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Gender, comedy, literature and the Stephen Leacock Medal

kathryn borel

On April 1, the five finalists for the 2011 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour were announced. The annual award honours (in the words of the Leacock Association's press release) "the book judged to be the most humorous one published in Canada, written by a Canadian, in the previous year." This year's judges opted for a vibrant and diverse list that reflects how far Canadian humour has come since the medal's inception in 1946.

The five shortlisted titles range from David Rakoff's collection of essays, Half-Empty (the current go-to format for humour writers), to Terry Fallis's slapstick political satire, The High Road (which is made all the more relevant by the upcoming federal election).

There's also Trevor Cole's Practical Jean, a whip-smart black comedy that has laughs and literary cred: it also scored a nomination for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. Todd Babiak's Toby: A Man is another novel that was lauded by critics (the Toronto Star praised it as displaying "more sophistication, wit and insight than the majority of literary fiction published in Canada today").

Rounding out the list is Red Green, touting duct-tape solutions for the everyday DIY-er in How to do Everything. This choice is something of a throwback to archetypal Canadian comedy, and a nod to the history of the form. Ham-handed DIY will always have a place in comedy, but the fact that it's one of many different approaches to contemporary humour is something we should celebrate.

The downside to this list? All five nominees are men. This is also true for the 2008, 2007, 2006, 2003 and 2002 shortlists (which is as far back as the Leacock website goes.) Women didn't get shut out in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2009 and 2010 -- but only one female finalist made the list in each of those years.

If you want to find a female winner of the Stephen Leacock Medal, you need to go back to 1996, when Marsha Boulton won for Letters from the Country. Since the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour was first awarded in 1946, only five women (Boulton, Sondra Gotlieb, Joan Walker, Jan Hilliard and Angeline Hango) have taken the prize. Several fantastically funny women, including Sheree Fitch, Susan Juby and Kathryn Borel, Jr., were finalists in recent years, but came home empty-handed.

The Stephen Leacock Medal is a particularly interesting example of this gender divide, as it is at an intersection of two conversations happening in contemporary culture right now: women in comedy and women in literature. In both comedy and literature, this problem has been made apparent in several interesting and troubling ways recently. When Jennifer Egan won the National Book Critics' Circle Prize for A Visit from the Goon Squad, it was largely framed as literary darling Jonathan Franzen's loss instead of a surprise victory for an accomplished author. VIDA, the organization that supports women in literature, released a report showcasing the significant lack of gender parity in the major American literary publications, both in terms of the number of female book reviewers and the coverage of books written by women. SXSW, the annual "music, film and interactive" festival in Austin, Texas, included only one woman in their comedy showcase this year, which featured 30 performers in total.

Turning inward to the CBC's own Canada Reads, there's a similar imbalance: in the program's 10 year history, only two of the winning books were written by women (Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill and A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews) and only two winning panelists were women (Denise Bombardier and Donna Morrissey).

So the Leacock is not alone.

 According to the Leacock judging committee, of the 70 titles submitted for consideration this year, only 15 were penned by women. In 2009, it was 22 of 67 submissions. In 2008, it was 16 of 47. (Statistics for 2010 were not provided.)

In a reponse to an Ottawa Citizen article by Nancy Lauzon (who posed this very same question), the Stephen Leacock association president Michael Hill wrote the following (which he shared with me via email):

 Do women in Canada write humour and submit their work for the Leacock medal. Certainly. Silly question. Are women under-represented on our winners list? Most definitely. Another silly question. Does the Leacock association, through its panel of (anonymous-to-the-public) national judges, have a bias in favour of men and the humour they write? Absolutely not.

But something is going on.

Traditionally, the Leacock Medal represents a very specific kind of humour: heavy on puns, wordplay and slapstick situational comedy, and based on these statistics, it could be argued that there are more male writers working (and thriving) in with this specific genre than women writers. But that's an excuse that doesn't address the underlying roots of this problem -- the same problem that keeps women out of late-night comedy's writing rooms and prevents them from headlining comedic features that don't have "rom" in front of the "com." It's a way of blaming the women themselves, and not the world they are trying to break into. 

We can ask ourselves pragmatic questions about the publishing and awards process: are women more inclined to write serious books than funny ones? Are publishers not submitting the work of their funny female writers, who may not fit the traditional Leacockian mould?

Or we can ask ourselves ideological questions about the role of women in comedy and literature: what role does gender play in receiving literary and comedic opportunities? is the work of men perceived to be inherently more valuable by decision-makers, and why?

Women are funny. Women are writers. And, believe it or not, women are funny writers. These women should have their work celebrated and critiqued to the same degree as that of male comics and writers.

Until this happens, we need to keep asking these questions.


Image: Kathryn Borel, Jr., 2010 Stephen Leacock Award nominee.

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