Hello, New Author! Did You Just Write My Book?

What happens when somebody writes about a topic you've claimed as your own?

Posted Oct 24, 2012

I’ve never regarded myself as an idea hoarder. You know what I mean—one of those people who say: “I don’t want to reveal too much about my work, because I’m worried about people taking the premise/title/idea for themselves.” 

To act all territorial and possessive was pathetically unattractive and nerdy. And that wasn’t me.

Not until recently.

An idea hoarder? Me? The literary version of Hoarding: Buried Alive goes something like this: You had a terrific concept destined to establish you as one of the leading thinkers of your generation but, like the thousand china unicorns the poor souls on Hoarding keep in shoeboxes and the 906 Dunkin’ Donuts travel mugs in the bathtub, ideas can squat in the minds of writers. That’s when we start tripping over ourselves.

So when it comes to ideas, we should use them, donate them, share them, or toss them, right? Right. Sharing is best.

But what happens when somebody either accuses you (very uncomfortable) of using “their idea” or when you (even more icky) want to yell at somebody else “Hey, I’m in here! Ocupada!”?

Ideas and subjects are not commodities. They don’t have patents and are not subject to copyright. They are not the baby at Solomon’s Court demanding division; they are not subject to custody hearings or custodial visits. Even Judge Judy wouldn’t touch those cases.

But our subjects do become part of our imaginations and identities as writers.

And so, as someone who has been writing about women and comedy forever, starting with They Used to Call Me Snow White, But I Drifted: Women’s Strategic Use of Humor (1991; 19 printings; being re-issued with a new introduction in 2013 as a “classic” by UPNE) I am a hive of conflicting and buzzing feelings about a new book on the subject published recently.  

That’s why I am afraid of looking into We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy despite the fact that it’s a book I welcome since, let’s face it, everything and anything about women and humor is of course A Good Thing.

Please understand that I have it. It is sitting next to me as I write. The book is very handsome. But I have not opened it. I am too nervous to open it. And I’m not the kind who scares easy.

Of course Yael Kohen’s book sounds great because she includes dozens of interviews with working comics (as well as producers, agents, and all kinds of “insiders”), and that’s why I bought it. Full price yet. It will be a terrific resource for my graduate students and colleagues who are searching for first-person accounts of women who make their living writing and performing humor.

Plus I know Kohen must be respected by the people she’s interviewed because she has a book-warming at the Friar’s Club, an august group into which I am being inducted myself this very week. So what worries me?

I feel like a monster saying it, but let’s be honest here: I’m afraid she won’t mention the work of others who have already written on women and comedy. Oh, phooey: I'm afraid she doesn't mention me.

Maybe she does. Maybe there’s a footnote. I like footnotes; I’m a professor. Footnotes are part of my livelihood. I get a commission on them.

But I worry that the “history of women in comedy” is being seen as a newly discovered entity rather than as something with a rich history already examined, albeit much earlier, in books such as Spare Ribs: Women in The Humor Biz by Denise Collier and Kathleen Beckett or Women In Comedy: The Funny Ladies from the Turn of the Century to the Present.

The flap jacket on that book reads: “Female comics are, and always have been, a scarce commodity. The most popular explanation for this lack of representation is that women are just not funny. They don’t laugh at jokes nor do they create them. Raising the questions ‘Can women be funny?’ or ‘Do women have a sense of humor?’ produced a debate…’” Looking at the lives of women from Joan Rivers to Gilda Radner, Linda Martin and Kerry Segrave, the authors of Women in Comedy were advertised as demonstrating “how current funny ladies are moving toward a new, more aggressive humor in keeping with feminist gains.”

Plus ca change, etc., as we said in Sheepshead Bay.

So this new book sits at my elbow, the pink cover with faces of women comics in happy bubbles, inviting me to flip open the pages, or at least look at the index to search for my name (if the book has an index, I don’t know. I’m serious about not having opened it).

At this point, my fingers and toes are crossed for a footnote just so that I don’t have to accept the “hoarding” label. After all, this much I know from writing about women’s humor in performance and in real life: there are plenty enough laughs to go around.

A version of this essay appeared in The Huffington Post.