Satire needs to find new targets
There are still plenty of institutions worth mocking
This article was taken from the September issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
Consider the following scenario. You are approached by a young writer who tells you that they are writing what they hope to be the great work of the age. The aim is to sum up all that is going on around them in the world today. “What is the form by which you are hoping to achieve this goal?” you ask. “The heroic couplet,” comes the reply.
Perhaps you shouldn’t say this cannot be done. The work of Vikram Seth alone should ward you away from a total certainty. Still, it would be unfair not to come back with some advice like the following: “Have you perhaps considered the novel as a form more suited to your purposes?”
Yet even that advice might be ventured with a certain ennui. How much does the world need another novel?
There is an obvious rejoinder to this, which is that as a non-fiction writer I am naturally biased in favour of non-fiction forms. Yet I don’t especially feel this. I feel as open as anyone to reading — and even attempting to write — in any form available. It is just that over the last couple of decades it has seemed clear to readers and writers alike that the form most suited to our age is non-fiction.
It isn’t hard to pinpoint exactly when this became the case. You could fix the date to a year, a day — in fact an hour. I would put it on the morning of 11 September, 2001. From that moment non-fiction was the literary form that we most turned to and wanted to hear from: first-hand testimonies from Afghanistan and Iraq; histories of places many of us had never been to. When things started to go wrong we wanted to know exactly what had happened, who had done it, what mistakes might have been avoided and what lessons might be learned.
Few forms attract so much aspiration and so little follow-through as satire
What people did not have any great taste for (though God knows the subsidised playhouses tried) were theatrical responses to these events. Novels imagining a particular terrorist’s mindset seemed superfluous. Poetry also seemed unable to respond to the literalness of events, and rarely had anything but journalistic platitudes of its own to wheel out. With its fighting over facts and struggles over interpretations of what happened yesterday this has been a more than usually literal age. Though this too might weave in and out of fashion.
The comedian Frank Skinner once said that he couldn’t reconcile himself to the novel because he could not read the first sentence (say, “Mark told Mary that he was leaving the house for the day”) without something in his brain saying, “No he didn’t.” Most book-readers won’t have that problem as a lifelong affliction, but they will recognise what he means.
There are times when you sit down needing to absorb facts, facts, facts (as Mr Gradgrind said). And only once those facts are in can the final process of adjudication occur: or at least the placing of the events agreed upon in some greater order. Seven decades, after all, separate Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France and Dickens’s fictional reflections on the same events.
Still there is one form whose present slippage seems surprising to me. That is the satirical novel. There are satirical writers, obviously, and satirical entertainers and comedians, certainly. But the book-length satire seems to have taken some form of holiday.
Not that there is any dearth of people hoping to perform the task. I have often been struck by the number of people who would like to be practitioners of the art. Few forms attract so much aspiration and so little successful follow-through.
Many years ago I used to act as a sort of walker for an actress friend, attending film premieres and the like. As a figure of the utmost unimportance at the after-parties I inevitably got talking with the gossip columnists who had been sent to cover the evening. Apart from noticing that all tried to make up in free drinks what they lacked in salary, all of them also had one other thing in common. Which was that they all, without fail, laboured under the impression that time spent in this particular circle of the inferno would at some point be vindicated by their writing the great satirical novel about this whole vapid, intoxicated, beautiful-ugly scene.
Of course the concept itself already demonstrated a certain lack of imagination. For the book they all imagined they would write had already been written, at least once. What all these gossip-columnists conceived of was simply a slightly updated version of Vile Bodies. And that is one of the problems of satire: the perfection — and timelessness — of the masterpieces that have gone before you. Before university I briefly taught at a decrepit and malevolent prep school in the north of Scotland. Each time I related tales from this frontline to friends they would always insist that I should write a novel about it. But once again there was no need: we already have Decline and Fall.
In the English language alone this happens time and again. A satire on the world of journalism? Again Evelyn Waugh has got there first. And if you need anything after that there is Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning. A satire of university life? What is the point of writing one after reading Lucky Jim?
And if you find one then try to hold onto it after reading David Lodge’s Changing Places or Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue. Still, the fact that these novels were written some years apart does raise a possibility. Which is that there is something about the current moment that makes satirical novels so thin on the ground. Or just so thin.
It seems to me that a very fine satirical novel could be written about the international aid racket
The most common reason offered up is also the most pathetic. That is the claim that events have so contrived themselves in our lifetimes that the world has become impossible to satirise. You can see how this self-justification has settled in. If Waugh, Sharpe and Lodge got together for an afternoon could they honestly have come up with a campus satire that could imagine the world that is now going on? What would they imagine? A faculty meeting entirely taken up by the discussion of lavatory arrangements? Academics fired because they have discovered a truth? Students becoming heavily indebted to become more and more unemployable? All of these ideas were long ago enacted at an institutional level.
Plenty of other areas suffer from the same problem. At the height of the Saatchi Gallery’s artistic Ponzi scheme people used to say that a satire of this whole scene might be amusing, or even fire the devastating shot that could bring down the whole fraud down.
But nothing you could imagine hadn’t already been imagined and acted out in the real world. A cleaner had already brushed a work of modern art up from a gallery floor. Piero Manzoni’s canned shit had already festered for three decades. The public had long ago moved on from believing that art was something that only artists could do into believing that it was something that artists could do less than anyone. Including, famously, a child. There was no fun in sending the thing up. The target had done every conceivable thing to itself. And made itself filthy rich in the process.
Still, there is something unsatisfying about the “world has gone madder than fiction” explanation. Something lazy and self-excusing. The world was quite crazy enough in Jonathan Swift’s time. Yet still he came up with A Tale of a Tub and “The Battle of the Books”, which had a deftness a world away from a heavy-handed satire like The Cockroach that Ian McEwan (appealing to the tradition of Swift) managed to crank out last year.
Reading Kingsley Amis again recently, it occurred to me that perhaps the problem has another cause entirely. Which is that satirical novels have to work in a world of their own. More than any other type of fiction they tend to take place in a studiously self-contained world. Though they can take on an entire society, the best seem to take place in a controlled environment.
It is why so many of the novels mentioned above are set in a particular profession, especially institutions. Schools, universities or newspaper offices are perfect for satire because the rest of the world need barely impinge on them. The novelist sets up the mouse laboratory and can torture and otherwise experiment on its inhabitants with the rest of the world kept safely on the other side of the wall.
One of Kingsley Amis’s funniest novels (written with Robert Conquest) is The Egyptologists. On this occasion the plot is centred around a group of men who congregate each week at a clubhouse where their wives believe that they are satisfying their interest in ancient Egypt.
Once a year the wives are allowed in and the members have to mug up and reel off some “good, boring stuff” to discourage attendance for another year. Only when one of the club’s members is caught on television and revealed to know absolutely nothing about Ancient Egypt does the world of the “Egyptologists” collapse around them.
Satire doesn’t work when it goes against already weakening subjects
Amis and Conquest manage several magnificent things in the novel, not least a reflection on certain strains of married life. But like everything else in the novel this works only because the piece of clockwork that has been set in motion is effectively boxed in around the membership of the club. Even the novel that many consider Amis’s masterpiece — the not-quite satire Take a Girl Like You — works because of the isolation of the world it is set in: the world of boarding houses and drab postwar England where food — as Jenny Bunn discovers early on — is so unappetising that even as you are sure you have eaten some of it there still seems to be “slightly more” of it on the plate.
Perhaps it is the current age’s obsession with hierarchies, closed clubs and elitism that has truly put the dampeners on the satirical novel. It is not difficult to imagine the open and unspoken criticisms that would come the way of any satire of an institution today. “So what?” might be the reaction. Allegations about “ivory towers” would inevitably be deployed.
In short, the demotic popularism of the age would insinuate that any institution was exclusionist, elitist and otherwise out of touch. Any expression of fondness for the scene being sent up (and some fondness must exist in order to make the thing worth doing in the first place) would be used against it. And then questions would arise as to why some greater societal injustice was not being addressed.
As it happens, there are certain subjects that seem to me ripe for a satirical treatment. All, unfortunately, run entirely counter to the cultural presumptions on which the publishing industry, among others, currently depends. For instance, it seems to me that a very fine satirical novel could be written about the international aid racket — those Milibandesque pigmies who find their way to immensely lucrative livelihoods by jetting around the world as unelected spokesmen for the world’s poor. Or the extraordinary financial chicanery of the environmental activists, and their “sustainable energies”.
Doubtless other similar targets exist, but all perhaps highlight a last truth about satire. Which is that it doesn’t work when it goes against already weakening subjects. Today the great institutions which used to be the stable of satirical novels are all down on their luck. Universities lost much of their cultural prestige when the majority of the population started going to them. Private members’ clubs are inoffensive places where pleasant enough people dictate none of the cultural, political or economic weather. And the print media in a country like Britain has never been in a less dominant or more financially parlous state, making it a weak target.
Satire is most successful, never mind most needed, when it runs against a world imagined — rightly or otherwise — to be strong. There are plenty of targets out there but it is strange that they seem to be avoiding the satirist’s darts. Perhaps they are consciously keeping below the radar, camouflaging themselves beneath a veneer of innocence and do-goodery. In which case I hope a new generation of writers are sharpening their pens, ready to go for them with that joyful venom that the true satirist has deployed throughout the ages.
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