Dare to be a Satirist

Let’s start with an English lesson, shall we? Today I’m going to be writing about Terry Pratchett’s particular use of satire in his writing. Before I can get far in that, though, it’ s important to establish what satire actually is. 

“It’s that English thing,” one of my college friends said one day when I asked them to define the word. “Like when an author is really mean, right?”

Another of my friends piped in and said, “It’s when they suggest horrible things like eating babies. That was Swift that did that one, wasn’t it?”

Well, while those definitions seem to be the more common view of satire, particularly in America, I prefer the official definition:

 1) A literary work in which human vice or folly is attacked through irony, derision, or wit.

2) Irony, sarcasm, or caustic wit used to attack or expose folly, vice, or stupidity.

So basically yes– it’s a work that is “mean” about a topic. It generally specifically attacks a certain topic, or event, or prejudice of society and using exaggeration and sarcasm, points out just how ridiculous we can be as human beings sometimes.

Needless to say, I adore satire when it’s done well. I have never known any other words to both infuriate and inspire quite so poignantly as those by a satirist. There’s just something about extremes and double meanings that gets people up-in-arms, and it’s wonderful. Because when it comes down to it, what is a story really about? Is it about existing in its own quiet bubble, or is it about being listened to, engaged with, and responded to?

Well, each author has their own preference, of course, but I’m inclined to say it is the latter. If you create a story and at the end nobody feels any differently, what was really the point? Every good story has at least one element that will stick with the audience. It might be something happy, or sad, dramatic, or especially clever. But it should be there.

For satire, it basically takes that one element and makes it the subject of the piece. It uses wit to cleverly make the reader think they aren’t reading about social change or the dismal condition of whatever group that our society has forgotten this time– it tricks them into thinking they’re just reading for fun.

The problem with satires, of course, is that they aren’t always understood. They aren’t universal. A reader must both pay attention closely and already have a background knowledge of the subject to fully appreciate a satire. Otherwise it comes off as anywhere from unnecessarily harsh to downright barbaric.

Take perhaps the most famous satirist, Jonathan Swift. His famous (sometimes infamous) work “A Modest Proposal” is the hallmark of everything I love about satire. It shocks, pokes fun, and generally plays with the reader’s emotions throughout, then sweeps in at the end with the “real” solutions. For those who haven’t read it, go google it right now and read. It will take you 20 minutes max, and if you aren’t hooked by the first page by means, put it down. I doubt you’ll be able to.

For those too lazy for that bit of reading I will sum it up in a single sentence. Swift’s persona suggests that the Irish poor get out of poverty by selling their overabundance of children as a food source and status clothing source for the wealthy. Yeah, delightful, right? But as you actually read the work, hopefully you’ll be able to see the humor in the scathing sarcasm. Short jabs at the landlords, wealthy, and those uncaring about the Irish poor make the whole piece really come together as a clear satire rather than a serious suggestion.

Even so, after this essay came out, people were outraged. Nobody seemed to get the joke, and those who got it were not half as loud as those who didn’t. Which of course meant that by the time everyone got it, most people felt embarrassed by the excessively poor plight of the Irish as well as by their own lack of understanding.

This is a good place to pause and point out why many people consider satire to be overly harsh or “mean.” Satire is rarely understood by everyone it is read by, and I am certainly not a person who claims that anyone who doesn’t understand is stupid. Certainly satire requires a very specific audience, and if parts of that audience still fail to grasp it, it’s as much on the writer as on the reader. Satire should be written to the point that if you look for the humor, it should be easily found. Granted, you have to start out looking. Someone has to tell you “No really, read Swift again. He’s hilarious!” before you really start looking for the jokes, but as long as they can be found on a second read, the author has done their job well.

Which brings me to a more recent author: British writer Terry Pratchett of “Discworld” fame.

For the last year a good friend of mine has been trying to get me to read books by Terry Pratchett. She knows of my excessive love for satire of all sorts, and had I not been swamped with all of my reading for English classes, I probably would have gotten to her suggestion sooner. As it was, I ended up reading two of his books this summer. And let me just say, they are fabulous. 

Granted, I’ve only read two, and they aren’t his “best” according to most, but they are amongst the greats. So far I’ve read Small Gods and Guards! Guards! and both were awesome and special in their own way. Apart from being brilliantly written novels which had strong characters, pacing, and plotlines, they both acted as a satire of particular things.

 

Small Gods was a satire primarily focused on religion and some of the silly things that come up there (like wars, rules taken out of context, how prophets are made, etc.). It was great because it was the sort of thing just about anyone could understand. Everyone has had some sort of dealing with religion, positive or negative, personally involved or just as an observer. And since Pratchett was focusing on an imaginary religion that mimicked just about every religion out there, there wasn’t any direct offense to be made except by those easily offended by anything religion related in general.

Similarly, the book Guards! Guards! focuses on satirizing the typical role of guards in fantasy novels. While this one is certainly funnier to someone who already knows about the fantasy genre and can relate to the different elements being made fun of, it’s not necessary to read and appreciate the book. For instance, I’m familiar with the cliches of fantasy books, but far from an experienced reader in the genre, so I was a little concerned starting. As it was, while I got most of the references and satire that was in the book, there were plenty of things I didn’t need to have any prior knowledge of to understand.

That would be Terry Pratchett’s brilliant poking fun at the English language itself. He uses common phrases and sayings to really subvert the reader’s expectations and remind them that anything can follow the start of that phrase. Honestly, I might in the near future do a post all about Terry Pratchett’s word use in enhancing his stories, but for now I’ll just end this very long post with a few choice examples:

“The reason that cliches become cliches is that they are the hammers and screwdrivers in the toolbox of communication.”

“If there was anything that depressed him more than his own cynicism, it was that quite often it still wasn’t as cynical as real life.”

“They felt, in fact, tremendously bucked-up, which was how Lady Ramkin would almost certainly have put it and which was definitely several letters of the alphabet away from how they normally felt.”

“You had to hand it to the Patrician, he admitted grudgingly. If you didn’t, he sent men to come and take it away.”

“A number of religions in Ankh-Morpork still practiced human sacrifice, except that they didn’t really need to practice any more because they had got so good at it.”

“Thunder rolled . . It rolled a six.”

That’s all for now! Thank you to anyone reading this blog. No idea what the schedule for posts will be here but hopefully more frequent than it has been!

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1 Comment

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One response to “Dare to be a Satirist

  1. Mostly just leaving a comment here to leave a comment to let you know I’m reading. Probably won’t read back through what you’ve posted before now, but I’ll keep up now that I’m reading. ^_^

    As for this post itself, can’t say you said anything particularly revolutionary about satire, to be honest. Satire is satire – that’s essentially what I was getting out of it, plus some examples of some good satire. Makes me want to check out the Discworld series more, I suppose.

    I would question, though… Should anything really take a second read for you to understand its point? Or should anything require it to be prefaced by a friend saying, “Yeah, that’s hilarious,” in order for you to get it? I read a play (or maybe it was a book?) once that was intended to be satirical, but because I was a little ways into it before I realized it was supposed to be satirical, the whole thing was fairly ruined for me. Or perhaps I was just too offended by the actual content… Hard to say. However, while I feel like a great work gain added meaning upon additional readings, I don’t feel as if its purpose is served if the general meaning isn’t conveyed upon a first read. Just my thoughts; I’d be intrigued to have seen you expand on that, and perhaps on how far is too far in satire. (If you haven’t done so in previous blog posts….)

    Anyway, look forward to seeing more from your blog. I’ll hopefully comment whenever I read, so get on me if I’ve missed a couple.

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