Even though it’s probably a terrible idea, and even though I’m sure there’s no better way of finding out exactly how un-funny you are, I’m writing a humorous novel. In an attempt at maximum osmosis, I have piled all the novels of all the funniest writers I know around my work table like a force-field of hilarity. However, the problem with revering your idols in such extreme proximity is that, in spite of your most noble intentions, you wind up sounding an awful lot like them.
So the other day, I decided to add some fresh mortar to my fortress of inspiration. “FUNNY NOVELS” I Googled. I scrolled around for a while, checking out Top Lists and guiltily wondering why I couldn’t keep on task, ever. Luckily for me, the shame was soon replaced by that gorgeous emotion that burns all others to a crisp—indignant outrage.
It started with a Top 100 list. It got worse with a Top Ten. When I got to the NY Times’s Best Ever list, I was about to bust a gasket.
You see, the problem was that in all my searching, I found next to nil mention of funny women novelists. Sure, there are a boatload of lists of funny nonfiction books by women. Which is great. And there are a zillion lists of funny novels … ninety-eight percent of which appear to have been composed by men. Not great.
I spent a few days pondering all this. And I finally decided to make my own damn list. I’d love it if the comments section was full of ‘WTF why isn’t Raging Heart On on your list, that book’s hilarious,’ etc. etc. etc. at which point we’ll expand the list, and I will have even more books to add to my force-field. (It would be much appreciated if any suggestions could be accompanied by an educational excerpt.)
FUNNY FICTION BY WOMEN the ultimate list of everything ever, period. No, really.
The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy
Set in Paris during a zany 1950s I never knew happened, this rambunctious and wildly inappropriate novel caused such an uproar that Dundy’s husband threatened to divorce her if she wrote a second one. Luckily, she was a wise woman who knew that listening to Groucho Marx is always a better idea than listening to your husband.
“The vague nymphomania I had experienced at the window returned.”
The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
This was made into a movie, and while some people consider the film sentimental and sappy, I consider the book fucking hilarious. The part where the girls are headed to their undiscovered Italian villa in the hands of possible highwaymen made me laugh until I cried. Pages and pages of tears.
“They descended gingerly, holding up their skirts just as if they would be wanting them another time and had not in all probability finished with skirts forever.”
Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds
This graphic novel is a prime example of true comedy—the situations and the premise, more than punchline-like jokes, are what set the laughs in motion. Tamara is an ugly duckling who leaves home, undergoes gobs of plastic surgery, and returns, vicious and swan-like, to her native village in England to sell her family home and take her sweet, sweet revenge. The book was also made into a very fine movie, with some memorably funny teenage girls as an unexpected bonus.
The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay
In novels, there’s an elusive golden ticket—a book that makes you laugh and cry. This novel is simultaneously one of the most affecting and funny I’ve read, and above all it’s an adventure, through Turkey and adultery, religion and monkeys.
“Take my camel, dear,’ said my aunt Dot, climbing down from that animal on her return from high Mass.”
Orlando by Virginia Woolf
I remember finding this book and being completely relieved that even smart intellectual people who create new forms of literature could have a seriously bent sense of humor. I admire her for A Room of One’s Own, respect her for Mrs. Dalloway, but I love her for Orlando. Which, coincidentally, is also a kick-ass movie starring Tilda Swinton. Need we say more?
“The sound of the trumpets died away and Orlando stood stark naked. No human being, since the world began, has ever looked more ravishing. His form combined in one the strength of a man and a woman’s grace. As he stood there, the trumpets prolonged their note, as if reluctant to leave the lovely sight which their blast had called forth; and Chastity, Purity, and Modesty, inspired, no doubt, by Curiosity, peeped in at the door and threw a garment like a towel at the naked form which, unfortunately, fell short by several inches. Orlando looked himself up and down in a long looking-glass, without showing any signs of discomposure, and went, presumably, to his bath.”
Puss in Boots by Angela Carter
OH, MADAME CARTER! Who knew you were not only deadly with the metaphors, but gloriously funny as well? Sure, Puss is just one story among several murderous (and nonetheless funny) ones, but it is fiction and it is juicy goodness.
“Do you see these fine, high, shining leather boots of mine? A young cavalry officer made me the tribute of, first, one; then, after I celebrate his generosity with a fresh obbligato, the moon no fuller than my heart—whoops! I nimbly spring aside—down comes the other. Their high heels will click like castanets when Puss takes his promenade upon the tiles, for my song recalls flamenco, all cats have a Spanish tinge although Puss himself eloquently lubricates his virile, muscular, native Bergamasque with French, since it is the only language in which you can purr.”
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
I think this one takes the cake for my personal favorite funniest novel of all time ever in the universe and beyond, and therefore I am including not one but two (count ’em!) two quotations.
“One of the disadvantages of almost universal education was the fact that all kinds of persons acquired a familiarity with one’s favorite writers. It gave one a curious feeling; it was like seeing a drunken stranger wrapped in one’s dressing gown.”
“Women are all alike—aye fussin’ over their fal-lals and bedazin’ a man’s eyes, when all they really want is man’s blood and his heart out of his body and his soul and his pride….”
Soulless by Gail Carriger
“The ill-informed masses included her own family among their ranks, a family that specialized in being both inconvenient and asinine.”
Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
“It struck me as pretty ridiculous to be called Mr. Darcy and to stand on your own looking snooty at a party. It’s like being called Heathcliff and insisting on spending the entire evening in the garden, shouting “Cathy” and banging your head against a tree.”
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
Diana Wynne Jones is an underrated treasure. I reread Howl’s Moving Castle a few months ago and was shocked by how good it is. Shocked, I say! It really is that wonderful. Don’t know how she does it. Funny, magical, and adapted into film by Miyazaki? SHEESH.
“Go to bed, you fool,” Calcifer said sleepily. “You’re drunk.”
“Who, me?” said Howl. “I assure you, my friends, I am cone sold stober.” He got up and stalked upstairs, feeling for the wall as if he thought it might escape him unless he kept in touch with it. His bedroom door did escape him.”
Wants by Grace Paley
Funny in a certain way. A good way, but a certain way nonetheless.
“I saw my ex-husband in the street. I was sitting on the steps of the new library. Hello, my life, I said. We had once been married for twenty-seven years, so I felt justified.
He said, What? What life? No life of mine.
I said, O.K. I don’t argue when there’s real disagreement. I got up and went into the library to see how much I owed them.”
Where’d You Go, Bernadette? By Maria Semple
“One of the main reasons I don’t like leaving the house is because I might find myself face to face with a Canadian.”
The Princess and the Pony by Kate Beaton
This book shouldn’t really be on the list, because it’s not a novel or even a long-ish kid’s book. However, ’tis the perk of making your own list to include whatever the hell you feel like, so VOILÀ! Here it is. I picked it up in a bookshop in Paris and laughed my behind off. When I finally broke down and bought a copy, I laughed some more. If you don’t like farting ponies and cuteness, please stay away. If you do, then this one is a winner.
Angus, Thongs, and Full Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison
“I am going to become a writer for Cosmo—you don’t have to make any sense at all. Or maybe I’ll be a bloke, they don’t have to make sense either.”
Personal note: Originally, I hated this book because when I was a teenager I decided it would be a most excellent idea to write a book like Bridget Jones’s Diary, but for teenagers, and then this book came out and the main character’s name was Georgia and I thought, hell, if that isn’t a sign from the universe to get off my lazy ass then I don’t know what is.
Dealing With Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede
“NONE OF THIS NONSENSE, PLEASE.”
Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie
“I’m Min’s fairy godmother, Charm Boy,’ Liza said, frowning down at him. ‘And if you don’t give her a happily ever after, I’m going to come back and beat you to death with a snow globe.’
‘What happened to “bibbity bobbity boo”?’ Cal asked Min.
‘That was Disney, honey,’ Min said. ‘It wasn’t a documentary.”
Girl, 15, Charming But Insane by Sue Limb
“Jess actually dreaded having a boyfriend, because of having to tell her mum. Perhaps she would just avoid it until her mum turned eighty or something and was in an old-people’s home, and then Jess, who would by then be about fifty, would drop by and casually remark, “Oh, by the way, Mum, I’ve got a boyfriend.” And even then her mum would probably hurtle out of her wheelchair and smack her hard across the face, crying “You trash! You whore! Get outta my house—I mean, my room!” It was hard sometimes, being the daughter of a radical feminist who hated men. ”
Eloise by Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight
There are a lot of really awful reviews of this book online. Some (uptight and resentful?) people just don’t get Eloise. Such is the reason I love humor so much, because that girl is bombastically awesome and I really don’t give two rat’s what anybody else thinks about it.
“I’m a nuisance in the lobby
Mr. Salomon said so
He is the Manager.”
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren
“As the children were sitting there eating pears, a girl came walking along the road from town. When she saw the children she stopped and asked, “Have you seen my papa go by?”
“M-m-m,” said Pippi. “How did he look? Did he have blue eyes?”
“Yes,” said the girl.
“Medium large, not too tall and not too short?”
“Yes,” said the girl.
“Black hat and black shoes?”
“Yes, exactly,” said the girl eagerly.
“No, that one we haven’t seen,” said Pippi decidedly.”
Loitering With Intent by Muriel Spark
“Fleur was the name hazardously bestowed at birth, as always in these cases before they know what you are going to turn out like. Not that I looked too bad, it was only that Fleur wasn’t the right name, and yet it was mine as are the names of these melancholy Joys, those timid Victors, the inglorious Glorias and materialistic Angelas one is bound to meet in the course of a long life of change and infiltration; and I once met a Lancelot who, I assure you, had nothing to do with chivalry.”
The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer
“Cecilia could have told him that Mr. Fawnhope’s intrepidity sprang more from a sublime unconsciousness of the risk of infection than from any deliberate heroism; but since she was not in the habit of discussing her lover with her brother he continued in a happy state of ignorance, himself too practical a man to comprehend the density of the veil in which a poet could wrap himself.”
Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day by Winnifred Watson
“Odd,’ said Miss Pettigrew conversationally, ‘the undermining effect of flowers on a woman’s common sense.”
Also an excellent film, starring none other than the fabulous Frances McDormand.
No Bed For Bacon
For a taste of the book’s delights, look no further than the dedication page.
“To my Wife,
My Second Best Bed.
WARNING TO SCHOLARS
This book is fundamentally unsound.”
If further degustations are required, look to the film Shakespeare In Love, rumored to be based on this very same novel. Although director John Madden did have to go and get all romance-y about things, gosh.
Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole books
“There’s only one thing more boring than listening to other people’s dreams, and that’s listening to their problems.”
Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
Not only are these two books companions, they’re also hilarious. And they’re my grandma Tutu’s favorite novels, which is surprising and hopeful in all the ways that this implies.
“But I think she would have been happy with Fabrice,’ I said. ‘He was the great love of her life, you know.’
‘Oh, dulling,’ said my mother, sadly. ‘One always thinks that. Every, every time.”
Anna Gavalda l’Échappée Belle
I randomly picked up this book at a wedding. It’s about people escaping weddings. Worked on yours truly a certain comic and bittersweet magic. Unfortunately, the English translation is pretty clunky.
“Je n’était pas encore assise, une fesse en l’air et la main sur le portière, que ma belle-soeur m’agresse déjà…”
Which Witch by Eva Ibbotson
AHCK! Holy tentacle teats, Eva Ibbotson is a hoot! Which Witch is the funniest, I think, of her books, though all of them are worth a look.
“Ms. Wrack’s mother, Mrs. Wrack, had been a mermaid: a proper one who lived on a rock and combed her hair and sang. But sailors had never been lured to their doom by her, partly because she looked like the back of a bus and partly because modern ships are so high out of the water that they never even saw her.”
One for the Money by Janet Evanovich
I hope nobody kills me over this one. Because while it’s stupid, seriously politically incorrect, and has a plot that’s questionable at best and on drugs at worst, it’s still pretty darn funny.
“I’m telling you, it’s fucking hard to be classy.”
Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson
Okay, fine. This one’s not funny so much as it has a real sense of humor. But what’s not to love about a sense of humor in a heartbreaking and slightly evil crime novel?
“This was love. It didn’t come free, you paid in pain. Your own. But then nobody ever said love was easy. Well, they did, but they were idiots.”
Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood
This one falls under the amusing category more than the holler-til-ya-die category. Even so, it’s charming and full of delicious wit.
“Both had suggestive bulges in their pockets which told of either huge genitalia or trousered pistols.”
The Portable Dorothy Parker by Dorothy Parker
“What fresh hell is this?”
The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy
Swashbuckling, debonair, and zesty with the comebacks! He’s here, he’s there, and he’s always got something cheeky to say, that Scarlet Pimpernel.
“We must prove to the world that we are all nincompoops.”
Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym
“Prudence’s flat was in the kind of block where Jane imagined people might be found dead, though she had never said this to Prudence herself; it seemed rather a macabre fancy and not one to be confided to an unmarried woman living alone.”
Diary of a Provincial Lady by E. M. Delafield
The clear precursor to Bridget Jones, Delafield’s Provincial Lady is hilarious down to her very marrow. The book is also available at Project Gutenberg for free, so hesitate not!
“January 9th.—Came home yesterday. Robin and Mademoiselle no longer on speaking terms, owing to involved affair centering round a broken window-pane. Vicky, startlingly, tells me in private that she has learnt a new Bad Word, but does not mean to use it. Not now, anyway, she disquietingly adds.
Cook says she hopes I enjoyed my holiday, and it is very quiet in the country. I leave the kitchen before she has time to say more, but am only too well aware that this is not the last of it.”
Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown
“Everybody gets married. It’s something you have to do, like dying.”
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
“It’s been many years since I had such an exemplary vegetable.”