Comic Visions, Female Voices: Contemporary Women Novelists and Southern Humor

By Stewart, F. Gregory | Southern Quarterly, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Comic Visions, Female Voices: Contemporary Women Novelists and Southern Humor


Stewart, F. Gregory, Southern Quarterly


Comic Visions, Female Voices: Contemporary Women Novelists and Southern Humor By Barbara Bennett. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998. 135 pp. $30.00

Flannery O'Connor captured the essence of the peculiar quality of southern literature when she said, "the maximum amount of seriousness admits the maximum amount of comedy." The truth of her revelation hinged upon a readership aware of both the possibilities and purpose of comedy. Barbara Bennett's Comic Visions, Female Voices: Contemporary Women Novelists and Southern Humor offers a lesson in the way in which today's southern women writers employ humor as a literary device. Bennett seeks to highlight numerous authors in need of critical attention even as she expands the canon of southern women's fiction. Of course, she is not alone in this endeavor; the 1990s proved a decade devoted to reconsiderations of southern literature. To those ongoing debates, Bennett contributes a noteworthy, albeit specialized, study.

Comic Visions deals, as Bennett states, "with post-1970" writers, and it benefits students of contemporary southern literature by creating a copious inventory of novels written by women. She considers no less than forty-three novels in her 135-page analysis, and the authors represented possess a breadth of diversity in their themes and characters. Discussions of the well-studied Bobbie Ann Mason, Alice Walker, Jill McCorkle, and Kaye Gibbons balance those of popular writers Anne Tyler, Lee Smith, and Dorothy Allison; new or often overlooked authors Lisa Alther, Josephine Humphreys, and Tina McElroy Ansa also receive useful attention. Insightful commentary on Humphreys's Rich in Love, Mason's In Country, Tyler's Clock Winding, and Gibbons's Charms for an Early Life, appears in a chapter devoted to an examination of laughter, but her tendency toward short analyses keeps Bennett from reaching deep insights into most of the texts she considers. Her reading of Walker's The Color Purple, however, most cogently investigates the multi-level function of humor in southern women's literature. As Bennett argues, the presence of laughter in The Color Purple juxtaposes with its absence and reveals the center of her argument: southern humor transforms the tone of a traditionally tragic body of writing in order to illustrate the inherent strength of women overcoming outmoded stereotypes.

How Bennett explains and executes this important and complex insight is problematic. Her subtext of "three issues most significant in this study. . the 'southernness' of the writing, the contemporary setting, and the female perspective" often strays from a focused examination of southern female humor. To her credit, she provides a new approach to traditional feminist interrogations of voice, identity, and stereotypes when she explains that using humor empowers southern women because it allows them to confront and challenge the often masculine image that Bennett implies pervades southern literature. She illustrates humor's benefit in diffusing that outdated privilege accorded to male authors and shows the wide embracing of humor within various groups of southern women. That Bennett considers white, African American, and lesbian southern fiction together is both laudable and necessary to the composition of the work. …

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