Good examples of satire: Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods and Magnus Mills’ novel The Maintenance of Headway
Artillery Row Books

Don’t worry, novelists are still envious and bitter

Unlike Douglas Murray, John Self thinks the satirical novel isn’t dead

In the September issue of The Critic, Douglas Murray lamented that “the book-length satire seems to have taken some sort of holiday”. I set aside the satirical novel I was reading for the October issue of The Critic, did a double take and pondered the situation. But no, I read it right: Murray had searched and was unable to identify any worthwhile satirical novels published after David Lodge’s Changing Places in 1975 – or, to put it another way, during his lifetime and then some.

To be sure, the narrow ledge of mid-20th century satires he enthuses about are valuable – Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Towards the End of the Morning – and mostly evergreen (Lucky Jim’s charms have always eluded me), but I am confident that the satirical novel is alive, biting and kicking.

Perhaps part of the problem is that if you don’t seek, you won’t find. Murray, although an eloquent admirer of some contemporary fiction including that of Edward St Aubyn and Alan Hollinghurst, acknowledges that “as a non-fiction writer I am naturally biased in favour of non-fiction forms”.

He dates this appetite to September 11, 2001: “from that moment non-fiction was the literary form we most turned to and wanted to hear from”. This was a common response to 9/11, particularly among novelists. Martin Amis, in his new book Inside Story, writes that the next day, “the part of him that produced fiction, he felt, was shutting down for ever”. American satirist Jay McInerney, talking to his contemporary Bret Easton Ellis on the day the towers came down, said, “I don’t know how I’m going to be able to go back to this novel I’m writing”. (And acknowledged, with some embarrassment, that he was glad he didn’t have a book coming out that week.) There’s always one outlier, of course: Norman Mailer “wanted to start writing a long novel about 9/11 on 9/12,” Amis tells us.

Fortunately, satirical fiction did continue not only after 9/11, but also after 1975

But this is a short-term or, where not short-term, self-indulgent response; any world-altering horror invokes it. “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” said Theodor Adorno, yet poetry did continue to be written, and even satirical novels about Jewish suffering under the Nazis, from Jiri Weil’s Life with a Star (1949) to Shalom Auslander’s Hope: a Tragedy (2012). And for a reader, yoking oneself to non-fiction (where the information is the thing) to the exclusion of fiction, where the synthesis of form and content drives its success, surely represents a failure of imagination.

Fortunately, satirical fiction did continue not only after 9/11, but also after 1975. As an admirer of Kingsley Amis, Murray might like to begin with Kingsley’s aforementioned son Martin, whose 1984 novel Money may be considered more broadly comic and grotesque than purely satirical, but pokes much fun at the film industry, the world of advertising, pornography and the gluttonous money-men of the era.

The large-scale social changes of the 1980s, indeed, were a rich era for literary satire, such as Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, which charts the decline of a Wall Street bond trader after his car runs over a black man, and which lovingly skewers the social pretensions of the era, the journalists who follow the case and the media obsession of the law enforcement agencies. A similar milieu inspired the very different American Psycho (1991) by Jay McInerney’s pal Bret Easton Ellis, where ambitious investment banker Patrick Bateman has a second life – or imagines he does – as a bloodthirsty murderer with a taste for Phil Collins’s music. (Nobody said satire had to be subtle.) However Ellis’s other novels, which satirise vapid youth and glamourless celebrities – enduringly prominent presences – are the ones that feel most relevant today.

Murray suggests one reason he is unable to find any modern satirical novels is because of the “cultural presumptions” of the publishing industry. Well, the industry follows the market and it’s true that readers trend to the left: a 2014 YouGov survey found that Labour and Lib Dem supporters were more likely to describe themselves as “avid readers”, and less likely to say “I don’t read books at all” than Conservative or UKIP voters. (But in the examples above, Tom Wolfe was a conservative who mocked the “liberal elite”, Bret Easton Ellis’s last book White railed against the ‘snowflakes’ of what he calls Generation Wuss, and Martin Amis is a fond target of left-wing commentators for his comments on Islam and writing about women.)

The satirical novel is everywhere, and Murray has an enviable richness of reading ahead of him

So yes, it’s unlikely that novelists will be naturally drawn to satirise environmental activists, or [checks notes] “the international aid racket”. But that is largely because, as Murray says, satire often comes not from contempt but from a grudging admiration and envy: certainly it did for Waugh, who longed to be in the aristocracy, and probably for Bret Easton Ellis, whose fondness for the social scene he mocks is clear. But most of all it requires familiarity: hence Michael Frayn (and Evelyn Waugh) on working at a newspaper or David Lodge on campus life.

And Murray is right to note that satire is most successful, and most needed, “when it runs against a world imagined to be strong”. Where does power lie at the moment? With technology businesses, which Dave Eggers satirised in his 2013 novel The Circle, about a tech giant reminiscent of Apple, Google or Facebook, and Joanna Kavenna satirised in her 2019 novel Zed. Or with social media influencers, whom Matthew Sperling satirises in his 2020 novel Viral.

But in most satire, the precise mechanism and setting of the story are secondary: the target of the satire is people, how they communicate, organise, react and assert themselves. Anyone who has ever worked in a corporate environment where English has been replaced by management-speak, and interest in your colleagues has been replaced by ‘wellness’ and ‘resilience’ will take joy in Helen DeWitt’s 2012 satire Lightning Rods, where a workplace takes dramatic steps to relieve its employees’ sexual tension, or Magnus Mills’ 2008 novel The Maintenance of Headway, where performance targets have become an end in themselves, divorced from the larger purpose of the business. Satire is even winning awards these days: Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, about a man who tries to reintroduce racial segregation to the USA, took the Booker Prize in 2016 for what the judges called its “evisceration of every social taboo and politically correct … sacred cow”. 

Yes, the satirical novel is everywhere, and Murray has an enviable richness of reading ahead of him. Forget about the glut of terrible satires on Trump, a target so easy and broad that none of the handful of attempts has yet hit an interesting spot. Steer a little further from the obvious targets and the truth, and mirth, is out there.

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