The women of Shouts and Murmurs

It turns out that for the past three years, they haven't existed.

Published August 28, 2007 8:45PM (EDT)

I've got a confession: On the occasions when I read the New Yorker, I often flip directly to Shouts and Murmurs. (One can only embark on so many 7,000-word rambling pieces of narrative journalism before needing a laugh.) But the problem is, the vast majority of the time, Shouts and Murmurs is not funny. Like, not even a little bit. I can tell the pieces are supposed to be funny, in the way that McSweeney's is often supposed to be amusing -- but yet, they're not. This confuses me. There is hardly a writer in the United States who would not be thrilled to have a piece in the New Yorker. Many writers would give the New Yorker their work for free just to have it published. Hell, I'd guess there are even people out there who would pay for the privilege. So wouldn't you think that with all those people and pieces to choose from, the New Yorker's editors would be able to select Shouts and Murmurs submissions that actually made people laugh?

I bring this up because we just found a link to a blog post from the World's Fair in which the author takes a break from his academic pursuits to examine the male-female breakdown of Shouts and Murmurs authors. (The post is arguably more amusing than most S&M columns.) His conclusion: "Out of the 133 authors of features under the Shouts and Murmurs banner (in the modern, post-1992 era), 17 have been women. That's 12.782%." To put it another way, men are represented in the section at a rate 8 times that of women.

What's more, there has not been a woman author of Shouts and Murmurs for over three years. The last one was in 2004. Again, this is irritating in and of itself. (Um, hello, couldn't you at least get Nora Ephron?) But then you look at the stuff they're running, and it's like, dude. It doesn't matter if you think women are less funny than men if the stuff you're running isn't funny to begin with. Check out this one from Aug. 27. It's about what some guy would do if he won the lotto. I'd quote from it, except there's nothing funny to quote. It ends with something about fishing. Ha.

I'm particularly annoyed about this because I just looked back at some previous Broadsheet posts about humor and the overall gender breakdown of writers at places like the New Yorker (click, for example, here, here, here or here), and stumbled across a reference to this gem, an essay by Christopher Hitchens about why women are not funny. Not because of cultural conditioning or anything, but because of our wombs. There is nothing funny, asserts Hitchens, about childbirth. And therefore, there is nothing funny about women.

I would argue that actually, there is funny stuff about childbirth. And it is quite likely that there is funny stuff about fishing, too, though I have yet to read an essay by an angler that has reduced me to hysterics. But hey. That's probably because I have a uterus. Putting aside the bigger, very irritating assertion that having breasts means you cannot also make people laugh (which is especially confusing since, last time I checked, boobs themselves are very funny), my real question is this: If you, oh editors of the New Yorker, are running pieces by men that are not funny to begin with, why not give some women a shot? Worst case scenario: You'll end up with a Shouts and Murmurs page that's just as unfunny as ... a Shouts and Murmurs page. And if it was better? It'd be the talk of the town.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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