Whither Satire?

Amusing thing about the (as it were) Theory of satirical dictionary writing. I took careful notes, just in case I ever need to write another.

In conducting this assault, Donaldson and Eyre are making an important point not only about the nature of modern celebrity but also about the nature of satire. The textbook definition of satire is that it flourishes in an age of clearly defined moral standards, or one in which those standards are only just beginning to break down. If you are trying to be funny about other people’s moral failings, in other words, there must be some broad agreement between you and your audience as to what a moral failing actually consists of.

Ah. Well, fortunately, we didn’t have that problem, or limitation, or requirement, because we weren’t trying to be funny about moral failings, but rather about intellectual or cognitive or epistemic ones. Different thing. Or not. Actually maybe not, because the tricky bit of what D J Taylor says there is ‘your audience’. All depends what you mean by ‘your audience,’ doesn’t it. If you have wild hopes of writing a book that everyone over the age of three will want to read, then that’s one kind of ‘broad agreement’ you’re after, whereas if you sanely expect to amuse the kind of people who are amused by the kind of thing you are writing, and no one else, then that’s another kind. Though actually we did argue about this quite a lot during the writing. One of the writers kept urging that we ought to have a few very obvious jokes so as not to turn off people who don’t get the other kind; the other never saw the point of that, because who is going to buy or read a book on the grounds that it has ten good jokes in it and 490 duds? Who is even going to find the obvious jokes among all the others? I still don’t see it. Isn’t Theory interesting.

Here in the age of Big Brother and Celebrity Love Island, alternatively, the satirist is faced with three disabling drawbacks. The first is that so many satirical targets, from John Prescott to Robbie Williams, are, as Craig Brown once despairingly put it, “beyond parody”.

Yup. That is indeed a disabling drawback. I know, because that’s why the publisher didn’t want a satirical guidebook to angels and pagans and Celtic wisdom and all that good stuff – because it parodies itself. Sad, isn’t it – there are people out there walking around and driving cars and working at jobs (none of them in medical or dental fields, let us devoutly hope) who are so silly that they can’t be parodied, they’ve already done it for you. Sad, but also very funny.

The second, at a time when formal yardsticks of human behaviour are snapping all around us like celery stalks, is that many people, served up with something that labels itself “satire”, are simply unaware that a joke is being made. Extraordinary as it may seem, a fair proportion of the populace probably imagines that reality TV is aspirational, or that Vanessa Feltz is a very interesting woman of whom a whole lot more should be heard.

Well…yes. Admittedly – the stuff Sylvia Browne writes is so bottomlessly ridiculous and hilarious and absurd, it would be very hard indeed to write anything that was even more so. So naturally it does become difficult to perceive that a joke is being made.

That’s almost tragic, in a way. The really ludicrous people and ‘movements’ are so extremely risible that they can’t be mocked – there is simply no room left – so only the more moderately ridiculous people and movements can be made fun of. That does seem like a terrible waste. Ah well.

The third drawback was recently identified by Clive James in his essay Save Us From Celebrity…What was the best way to stem the tide of rubbish in which the average TV watcher or newspaper reader is constantly deluged, he wondered. “Satire is one way, but the satirists become celebrities too.” Don’t they just? And so Mr James found himself on Parkinson, reciting one of his amusing poems to Posh Spice and David Bowie. The emasculated satirist, in fact, is one of the commonest sights in literary history. In later life Thackeray, famously, never produced any social critique quite so devastating as Vanity Fair, largely because its success brought him fame and dinner invitations from the Duke of Devonshire.

Ah – now that one is not a worry. That difficulty has been grandly, even regally surmounted. Success shall not spoil wosname. No. Fame and dinner invitations to Chatsworth will not emasculate this satirist, thank you very much, because the problem doesn’t arise. I don’t get dinner invitations from the people who sleep under Waterloo Bridge, let alone the Duke of Devonshire. And the one time I got the chance, when I was on that radio thing with nice Philip Adams, well, I didn’t sell out, did I. Not a bit of it. I was just as sarky and parodic and mocking as ever. So! My social critique will go on being just as devastating as it was last year, Dukes or no Dukes, I assure you. There’s integrity for you.

Speaking of fame and dinner invitations and radio and amusing poems, Julian is on ‘In Our Time’ tomorrow, so have a listen.

11 Responses to “Whither Satire?”