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  • Transgressive Humor of American Women Writers ed. by Sabrina Fuchs Abrams
  • Stephanie Brown (bio)
Transgressive Humor of American Women Writers.
Edited by Sabrina Fuchs Abrams. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. 263 pp.

Transgressive Humor of American Women Writers is an edited collection that emerged from a special session on the topic at the 2015 meeting of the Society for the Study of American Women Writers organized by the book's editor, Sabrina Fuchs Abrams. The collection focuses primarily on literary texts from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century, with the two final chapters devoted to gendered performances of and gendered discourses surrounding contemporary stand-up comedy. Like much work on women's comedy, the book takes as its premise that a hallmark of humor produced by those societally disenfranchised by gender is the subversion and transgression of patriarchal norms. In analyzing humor as "an expression of sublimated aggressive sexual impulses" (1) that upends patriarchal norms when women engage in its creation, these essays join in the work done in recent collections like Women and Comedy: History Theory, Practice (2014) and Hysterical! Women in American Comedy (2017). The volume's collected scholarship is a significant, often entertaining, contribution [End Page 395] to the growing body of work on gender and humor, analyzing the ways in which women who write or perform comedy are often ignored or misunderstood. The essays effectively interrogate a wide variety of boundaries that police not only appropriate feminine and masculine gender roles but also form, genre, taste, and style.

The first section of the collection covers neglected or misunderstood humorists, reframing assumptions and challenging traditional interpretations of their texts. These opening essays theorize the gendered creation of the canon and question cultural arbiters' definition of humor and satire as well as the enforcement of strict genre boundaries. For instance, in the collection's first chapter, Margaret D. Stetz objects to the simplistic characterization of anthologist Carolyn Wells as a critic of others' work, shedding light on her role as a widely published humor writer. Stetz argues that the literary humor canon often excludes women's writing that resists traditional categories of comedy. Similarly, in her chapter on suffragette humor in the popular press in the early 1900s, Amanda T. Smith draws attention to the largely overlooked humor produced by suffragettes rather than about suffragettes. In making this humor visible, she explains that such scholarship "reveals the prevailing perception that feminists are too militant to be artful and that their shrieks could not possibly be shrieks of laughter" (37).

The next section centers on "diverse perspectives on marginalized voices," which contains two essays on writers of color. In her contribution, Mary Catherine Loving conducts an autoethnographic critique of Lucille Clifton's poetry that causes her to rethink her own literary training and bias against the poet's confessional tone, idiosyncratic style, and merging of the academic and the personal. Her essay is a necessary and lovely meditation on academic and scholarly transgression, the destabilization of literary canon and of rigid notions of black womanhood, and the practice of reading and interpretation. Next, Sonia Alvarez Wilson writes about the relationship between trauma and humor and the dangerous borders Latina authors cross when they challenge cultural confines with "wit, humor, and . . . a pioneering spirit" (115). The final section covers contemporary humorists in various media from graphic novels to stand-up performance. Rebecca Krefting's chapter is particularly novel; it furthers her previous work on cultural capital and comedic production, focusing not on texts per se but on gendered discourses around the production of digital comedy. Specifically, she argues that the often uncritical celebration of online spaces as a democratizing force [End Page 396] in comedy and the stubborn assumption that women aren't funny bump up against one another in such a way that the blame for any lack of success ends up being laid on female comics and not wider systemic inequalities—cultural, political, and economic.

A convincing secondary argument of the collection contends that scholarship on women's work, and humor specifically, should also question the gendered, raced, and classed assumptions on which canons are built in the first place. The collection thus aims to blur...


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pp. 395-398
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