This week's question: What are the funniest books by women? And what's the history of women in humor writing?
Julie Schumacher made history when she took home the Thurber Prize for American Humor last night. She's the first woman to ever win the writing prize, and she was part of a groundbreaking all-women group of finalists. Actress and author Annabelle Gurwitch and New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast were also in contention.
Schumacher won for her novel, "Dear Committee Members," which is a biting satire of academic life.
"I know lots of women who are funny," Schumacher said after finding out she was a finalist. "Women have always been funny. Maybe men didn't notice before."
To celebrate the Thurber Prize, we're digging into the history of women in humor writing. Women authors have had quite the historical hurdle in the humor field, dating back centuries.
17th century playwright William Congreve is one of the first on record disparaging women's sense of humor. (And he wasn't the last.)
Congreve is perhaps best known for coining "hell hath no fury like a woman scorned." He also wrote: "I must confess I have never made an observation of what I apprehend to be humor in women."
It took another 200 years, but women got the chance to prove him wrong. "The Wit of Women," the first known collection of women's humor writing, was published in 1885. (It's available for free online from the Gutenberg project.)
It was published in response to repeated criticism about women's lack of humor, and the collection tackled that opinion with an opening poem:
We are coming to the rescue,
Just a hundred strong;
With fun and pun and epigram,
And laughter, wit, and song;
With parody and nondescript,
Burlesque and satire keen,
And irony and playful jest,
So that it may be seen
That women are not quite so dull:
We come — a merry throng;
Yes, we're coming to the rescue,
And just a hundred strong.
That, however, was not the last time women would have to come to their own humorous defense.
In 2008, the staff of The New York Times Book Review did an informal poll around the office about their favorite funny books. They came up "Don Quixote," "Tristram Shandy," "Ulysses," "A Confedaracy of Dunces," "Wonder Boys," "Straight Man" and more.
All funny, to be sure, and all written by men.
When David Kelly wrote about their poll in the New York Times, he acknowledged the lack of ladies: "Someone here mentioned Jane Austen, but only halfheartedly and only after I pointed out that not a single novel by a woman had been proposed. What gives?"
Yeah, what gives? If the Book Review still has a difficult time thinking of funny books by women, here's a great list to start with.
Funny books by funny women
• "Dear Committee Members" by Julie Schumacher
• "Emma" by Jane Austen
• "Bridget Jones' Diary" by Helen Fielding
• "Where'd You Go, Bernadette" by Maria Semple
• "Self-Help" by Lorrie Moore
• "Cold Comfort Farm" by Stella Gibbons
• "How to Build a Girl" by Caitlin Moran
• "I Was Told There'd Be Cake" by Sloane Crosley
• "Yes, Please" by Amy Poehler
• "Bossypants" by Tina Fey
• "Why Not Me?" by Mindy Kaling
• "People Are Unappealing" by Sara Barron
• "I Remember Nothing" by Nora Ephron
• "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?" by Roz Chast
• "I See You Made an Effort" by Annabelle Gurwitch