I think we can write better satire than we’ve been writing. But to do that, we need a new definition of satire.
Over three years ago now, I wrote an essay about Jess Walter’s book, The Financial Lives of the Poets. About 1600 words into the thing (it’s long), I stop the narrative and clarify that the book I’m writing about is funny, and not a nonstop funeral march, the way my summarizing to that point made it sound.
Financial crisis this and marital collapse that.
I reread that essay tonight, trying to remind myself how to write essays, and when I got to that passage it stopped me in my tracks.
Whenever I tell people about my own novel — something I hope to God will be a cracking satire — I always have to say the same thing.
“Well this awful thing happens followed by this awful thing leading to this impossible choice and the death of this character’s ideals — oh and it’s way hilar you guys!”
Jess’ book is a good, big-hearted, funny satire, and I hope my book will be as well. The funny in both cases, though, isn’t in the premise or in the plot. Not the sort where you can say “X happens then Y then Z. Funny, right?” The humor in stories like Financial Lives and, I’d submit, great satire like Slaughterhouse Five, is baked somewhere deeper, in the failings of both its people and society. In the systemic way we’ve all fucked everything up so bad.
I just looked up the definition of “satire” to make sure I think about satire the way the rest of the world does:
The use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.
So yes, we’re all on the same page.
In thinking about my trouble talking about satire, though, that definition feels kind of inadequate.
First, it’s missing the heartache. I think the best satire has heartache in ratios that all but dwarf the levels of ridicule. That’s not he case with all satire. It’s certainly not true of that Orwell classic Animal Farm, but then, I depart with most of the rest of the world in thinking that Animal Farm isn’t a particularly great work of satire. It’s a good mockery, and even a good critique, of communism. The thing that’s lacking isn’t the understanding of the flaws in the system, but the flaws in the people who believed so desperately in the system that they looked past all the awful things that went on to achieve it.
So 1: Existential heartache.
2: The definition as it stands treats the elements — humor, irony, exaggeration — like ammunition and the subjects like targets. That’s certainly the case of some satire, maybe even most. Again: Animal Farm. I don’t think that’s the way the best satire works, though. There aren’t winners and losers in the best satire, because the best satire shows us the ways in which we are all well and truly fucked. Think of the way Slaughterhouse-Five builds time travel into a narrative about the inevitability of wanton and total murder.
It’s a book about the horrors of war and probably also PTSD, but it’s mostly about how shortsighted we all are all the time — literally every day — and how the most human tool we have to respond to that shortsightedness, remorse, doesn’t actually do anything. Remorse has never un-mass-murdered anyone.
We laugh at that realization because we understand our fate. We’re limited creatures. No matter how long a view we try to take, we’ll never be able to get the clarity we need while there’s still time to head off our biggest mistakes.
What we get instead is the benefit of hindsight, which really isn’t much of a benefit at all. The best we’ll ever be able to do with hindsight, to steal from Beckett, is fail better. Fail more humanely. Whatever that means.
We laugh at Vonnegut because he understands — in a way that is so clear and painful and true — just how bad we all have it.
The best satire, then, isn’t written with an us and a them. The best satire is first person plural, and it casts as wide a net as possible. It gets as close to a humanity-wide “we” as it can. It tackles our most painful collective truths in a way in which we can’t help but see the absurdity of our situation.
And that’s what makes the humor in such books so hard to peg. What’s funny about time-traveling to continually bear witness to a mass murder you were both a victim of and complicit in? It’s existential gallows humor.
I used to think that the halt I put in that essay about Jess Walter was a failure of my writing, and that my inability to relate the humor present in my own novel was a failure of communication.
And maybe those are both real and actual failures. I’m open to that. But I also think they hit on something about satire we’ve forgotten as writers.
So I’m ginning up a definition for better satire:
Something that wants to soothe the heartsickness and powerlessness we feel at our failings as imperfect individuals in imperfect society. The sort of thing that reads like comedy but summarizes like tragedy.
The definition is a work in progress — I already changed it once, just this second — and I’d love to hear from all of you.
But even in its imperfection, I’m going to be using it everytime I open the novel and try to write a single real thing.