sentences that dispense with the letter “I” and contain several reminders about self-improvement.
Key quote: “January 22nd – Robert startles me at breakfast by asking if my cold – which he has hitherto ignored – is better. I reply that it has gone. Then why, he asks, do I look like that? Feel that life is wholly unendurable, and decide madly to get a new hat.”
Penguin Modern Classics, £8.99
4) Goodbye Vitamin by Rachel Khong
Khong’s debut novel is a gentle and often heartbreaking portrait of a family reckoning with the ripple effects of dementia – an illness which can occasionally be as farcically hilarious as it is constantly devastating.
The book follows 30-year-old Ruth as she tries to support her mother and father through the latter’s gradual mental decline. At the same time, she’s dealing with the all-too-familiar struggles of everyday life – from a dissolving relationship to a dead-end career. It’s very poignant, very beautiful and very funny.
Key quote: “Today you asked me what ‘Dick’ meant, and while I was deciding what direction I should take, you said, ‘Mom said you were one.’”
5) Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
A classic in African-American literature, Their Eyes Were Watching God is also frequently extremely witty. It follows Janie Crawford, a light-skinned black woman growing up in Florida in the early 20th century, as she attempts to find love. Over the course of three marriages to three wildly different men, Janie experiences a sexual awakening, experiences romantic rejection, inadvertently becomes a trophy wife, reaches financial independence and is a victim of domestic violence.
The book was radical in its portrayal of gender roles and its exploration of women’s need for freedom, and the fraught racial dynamics of the US South are an ever-present backdrop. But what makes Their Eyes Were Watching God so special is the humour evident in how the characters speak to one another. Almost every single one is a master storyteller and jokester, using language to hilarious effect.
Key quote: “Sometimes God gits familiar wid us womenfolks too and talks His inside business. He told me how surprised y’all is goin’ tuh be if you ever find out you don’t know half as much ‘bout us as you think yo do. It’s so easy to make yo’self out God Almighty when you ain’t got nothin’ tuh strain against but women and chickens.”
6) Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
In these trying times, sometimes you just want a book that makes you laugh and nothing else: one that’s devoid of serious political issues and carries not a smidgen of emotional heft. Cold Comfort Farm is one such book. Published in 1932, it’s a pitch-perfect parody of the doomy rural romances popularised by authors such as DH Lawrence and Thomas Hardy, in which every flower is a metaphor for sex and uneducated maidens are regularly seduced by brooding farmhands.
The novel opens with 19-year-old Flora Poste learning that her parents have been killed in an accident. With minimal fuss, she leaves London and moves to the Sussex farm owned by her cousins, the Starkadders, who seem straight out of one of the dramatic rural novels she detests: the men are variously violent, sex-crazed, monosyllabic or mad with religious fervour, while the women are manipulative, manipulated, away with the fairies or constantly getting knocked up.
Every practical, Flora rolls up her sleeves and determines to organise the lives and love affairs of her unrefined relatives. The whole thing is deliciously tart and uncomplicated, like a glass of homemade lemonade.
Key quote: “Flora sighed. It was curious that persons who lived what the novelists called a rich emotional life always seemed to be a bit slow on the uptake.”
Images: Courtesy of publishers