Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Joys and Perils of Satire

Donn Taylor

            Satire is "A literary manner that blends a critical attitude with humor and wit for the purpose of improving human institutions or humanity." Thus says A Handbook to Literature (Fifth edition, 1986). But because satire usually employs ridicule, whether bitter or light-hearted, writers' claims of beneficial intent are always suspect. Does the writer really intend to improve humanity, or does he simply enjoy ridiculing people, institutions, or practices that he disagrees with? And how do we as readers receive satire? If we are located well outside the target group, we join the writer in laughing at "those people" who are committed to folly. But if we find ourselves located in the target group, we will respond with anger that any writer could misrepresent us so unjustly.
            Consequently, we writers should approach satire carefully, for it can be a boomerang that, once launched, will come back to attack us. Nevertheless, it can be an effective method of calling attention to a problem (and thus potentially contributing to its solution) while also being entertaining. I have introduced a good bit of it into my novels and poetry, and have experienced both positive and negative responses by readers. Here are my findings:
            My two published mysteries are set on the campus of a small denominational college whose management is suppressing its Christian heritage in order to appeal to more students and keep the enrollment up. The conflict between heritage and popular appeal is one that all Christian institutions must deal with. However, it allowed humorous satire when combined with the unfortunate fact that schools are often managed by the least competent. So my college is ruled by a president who makes elaborate speeches filled with non-sequiturs and clichés, and a dean who is always two thoughts behind the faculty he supervises. All of this remains light-hearted, and I have never received an adverse critical comment on it. (That may also mean that presidents and deans don't read much popular fiction.)
            I've also had good response to my momentary satire of TV news programs. As my protagonist described it, "Trumpets sounded a fanfare while colorful graphics gyrated around the screen, climaxing in a flaming nuclear explosion accompanied by a ringing bell. It was the only place I've ever seen A-bombs associated with bell ringing. Out of the mushroom cloud, the local news anchorette, Francie LaBouche, appeared like a stage magician emerging from a puff of smoke. She was dressed like a chorus girl, had brownish hair with bottle-born highlights, and wore enough grease on her lips to fry an egg. Her manner suggested that she bore tidings more important than the Second Coming."
            Again, this response may mean that more readers watch TV news programs than produce them. I'm grateful, in any case.
            On the other hand, my poetic satires have not generated many positive responses. I believe that is because I've tended to be too blunt in my criticisms. For instance, there is no doubt that school curriculums have been made less stringent, but my criticism is probably too pointed:

We purged hard subject from the schools,
Self-satisfaction taught instead,
Creating unemployment pools
Of graduates dumber than the dead.

            That is exaggeration, of course, and it is intended to focus on management. But it is too easily mistaken as criticism of individual teachers and students, all of whom are innocent of the fault. Some of them have not been happy with me. And the failure is mine for not keeping the focus where it was intended.
            Similarly, my poem satirizing awkward and blatantly half-dressed fashion models ends with the judgment of models "who have never known/ The taste of either gracefulness or grace." I've learned that this poem does not go over well in a poetry reading.
            To summarize: Satire is good fun to write, and it can be an effective means of calling attention to real problems in the real world. But to be effective with today's readers, the writer must avoid being openly pejorative, and must keep his criticisms of human folly lighthearted and amusing.
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