Saturday, November 15, 2014

Funny You Should Say That

For as far back as you can remember, Irony has been a great friend.  You commemorate it by capitalizing its name where ever you can.  Not only that, you make note of events or instances when irony seemed to go out of its way to call your attention to its presence.  How many times do you find yourself during the course of a day, beginning a sentence with the phrase, "It's ironic you mention that because--"  Or, "Isn't it ironic that--"

You are calling out irony in each case.  In the first, you are acknowledging the irony of another person mentioning a subject or event she would not ordinarily mention.  In the second, you are referring to the odds-against coincidence of events unlikely to take place at all.

These notes of ironic instances often form the basis of a classroom lecture, a sentence or two in a review, a subject for an essay, or an entire short story.

In more recent years, Irony seems to have been your companion in any venture outside your dwelling, often sharing the rear deck of your car with another constant companion, Sally,your late Australian Shepherd/Cattle Dog mix.

There are numerous ways of describing and employing irony, beginning with one of your favorites, a distilled attitude, in analogy the cognac to a fine white wine as wit is to sarcasm.  At this level, Irony is expressed with the right degree of exaggerated agreement to a previous statement or sentiment.  Example:  "You must take considerable satisfaction from doing that."  To which the reply, "How acute you are to have noticed."  This last must be expressed with the approximate tang of a voice recently having gargled with vinegar.

Another vital approach to Irony involves an even more pronounced intention of opposites or contrariness in which, for example, a character's statement is misinterpreted by one or more characters to mean the polar opposite of the intended meaning.  The gifted satirist, Stephen Colbert, is quite expert at this nuanced level of Irony.

This approach also narrows focus on another plateau of Irony you find valuable, where the reader or audience is able to see the disconnect between what is said and what a character appears to understand.  The author and reader/audience are entering a conspiracy against a character.  

For a great romp of a variation on this theme, the author is entering a conspiracy against the audience or readership, doing so with a dead-pan delivery and mischievous intent such as the overall content, tone, and textual thrust put to work by Jonathan Swift in his satirical essay, "A Modest Proposal."  Proof of the effect of this work can be seen in the way the title has stayed in the language, along with another, more modern one, "Catch-22."

You've heard the term "Modest Proposal" used in speech and seen it appear in writing, its irony compounded with the implication that the user does not know the original source.  Nevertheless, "Modest Proposal" comes with the cachet of built-in irony, just as hearing someone speak of being caught in a "catch-22" conveys the picture of an individual caught in a bureaucratic spiderweb where, as an example, one cannot be issued an identity card until one produces a card verifying one's identity.

An early experience with irony--no, Irony--relates to life- and career-related intentions you had to more or less work your way through or, if you will, understand them by writing about them after having experienced them in Reality.  You were, at the time of this experience, a client of a high-powered and influential literary agent who felt for some time that you had the potential to reach a publication level best expressed here by two terms, each a compound word, each beginning with the word "front."

You had, the agent said, the potential to become a "front-of-the-book" writer, which meant you had, in his judgment (or hope, because, of course, literary agents earn their living by commissions from their clients) the ability to write things--short stories and essays--appearing in the front or early pages of a magazine.  

He also said he thought you had the potential to be a "front-list" author, meaning, as you came to understand from your own editorial assignments, the front pages of a book publisher's catalogue.

At the time, there was, and still is, a sort of stigma in being regarded as a "mid-list" writer, which means your books sell enough to earn black ink on the P/L statements, but not a great deal more.  You can make this unfortunate circumstance retreat if you are considered a "back-list" writer, meaning your books stay in print, sell over a long arc of time, and provide you, come royalty time, a stream of checks which, in their aggregate, provide you enough income to live on with some modest respectability.

The agent guessed that your major hurdle to front-of-the-book and front-list status had to do with, and you quote him, "your choice of recondite subjects and vocabulary."

The Irony is that you had to look up recondite.

After you found out what it meant, you agreed and, in fact, still do.  The Irony is compounded with another literary agent asked you if you could possibly "dumb-down" a particular project, reaching, you realize, exponential proportions when you found yourself telling her you found the work in question, and yourself in the bargain, at a level you could not descend below with any sense of being taken as literate.

Over the years, you've given thought to the matter of these labels, happy to shed the skins of front list, mid list, and back list, wishing instead to get on with the work as you see it, the work of noting Irony. 

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