Monday, June 6, 2011

A Short, Not-Incredibly-In-Depth Look At Satirical Novels

As a Daily Show and Simpsons-watching, Wag the Dog and Spaceballs-loving, Onion-perusing sarcastic and mildly cynical jerk, good satire is one of the main reasons I drag myself out of bed each morning. I mean, who doesn't love a good satire? Nerds with no sense of humor, that's who!

Satire in literature's tricky though — lay it on too thick, and the book reads like you're just angry and have an axe to grind (The Devil Wears Prada...but, yes, I realize grinding the axe was part of the point), but lay it on too lightly, and folks may not get it (Ian McEwan's Solar, for some people). Of course, there are plenty of good literary satires out there — from American Psycho to Animal Farm to just about any Vonnegut or Tom Robbins, to Catch-22, to the greatest satirical novel of all time (in my view), A Confederacy of Dunces. (I maintain — though this may not be an original sentiment — that Ignatius Reilly is the basis for The Simpsons' Comic Book Guy.)

The key to good satire is wit. Slapstick satire is fine and well, but it doesn't have the same impact as smart satire. It's probably not a coincidence that the word "biting" is often used to preface both words when they're done particularly well. Satire must be marked by biting wit and biting wit is how satire moves from only decent to biting. Additionally, when times are tough and people are ticked off (i.e. times of total silly ridiculousness or when something is going horribly wrong) satire is often the richest. The financial crisis yielded one my favorite novels (satirical or otherwise) of last year, The Financial Lives of the Poets, by Jess Walter. And The Daily Show, Saturday Night Live (Tina Fey as Palin, or if you prefer, Carvey as Ross Perot) and The Onion are at their finest during the run-up to any election.

If you'll buy that theory, then these days, writers must be rather annoyed with the publishing industry. Two novels in the last few years — Adam Langer's The Thieves of Manhattan (my review) and Steve Hely's How I Became A Famous Novelist (with which I'm almost finished — review later this week. Preview: read it!) — take great pleasure in lampooning, with majestic cynicism, how novels are produced and published. Now, I realize two little-read novels does not a trend make, but it's at least interesting that these two novels similar novels came out about the same time. It's also interesting, as well as a tad ironic, that these novels about the dumbassedness of the publishing industry are being published by, well, publishers.

Anyway, the point here is rather simple and not exactly controversial: Satire is good and fun. I like it, and you should too. What are your favorite satirical novels? Why do you like satire?


  1. If you're looking for a really offbeat satire,my suggestion is Jennifer Government by Max Berry. It takes place in a world where everyone's last name is also their job description,bar code tattoos are the norm and corporate sponsorship is the only way of life.

    Barry also wrote the novel Company,which is a darker hue than the black comedy of Joshua Ferris' And Then We Came to the End (a book that I also enjoyed tremendously). Satire is like adding citrus to certain dishes-it cuts through the clogging fat and serves up the meaty flavors with zest and zing.

  2. A Confederacy of Dunces is one of my favorite books ever. Ignatius is such a bumbling hilarity. I also count American Psycho among my favorites.

  3. Personally I love sarcasm and smart puns. I love reading books which make me laugh not only because I love to laugh but because I appreciate the hard work that must have went into getting the joke across in writing.

  4. I vote for Confederacy of Dunces, too. I'm working my way through Trsitram Shandy which is wonderful. Laugh out loud funny once you get into the language. I'm also a big fan of Candide. Voltaire, the master of satire. It's also laugh out loud funny once you're into it.

  5. I really need to get my hands on The Thieves on Manhattan. I've also never read The Confederacy of Dunces.

    As far as my favorite satirical books, I'd have to go with Thank You for Smoking, How I Became A Famous Novelist (of course!), Stuff White People Like and Then We Came to the End.

  6. I also love Confederacy of Dunces. To the above I'd add Gary Shteyngart, though I haven't read his latest. I just discovered James Hamilton-Paterson's series involving comically pompous expat-in-Tuscany Gerald Samper -- the first is Cooking With Fernet Branca. These authors make relatively unsympathetic characters somehow likable, or at least people you can't stop following around, and that's a tough nut to crack.

  7. Interesting. I love books that make me laugh, but I'm always a little wary of the satire label (despite considering Vonnegut my favourite writer.)

    Satire is targetted humour, and is often more invovled that observational, and so can get dangerously close to parody. Apart from finding parody a little awkward, it ties a novel down too closely. Novels can do it, but their strength as a medium is elsewhere.

    Novels have scale and humanity and the ability to get as deep, as close, as broad and as far away as is possible. They're not the perfect medium for satire: TV is. Jon Stewart and Armando Iannucci and 1/3 of the stand-up comedians in Britain do it a whole lot better than any novel because they don't have to get fiction involved.

    Having said all that, I sometimes wonder if I have a wonky view of satire...

  8. Im looking forward to reading Confederacy of Dunces now, I purchased it the other day! I can't go past Jane Austen for satire. She's brilliant. I didn't realise how funny and satirical Pride and Prejudice really is until I listened to it as an audiobook after an eye operation - I was laughing out loud so hard it was painful :-)

  9. I just finished reading two satirical novels focused on English professors and academia, Changing Places (1975) and Small World: An Academic Romance (1984), by David Lodge. These are the first two in a trilogy; the final novel is Nice Work (1988). I loved both of the first two books. I was laughing out loud while reading Changing Places, which is set in thinly-veiled versions of the University of Birmingham and UC Berkeley. Small World is more subtle but equally hilarious; it deals with the wacky world of academic conference-going,using the structure of a romance. I highly recommend both of them and will soon be reading Nice Work myself.

  10. Oh man. If David Lodge is satire then I'm the biggest satire fan there is. Now I don't know what to think.

  11. @lady T - Thanks for the suggestion - sounds like a mix between Gary Shteyngart and a less-cerebral Infinite Jest. I loved Then We Came To The End, too - so that comparison definitely scores a few more points for Barry. Loved your last line, too - well said!

    @reviewsbylola - Mine too - I wish Toole hadn't offed himself before he could write the sequel!

    @Man - Yeah, there is quite a gift involved with conveying good sarcasm and satire on the page. Maybe the long-rumored email and text message "sarcasm font" will make its way to books, too.

    @CB - Nice - you went old school. I've never read Candide. Laugh out loud funny, eh? Those crazy French......

    @Brenna - Stuff White People Like is tremendous! I'm glad you brought that up. Isn't "blogging" one of them?

  12. @Steve - I wasn't a huge fan of Super Sad True Love Story, but it is definitely satirical. Thanks for the other recommendations - yeah, unsympathetic but likable characters are also very interesting characters.

    @Ben - Satire is DEFINITELY more involved than observational. For the reader to truly understand it, you have to have two pieces of understanding - what is being satirized, and the joke that conveys that satire. It's not always easy to pull off - but I'd disagree that novels aren't the perfect medium for satire. I'd say they're much better than TV, only for the simple reason that you can pack tons more meaning into a novel than a 30 minute TV show. And getting fiction involved is what makes satire so delicious!

    @Becky - Good call on Jane Austin, and I can't wait to hear what you think of Confederacy of Dunces. It's high, high comedy.

    @Anonymous - Never read Lodge, but always intended to. As Ben says below, I didn't realize he is satirical, but that's definitely a point in his favor. University satires are always fantastic - my favorite is Richard Russo's Straight Man. Hilarious!

    @Ben - Lodge fan, eh? Other than the trilogy the guy above mentions, any recommendations on where to start with him?

  13. Can I tell you how happy I am that someone mentioned Candide? That's the granddaddy of all great satire. Voltaire's got "the axe to grind," as you say, which is for the various notions of human happiness, and he cuts a swath through Western Civilization along the way. I... I like Candide.

  14. I think the second part of satire (at least the extra part compared to non-satirical humour), the object that is being satirized, is what makes satire so limiting. Maybe novels can do it very well, but however well it's done, it still seems limiting to me.

    As for David Lodge -- Thinks... and Therapy are among his best works in my opinion, though they're all relaible great. Author, Author is a novel-biography of Henry James, which is less likely to be accused of satire but is pretty fantastic.

    I'm glad to hear you recommend And Then We Came To The End -- tat book has been in my shop a while and I keep picking it up but not buying it.