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What's the Message?

Titters 101: An Introduction to Women's Literature By Anne Beatts, Judith Jacklin, and Deanne Stillman Putnam, 266 pp., $8.95

By Melissa I. Weissberg

THE COVER says it all. Or at least it appears to, on first glance. Just the throat to waist of a buxom teenage student in supertight tee shirt. Superimposed on her chest are the words" litters 101."

Litters, Get it?

"What are you reading?" people ask, making a disapproving face at the same time they eagerly snatch up the book to thumb through it. "Wait-you mean this was written by women."

Of course, this work of humor--which takes the form of a textbook in order to satirize writers, male and female, through the ages could hardly have been written by men. Sometimes adolescent, often crude, nevertheless the humor is undeniably female. Its authors describe the work as "a lock into the women's washroom." Women get to talk about men the way they at so often outraged that men talk about them. There's some angry-sounding stuff in here.

So why the derogatory cover? The ambiguity of the message is one of the central elements of Titters 101: An Introduction to Women's Literature.

DIVIDED INTO chapters on individual "writers," including excerpts from their work, the book parodies everyone from Helen of Troy to Helen Gurley Brown to Anais Nin (who becomes "Anais Zit"), spearing Truman Capote and Norman Mailer '43 along the way. But the barbs aren't just aimed at writers; writers are the convenient vehicle to get to the heart of society itself--and in particular men and women and sex. After all, two of the authors say, "the main motivating force in everyone's life is sex." But about politics--don't satirists have to have politics? Consider, however, these two chapter descriptions:

The Age of Romance and Industry. A new element enters into literature; women writers are accepted on a par with men as long as men don't know they are women.

LILLIANPUTIAN

The Misadventures of Robin Caruso

A young girl puts on men's clothing; slows away on a seafaring vessel; ends up stranded on a desert island without any guys or moisturizer.

If sex is war, whose side are these women on?

"We're like the Saks Fifth Avenue slogan: We are all 'he things you are," says Deanne Stillman, one of the three authors. She and Judy Jacklin, co-author and art director, are on four promoting Titters, and are clearly having a good time.

"Feminist?" the 33-year-old Jacklin makes a face. "I'm a humanist. Feminists--it's like being in the army or something. I'm not quite there."

"We think of ourselves as writers--that's what we do." Stillman, who is 34, says, Jacklin nods. "Feminists are a group who are very active in lots of things, some of which I'm akin to, and some of which I'm not," Jacklin adds.

Pressed nevertheless to explain the cover design, they say simply that it is based on their last book, of which Titters 101 is the sequel, Titters: The First Collection of Humor by Women, was published in 1976 and sold 100,000 copies, they say. So their publisher wanted to play on the recognition. But how do they feel about the accusation of exploitation?

"Yeah, some women were offended; they said 'How could you do a cover like that?'" Jacklin remembers, sounding annoyed.

"If they don't like it, then they have no sense of humor, really," Stillman adds. "We're pretty blunt," Jacklin says.

BLUNT ISN'T exactly the word for much of the humor in the text itself. Crude, maybe, or perhaps gross. Styled as a basic "women's literature" textbook, Titters 101 is the image of the abused high school volume, in which every kind of girl wrote notes to her friends and herself. With underlinings in blue and hand-written scribblings in the margins, the book tries its damnedest to give the illusion of being used. Starry-eyed, worldly wise, crude and prude alike have scrawled in the margins. A sampling:

Mrs. Mel Gibson

Caryn Gibson

Caryn Bleckstein-Gibson

Caryn B. Gibson

Caryn Bleckstein-Gibson

Mel&Caryn Gibson

Caryn&Mel Gibson

Mr.&Mrs. Bleckstein-Gibson

Help!!! What's this about?

Two women have escaped from their cruel Italian husbands who keep them in chastity belts.

Soooo--can they have ORAL SEX?

SOME OF THE better writing, though, lies in the "texts" themselves. The parodies of Helen Gurley Brown and of Jack Kerouac (in the form of Camille Cassidy Cassady, who writes On the Rag) are particularly funny, because the humor is aimed more at the society that fostered Cosmopolitan and the Beat generation than at specific female stereotypes.

Other chapters, such as the story of Tekka Maki and her haiku, miss the mark:

Do not cry my child

Daddy will find the bad man

Who popped your cherry blossom

and

Samurai, stop killing

Pummel your sword limp, useless

Like your small peenie

may be funny to some, but they say little.

WHILE INDIVIDUAL pieces seem to carry a (not-always-subtle) message--such as the pseudo-notice calling for "woman" to be a verb, and crying "don't let men man our language!" --Jacklin and Stillman deny that there is any overriding political zeitgeist to their work.

What is their "message," then?

"To entertain people, give 'em a good time, but also to make them think," says Jacklin. She adds that as for her political leanings, she plans to write in Cyndi Lauper for President.

Why do the two of them love Lauper? Because she's funny, and she writes good music. They love the Go-Go's, too, and dress like them, with big funky spiky hanging earrings and huge, bright-colored sunglasses.

"We consider ourselves the Go-Go's of the literary world," Stillman says.

Maybe after their next sequel they'll be Bananarama.

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