Friday, July 22, 2011

On Satire

Yesterday I saw the following link on a friend's Facebook page: In praise of Joanne Rowling's Hermione Granger series

I followed the link and read the article, and as I read I found myself growing more and more upset. When I finished I wrote the follow comment on my friend's link:

This article made me really angry.

Maybe it's that I'm just too close to too many authors who work so so very hard to achieve even a fraction of what Rowling has. Maybe it's that I know that if I ever have the amazing good luck to be published myself, someone could probably say the very same things about me.

Rowling had no idea that her books would become such a phenomenon. She was just trying to write a story she loved in order to make a little more money to keep herself afloat. And suddenly, because she happened to do a really good job of that, she's supposed to be perfect? That's like people complaining about Martin taking so long to write his books. Somewhere along the way, people take something that's good, and decide that because it's so good, it ought to be flawless. Well, flawless isn't possible, even for people who may seem superhuman. Since when do we have the right to make demands of something we haven't created ourselves? Because we paid money? Sorry, but that money went to something already created, not something to be created. It's the author's right to take a story in whatever direction he or she wants.

And yes, there's a place for criticism. Good criticism helps authors individually and the literary community as a whole to grow. It's necessary and it's good. It makes books better. But I don't think there's a place for sarcasm. Sarcasm says, "You really should have known better" to the person who has struggled and cried and fought to tell the best story they know how to tell. Sarcasm says, "I could do better," but without ever really trying.

So ok, write your critiques--they're very welcome. Authors want to learn. Authors want to make readers happy. And good authors will continue to grow. If you put out there that gender equality and racial equality need to be highlighted more, people will listen. Change comes slowly, but it comes, and that's thanks in large part to thoughtful readers.

But the next time you start feeling the urge to make demands or say, "I could do better," just try doing half so well.

First, try telling a story that somebody will love. Try coming up with a plot that doesn't have a single cliche. Try writing any character, male or female, that isn't one-dimensional. It's harder than it looks.

Then try doing all of that in a competitive market where people are saying, "Sorry, but we already have far more female protagonists than male protagonists. Oh, your female protagonist is a spunky, take-charge kind of girl? Well so is every other. But you know what we don't have much of? Male-led romance. How about you give that a try?"

Then try writing from the perspective of a race other than your own. (While the whole time the voice in the back of your head is saying, "But you've never lived in their shoes. What if someone calls you a fraud?") Try having the necessary confidence for writing when you're worried you may unintentionally be doing harm.

And then, if by some miracle, you actually manage to publish a book, try braving all the vicious barbs of reviewers like this one. Try keeping your head up and your heart steady while people gleefully tear apart this thing you've put so much love and effort into.

I can guarantee you won't be sarcastic any more.


Over the course of the day I got quite a few likes on this comment and a couple people even said they strongly agreed. So by the end of the day I was feeling pretty self-righteous about what I'd said.

But now that I've had a day to cool off and think and read some of the comments on the article, I'm starting to wonder why I really reacted the way I did and whether I was right.

Here's the thing: the article was satire. Whether it's good satire or bad satire I don't know as satire isn't a literary form that I have enough experience with. But it's an established literary form that is considered to be of value in our society.

So the question for me, I think, is do I just not like satire? Is my problem with this article only, or with the literary form in general?

On the one hand, I think this article bothered me because it was attacking a book series that I love. While I acknowledge that Harry Potter is by no means perfect, I think that it was an incredible achievement by a remarkable woman. The tone of the article is “These books would have been so much better if...” So my gut reaction every time is going to be, “Well, if you can write a book that's so much better, why haven't you done it already?”

But I think in general I grow weary of satire, even about things that aren't my favorite books. Sometimes it makes me laugh, but quickly that laughter becomes empty. Satire will pretty much always make at least one person really angry, and to me that just doesn't feel effective. If I'm angry, I'm not going to take to the message of the piece, and even if I'm not angry, I think I'd be far more likely to be swayed by a calm, well-reasoned argument than a sarcastic one.

Again, though, maybe that's just me. I'm not going to ask that all satire be abandoned. But I do ask this: if, in the process of reading or writing satire, you start to think, “I could do so much better,” then please stop for a moment and take a reality check. Being able to point out the flaws in something is not the same as being able to do better. Please don't confuse the two.

What do you all think? Do you like satire? Dislike it? What do you think the value of it is?

1 comment:

  1. I looked at the link and don't get it. Didn't women reach parity with men a long time ago in fantasy and sci-fi? Why rant about making the story about a boy?