Saturday, January 3, 2009

Satire: Read It and Woop

satire--a form of ridicule in which an individual, institution, attitude, or work of academic and/or historical intent has fun made of it and is as well accompanied by some suggestion for solving the occasion of ridicule. Like its brother and sister aspects of humor, satire is highly moral in its reach, sparing no feelings in its path to the target, its intended goals a deflation of pomposity and an indicated pathway to better behavior. For writers, satire is an ideal approach to ridiculing prevalent culture, behavior, institutions, and individuals, using exaggeration as a primary tool. A risk of satire is the potential for offense taken by the target, offense that may easily lead to outrage. Notable historical examples are Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," which caused a wave of outrage after Swift, a clergyman, suggested a solution for the results of the famine caused by the Irish potato blight. In his still-readable Gargantua and Pantagruel, Francois Rabelais made fun, among other things, of the body politic by portraying large, overweight judges and politicians, who ate until they exploded. More recent satires are George Orwell's Animal Farm, 1984, and "Shooting an Elephant," in which he satirized various aspects of government.

Beyond the obvious dangers of inciting advocates of the very thing being satirized and their subsequent consequences is the danger of exaggerating too much, causing the entire readership to revolt, thus a good place for satire to stop at is somewhere beyond the boundaries of "This has gone too far." Satire, by its very nature, does go too far in its attempts to call attention to the thing or person being satirized. Joseph Heller went too far in Catch-22, but it was a well controlled too far, which is to say it went slightly beyond probability but it did not become sarcastic nor uncivil, nor did it have to. Sarcasm is one of the most difficult emotional registers to capture on paper; sarcasm-driven satire quickly loses its edge and thus its effect.

Although dead for nearly a hundred years, Mark Twain's satire merits study for its tone, neither too sarcastic nor outraged, his intent residing instead in his examples and uses of comparison. His essay "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" is a must for writers because it so competently takes its target to task while providing valuable literary commentary simultaneously. Twain is also worth study because his satire is so often delivered dead-pan, seemingly without expression. The Innocents Abroad and Roughing It remain two text books for those who would satirize. Understatement and low-key presentation are two qualities inherent in effective satire, the goal being to convince the reader that the material presented is accurate and plausible. No subject or institution is immune to satire, as the newspaper and web site, The Onion, demonstrates. The most effective satires are those that sound so reasoned and apparently well thought out as to seem entirely plausible, which has the added effect of the target not knowing it has been attacked.

In addition to being highly effective when done well, satire is also a volatile commodity which will bite the hand that fed it, which is to say it will produce the unintended result of satirizing and bringing down the satirizer.

don't go there--
a response by an individual in real life or a reply from a character within a story when pressed for the details and/or consequences of a painful, potentially humiliating situation. Both instances are meant to stop further questioning. When a writer confronts the Don't go there assertion, the writer needs to pursue full on, recording the results.

power--a condition or situation of authority or supremacy enjoyed by one character over another or group of others; a hierarchy of supervisory or accountability status. To some degree, power is evident in every scene; the characters may or may not be aware of the circumstances but the chances are that the reader will intuit the ranking situation. Thus even among two high school friends, the potential for an actual or imagined status difference exists. Employers hold a certain amount of power over employees, and romantic relationships frequently reflect some power basis, which the writer is wise to keep in mind, whether the status is alluded to or not.

Sometimes in dramatic narrative, the base of power is reversed; one character learns something or experiences insights which levels the playing fields of the authority or extent of the hold. Now the character who has been set free has the option to behave differently than his customary behavior. Roles have been shifted. One way or another, the dramatic action is different.

1 comment:

ZS said...


So glad you got the book! Thanks for your kindness and support, as always.