These women's witticisms are no laughing matter

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The Independent Online

Are women getting funnier? Until recently, I could have sworn that they were. Moments of genuine laughter - as opposed to those of the social or defensive kind - are rare enough but, in my limited experience, they are rather more likely to be provoked by the wit of women than of men, who have recently become rather edgy and guilt-ridden.

Are women getting funnier? Until recently, I could have sworn that they were. Moments of genuine laughter - as opposed to those of the social or defensive kind - are rare enough but, in my limited experience, they are rather more likely to be provoked by the wit of women than of men, who have recently become rather edgy and guilt-ridden.

Of course, there are moments of doubt. Seeing Jo Brand on TV can give one pause. But then there are blindingly unfunny men - Charlie Drake, the imponderable Harry Hill - to prove that there is a sort of frantic, imitation humour that is beyond gender.

At this time of the year, though, books start appearing on the market purporting to celebrate female wit and wisdom, jokefests put together for the Christmas market, and suddenly nothing seems clear any more. These dispiriting little volumes are usually called something like Women's Wicked Wit - indeed, one with that very title, edited by Michelle Lovric, has just appeared and has been publicised in the usual middle-class tabloids.

With contributors ranging from Margaret Atwood to that other great humorist Virginia Woolf, the collection does not exactly make the pulse quicken with anticipation, and, to judge by the extracts that have appeared in the press, it contains few obvious belly laughs. Atwood's contribution is "My mother's two categories: nice men did things for you, bad men did things to you." In her bon mot, Woolf asked: "Why are women... so much more interesting to men than men are to women?" And who could forget Lynda Lee-Potter's "Powerful men often succeed through the help of their wives. Powerful women only succeed in spite of their husbands."

Add a few whiskery old favourites from the usual, much anthologised 20th-century wits Mae West, Anita Loos and Dorothy Parker, blend in familiar, anti-male contributions from anonymous Seventies graffiti artists ("If you catch a man, throw him back" etc) and fill out with a few quotes from obscure female politicians and there, for a mere £9.99, is another pointless, but doubtless profitable, volume for the Xmas market.

The alleged witticisms are predictable and unfunny - humour tends to be killed stone dead by the act of anthology, and words from genuinely funny writers such as Lucy Ellman, Cynthia Heimel and Nora Ephron seem feebly facetious in this company. A work entitled Men's Wicked Wit would scarcely be an improvement - and that's the problem. The mere idea of a collection of male jokes about women is unthinkable.

So who is it out there who is buying these collections of "devastating put-downs"? Are they given by one chippy, male-obsessed woman to another? Are there really thousands of people out there who will chortle with delighted recognition at "When a man can't explain a woman's actions, the first thing he thinks about is the condition of her uterus", the aperçu of Clare Booth Luce?

Far from being an expression of liberation, such books, however trivial, are in fact profoundly sexist, suggesting as they do that men - their inadequacy, vanity, incompetence and general pointlessness - are what women are thinking about, discussing and laughing at for most of their lives. For the more they sneer at the male, the less free they appear; this is the brittle humour of the weak, the behind-the-hand sniggering of naughty children telling jokes about adults.

Perhaps there is a conspiracy at work, and the name "Michelle Lovric" is in fact a front for a male supremacist organisation dedicated to spreading propaganda through stocking-fillers and toilet books that will portray women as vapid, humourless and, above all, dependent on men. Let's hope so.

terblacker@aol.com

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