We all love to laugh, but for me humour is woven deep into my soul — in both my family life and my writing.
Humour has always been at the heart of my novels, however dark the subject matter. So I am thrilled that in two weeks, the first ever Comedy Women In Print prize will announce a winner from a shortlist of five novels. An unpublished female writer will also be awarded a contract with HarperCollins and a £5,000 advance.
You might question why we need a women-only prize in this day and age but, trust me, we do. The playing field still isn’t level and I find it alarming that so many people, women included, believe it is.
Women say to me: ‘Who cares what sex the writer is? Books are judged on merit. It’s all about the story.’ But they are absolutely not judged on merit. We have been taught to downgrade our expectations of anything written by a woman.
Many male comic writers are lauded because there are more male judges and male reviewers. Male critics dominate — and not all of them understand women’s humour.
Male comic writers are lauded as there are more male judges, says Marian Keyes (pictured)
Last year, I hit the headlines when I complained about the sexist imbalance of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize. There had been only three female winners in 18 years of the comic prize. All I asked was that they reconsider how they viewed female writers.
It was difficult to criticise the prize — I’m not great at confrontation — but I’m glad I did. This year, we had four women on the shortlist and Nina Stibbe won for her wonderful novel, Reasons To Be Cheerful.
In the wake of my criticism, my friend, comedian and author Helen Lederer, set up the Comedy Women in Print prize (CWIP). I’m proud to be one of the judges. It’s not just that I want to encourage more women into comedy, I really believe we all benefit from female writers using humour to shine a light on our lives. Funny women say to us: ‘I see your life. I see how difficult it is and I recognise it.’ For women, there’s humour in relatability.
If somebody articulates something you thought only you did or thought — ‘Oh my God, I thought I was the only one who fantasised about another man while having sex with my husband!’ — it makes you laugh.
Humour has always been a survival mechanism for me. I started writing short stories just before I went into rehab for my alcoholism in 1993, at the age of 30. Back then, alcohol was my best friend, my prop.
When I came out of rehab, I started submitting my writing to publishers. Previously, I had used alcohol to kill unpleasant emotions, but to be funny is easier for me than anything else, and it offers a different antidote to hopelessness. I’ve been sober for 25 years now.
I’ve always been prone to low moods, but writing comedy gives me a lifeline to something healthy, and has kept me going through dark times.
I don’t always feel at home in my own skin, but writing with humour helps us transform difficult, shameful things in our past. It’s a wonderful way to articulate something that’s too painful to look at seriously. Of course, humour is subjective. That’s why it’s so important we have women writing comedy about their own lives.
For us, women being earthy, talking about sex, can be incredibly funny. But I think men are confused — frightened, even — by that. They wince when we talk about the physical pain we experience throughout our lives, once a month for 40 years — but women can laugh at the shared horrors.
I’m generalising wildly here, but men and women live different lives at work and at home. Working mothers are often torn apart by guilt, so if someone writes about that dilemma and expresses it in good-natured exasperation, women will laugh. Men are more likely to be baffled.
Wonderfully for us, we are in a golden age of female comedy writing for TV — from Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag to Channel 4’s groundbreaking dramas Catastrophe, co-written by Sharon Horgan, and Derry Girls by Lisa McGee.
Just last week, the head of comedy at ITV said she wouldn’t commission shows with all-male writing teams any more. Big strides are being taken.
We’ve had some great, flawed heroines in novels this year, too, such as in Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, nominated for CWIP.
Traditionally, humour has been given fairly narrow parameters: punchline after punchline or broad vulgarity.
You might question why we need a women-only prize in this day and age but, trust me, we do, she says (stock photo)
But there are many ways to be funny. Eleanor Oliphant is comical, but also moving. She articulates something we’ve all felt at some stage, but thought it was just us — what it’s like to be an outsider. There is a kind of triumphant laughter to reading it. The more women articulate things they aren’t supposed to, the better it is for everyone. And the more normal we all feel.
I want to raise the profile of women’s writing so it gets more attention and more people are persuaded that women can be just as funny as men. But I know how challenging that idea can be. Over the past 24 years, 35 million copies of my books have sold worldwide. I’m proud of writing commercial fiction that addresses women’s concerns but, for years, my work sat in the ‘chick lit’ category. It wasn’t taken seriously because it was written by a woman, for women, about women.
When men wrote similar novels about men trying to find their way in the world, it was just ‘a novel’ or ‘literature’. It wasn’t called something crass and reductive like ‘d**k lit’. If there was parity, it would have been.
Even though I’ve had many successes, I’ve been dogged by doubt. At my core, I’ve felt what I was writing had value, but many male critics didn’t endorse that and, for a while, I believed them. I would like the next generation of female novelists to know that if they are writing comic fiction, it’s as valuable as any other form of writing.
When I started I never set out to emulate any literary style. I just wrote the way I talked to my friends. But it worked and I’m pleased I’ve inspired other women to do the same.
I would say to anyone who thinks they could write a comic novel, give it a go. People often think there’s a magic formula, but there absolutely isn’t. Just sit down and do it. You deserve it as much as anyone else.
As told to Liz Hoggard. The winners of CWIP will be announced on July 10, comedywomeninprint.co.uk