Genrely Speaking: Satire

Satire is the last of the three metagenres to get tackled here on Genrely Speaking, the previous two being deconstruction and parody. Satire stands apart from these two metagenres in that it is generally intended in a noncomplementary way. Deconstructions and parodies tend to come from a deep love for a genre and a desire to share it with other people – in the first case, a desire to share it with new audiences in the second a desire to share it more deeply with those who love and enjoy it already. Satire does not come from a love of its source material.

Satire is a metagenre that tries to make an idea, person or genre look ridiculous. Generally it does this by adopting the stance of its target and pushing the ideas until they become absurd.

The hallmarks of satire tend to be as follows:

  1. A very strong tendency to extremes. There’s no middle of the road here, by the very nature of satire it has to be as loud and unreserved. A great example of this comes from the book Animal Farm, where pretty much all of the pigs qualify as ridiculously extreme examples of the kind of propaganda Orwell is satirizing. The horse Boxer is a satire of those who follow such propagandists. Voices in satire tend to be loud because quiet voices tend to sound more reasonable than shouting ones and the point of satire is not to appear reasonable. With one notable exception.
  2. The voice of reason. The point of satire is to push things to such an extreme that the audience is repulsed by it but, at the same time, it’s important to make it clear that the author is not actively endorsing it. So there tends to be this one sane person that tries to bring reason to this totally insane situation and inevitably fails. It’s important to keep readers from getting the wrong impression. Clover is an example of this from Animal Farm.
  3. No sense of actual reality. The point is to push an idea to utter absurdity and discourage people from thinking that way. So the work almost never tries to keep any semblance of reality. Oddly enough, many satirical works wind up seeming realistic despite themselves – Animal Farm in particular turned out to be eerily prescient, describing the cult of personality surrounding Stalin to a T. But that’s not necessarily the goal.

What are the weaknesses of a satire? The biggest weakness of satire is that it’s not really a very nice approach to looking at bad ideas. People who hold them already are going to be offended by the treatment and people who are undecided on the issue may be put off by the tone most satires take. That’s not to say a satire can’t be done well but it’s a difficult balance to strike and even when you find it the unreality of the approach is probably going to put off as many people as it attracts.

Also, there’s always a small minority of people who just aren’t going to get that a satire is mocking the thing it portrays and interpret it as an endorsement for something terrible. Or worse an endorsement for something positive. A more clear cut repudiation of a philosophy would probably serve better.

What are the strengths of a satire? They can be a vehicle for a very prescient engagement with an idea when handled very well. George Orwell wrote two very cutting satires (Animal Farm and 1984) that have stood the test of time, in no small part because he effectively showed how bleak the ideas he was attacking were.

In the end, satire is a very two-edged sword. It can leave a very, very memorable impression but it is going to put a lot of people off, particularly if you don’t use it well. Some people have chosen to put elements of satire into works that, on the whole, are not at all satirical. The character of Gideon Gleeful, from Gravity Falls, is a very modern example of this, satirizing TV psychics and faith healers while still serving to advance the general mystery driven plot of the show.

Ultimately, the use of satire is a personal choice, usually driven by how strong a person’s feelings on a subject is and how they want to address them. How much a person likes satire is the same – some people will like it and some will hate it. You won’t have to read much of one to know which one you are and, if you don’t like what you see, there’s nothing wrong with abandoning it.

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