Taking the Trouble

with each new book of mine I have, as I say, always that feeling that this time I have picked a lemon in the garden of literature. A good thing really, I suppose. Keeps one up on one’s toes and makes one write every sentence ten times. Or in many cases twenty times…When in due course Charon ferries me across the Styx and everyone is telling everyone else what a rotten writer I was, I hope at least one voice will be heard piping up, ‘But he did take trouble.'” ~P.G.W. “From Over Seventy,” The Best of Wodehouse: An Anthology

Having just started a new writing project, the above quotation hit a note with me. After all, when you sit down to write (at least for me) there’s a little voice in the back of your head that says “THIS is IT.” Your best work. The best the world has ever seen. Starting is a hopeful time.

But there’s another little voice: “What if this is the lemon in the garden of literature?” What if I suck? What if I can’t do what I set out to do? What if I’m not the next Great American Novelist?

Truth?

You’ve just got to do the best that you can and then do it again. There’s work involved. No doubt. Write each sentence ten times? Twenty? Dudes–do you know how many sentences I’ve written in this blog post alone? Multiply the sentences by twenty? AUGH! Double AUGH!

(Yep, just those two expletives at the end of the previous paragraph could mean forty revisions…do I capitalize just the A: Augh? Or do I delete the whole thing and leave it at: Double AUGH! hoping that the reader inserts the original AUGH/Augh/augh themselves? Double h’s at the end to express extended frustration: AUGHH? Or does that sound too relieved, too much like ahhh?)

Well, the answer is to write your story. Work it to the best of your ability. Then write another story.  Your Best will get Better. But you have to take the trouble. You might truly suck at first: “The handicap under which most beginning writers struggle is that they don’t know how to write. I was no exception to this rule. Worse bilge than mine may have been submitted to the editors of London in 1901 and 1902, but I should think it very unlikely.“~P.G.W. “From Over Seventy,” The Best of Wodehouse: An Anthology

But Wodehouse wrote endlessly. He wrote at least a book a year, plus musical lyrics, plus articles, plus poems, etc. So, he learned. He kept at it. Maybe the publishing world was different 100 years ago, but writing hasn’t changed at all. As Wodehouse says in Over Seventy: “But if only a writer keeps on writing, something generally breaks eventually.”

You’ve got to keep on writing. Take the trouble. Revise. Write some more. Revise some more. I’ll see you on the published side. (That’s six sentences = 120 revisions.)

Political Commentary Question in Literature

We talked about satire and politics last week, but Wodehouse also makes little comments in his works, like the following from Mike and Psmith:

‘I am with you, Comrade Jackson. You won’t mind my calling you Comrade will you? I’ve just become a socialist. It’s a great scheme. You ought to be one. You work for the equal distribution of property, and start by collaring all you can and sitting on it.'”~ Psmith, explaining to Mike why they should hijack another student’s study room, P.G.W., Mike and Psmith

I was amused. =)

But, amusement aside, considering the historical impact of literature on policy (Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which changed both working conditions in general and food processing and safety in particular, being the biggest, brightest, grossest example I can think of), where do political commentaries belong in fiction? Like I said, I was amused by Wodehouse’s definition of ‘socialism,’ so I think he pulled it off without sounding uppity.

However, for this one example, I can think of many others — generally in unpublished works that I’ve had a chance to critique through the years, but there’ve been plenty in published works too — that have not pulled off this kind of commentary gracefully. It sounded preachy. It reads like THIS IS THE WAY IT SHOULD BE.

I don’t know about you guys, but when I’m reading a story, it’s primarily for entertainment purposes. I’ll read Orwell’s Animal Farm more to see a bunch of animals come to terms with each other (or, you know, not) rather than conciously think about how it has anything to do with Communism and the Russian Revolution. I’ll read 1984 more to see how the characters get out of rat-cage torture rather than read it as an Evils of Communism dissertation.

Though I do recognize that the motives and intentions behind both of Orwell’s works are political and cautionary, which does add levels and depth. But, as a result of the motives, there are long passages in 1984 that make me put the book down every time. I don’t want to be preached to, no matter how much I agree with the point being made.

But I think that Orwell, for all the preaching, also pulled off the commentary. In the unpublished pieces that I referred to earlier, the political comments were clunky. Like the narration broke away from the story in order to make a comment on some social injustice. The commentary somehow wasn’t integrated into the story itself. (And in a couple cases it seemed like the commentary’s purpose was opposite of the story’s point — so it didn’t make any sense.)

Another thing I’ve noticed is that issues and politics can be presented very one-sided. I think in order to explain a political point, the opposite side has to have some kind of legitimate representation–no adding in the opposite side just to take a pummeling.

I recently read a novel where all of the characters started off pro-capital punishment. Then, for one reason or another, all of them were anti-capital punishment by the end. The problem, for me, was that it felt unbalanced. Why not have just  one character have the opposite epiphany? Go from anti-capital punishment to pro-capital punishment. The weight is still heavily placed on the anti-side but at least the argument for the pro-side is there, and since it’s a side-switcher, you know that there’s been a legit argument made.

In my opinion, fiction’s purpose is to raise the questions, not answer them. So when the commentary seeks to answer the questions, I think it comes off lop-sided or preachy. Which makes for boring fiction. It’s not raising a discussion, it’s drilling in an opinion.

Have you guys ever been thrown out of a story because suddenly there was a Message? How about a movie? What stories/movies have successfully pulled of a political message for you? How did it work?

And a Really Brief, Fantastic Example of Satire:

Charlie Sheen commentary via The Onion.

Enjoy. =)

No Satire Here:

My thoughts and prayers are with Japan and everyone who has been hurt by this disaster! 

Satire III: Wodehouse, WWII Radio Broadcasts, and When Is Satire Okay?

Now we are back to satire and our mentor: P.G. Wodehouse.

During WWII many British citizens were in direct danger — in the bombings of London like our recent mentor Virginia Woolf, and those abroad in Europe when Germany came a-knockin’. Like our current mentor P.G. Wodehouse, who was in France when the Nazis rolled through. Wodehouse and his wife were rounded up, separated, and put through various prisons (camps).

Right after his release, Wodehouse accepted an invitation to broadcast to his fans that he was okay. He proceeded to make a few broadcasts, on Berlin’s airwaves — and was immediately villified.

Why? Because Wodehouse didn’t sit down at the microphone and condemn the Nazis, at least not in a direct way–he was on German broadcasts, after all. In his typical fashion, Wodehouse broadcasted satirically. As we’ve already seen with our New Yorker example, satire walks a fine line. While an election year may seem a pretty powder-keg moment to today’s audience, imagine a time of war. And not only war: World War II. The biggest war the world has ever seen. The most dangerous time for millions.

And here’s Wodehouse (you can read the full transcripts here at http://www.pgwodehousebooks.com/):

It has been in many ways quite an agreeable experience. There is a good deal to be said for internment. It keeps you out of the saloons and gives you time to catch up with your reading. You also get a lot of sleep. The chief drawback is that it means your being away from home a good deal. It is not pleasant to think that by the time I see my Pekinese again, she will have completely forgotten me and will bite me to the bone – her invariable practice with strangers. And I feel that when I rejoin my wife, I had better take along a letter of introduction, just to be on the safe side.” ~P.G. Wodehouse, first Berlin broadcast
Now, part of satire is paying attention to your audience. Well, it’s not like Wodehouse had much of a chance in that regard. These broadcasts were made almost immediately after his release. So he had no way of knowing the ‘feel’ of the audience. When the British public heard the broadcasts the word “traitor” was mentioned more than once. There was even an investigation into Wodehouse’s motives.  He was trying to make light, to make sure that people didn’t worry about him on top of everything else. After all, the assumption underlying Wodehouse’s presentation is that Nazis were NOT GOOD, therefore any mention of their hospitality was immediately suspect (ridiculous even…) — but the public didn’t see that. It was only after the broadcasts were finished that he heard about the outcry.
If you read between the lines, and you don’t have to read hard either, you can easily see how unpleasant the whole experience was. In the above quoted section it’s obvious that the separation from his family wasn’t easy. If you read the rest of the broadcasts you see the hints of mistreatment and outright danger he was in. No charges were actually brought to bear, and he was eventually forgiven and even knighted.
Timing was one issue. Subject matter another.
Subject matter is a big consideration. In essay, in fiction, and in satires. Yep, even radio broadcasts.
Wodehouse got knocked even before people really understood the full impact of what a camp was. (From what I’ve read, his situation was much better than that of other prisoners, though still NOT GOOD.) Nowadays, so many years later, knowing how many suffered and died in these places, the concentration camps and the Holocaust are still very taboo subjects as far as satire goes.

I’m speaking pretty generally here. Anything that might remotely be construed to make fun of such tragedy is questionable, at the very least. Off the top of my head I can think of maybe one other topic that’s still super off limits–the exploitation of children. (Earlier this year I thought that rape was off the table too–but the Daily Show went to town on the re-definition of rape and apparently some sensitive subjects can be made funny with the right touch….)

This is not to say that these subjects, as serious and painful as they are, can’t be satirized. Satire always has a serious point behind it. It presents the argument in a different way. Wodehouse presented the Nazi regime as it was–with its control and domination and imprisonment–just through a different lens. 
Now, the question of the day: When is satire okay? When is it the best way to present an argument, if ever? 

Satire II: The Political Sphere of Satire; The Fine Line

Okay, deep breath. Politics will be mentioned today but I want to be very clear that I’m only talking politics insofar as its relationship with satire.

We’ve established that satire is generally presented as a ludicrous solution to a real social problem. The difficulty lies in the fact that different people consider different things ludicrous. The basis for the satire must be popularly ridiculous–otherwise the arguments presented hit too close to home and there’s the potential for really BIG, OFFENDED reactions. This occurs mainly in the realm of politics.

The history of satire and politics is a long one. We’ve already talked Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal and that was way back in the 1700s day. Time to bring the satire issue more up to date:

The most popular recent satirical ‘event’ occured over The New Yorker’s controversial cover showing then-presidential-hopeful Obama fist bumping his wife Michelle while wearing a turban, toting guns, and burning the American flag in the Oval Office, by cartoonist Barry Blitt. If this doesn’t ring a bell, take a peek at About.com’s sum-up-tion here.

This is the best illustration that I can think of to show that there is a super-fine line between a satirical argument and an offensive argument. The reason that the cartoon (and it was a cartoon, people) drew so much fire was that the definition of ridiculous wasn’t as clear. Obama had drawn real anti-American accusations, and real distrust as far as religious views were concerned.

The idea was that the cartoon would show people how ill-founded those fears were. The goal was to say “Look! See how ridiculous this idea is? Of course a presidential hopeful, any presidential hopeful would never, never do this.” (In fact, here’s Blitt’s reaction, which includes his intent.) And I think a lot of people understood that. But there were just as many who did not. After all, I remember a woman going off about how Obama was like Hitler because he’d written an autobiography. There was no satire for her. So on one side you’ve got a group whose worst fears are now given representation.

And, on the other side, you’ve got the group who is supposedly being defended by the satirical representation. Unfortunately, they didn’t get that memo. Obama’s people issued statements saying how offended they were. It was viewed as insulting rather than ridiculous.

How to hit on just the right satirical note? Tricky, yes? Mostly, it’s about considering your audience. Sometimes it’s uber-hard to read your audience or anticipate what will be thought ridiculous. Part of the issue with the New Yorker audience is that it’s soooo huge–someone was gonna sound off on it. I think history will be far more gentle with the New Yorker cover than its contemporary audience. After all, everyone was offended with Swift’s A Modest Proposal when it came out too. When you talk about real issues, you get real responses, whether the intent is serious or not.

Which brings us to Wodehouse, WWII, concentration camps, and radio broadcasts on Friday.  In the meantime, what satirical presentations have offended? Can you think of any subject that is not okay to make fun of? Or is everything fair game if handled right? Any ideas on how to talk about politics in a humorous way without alienating?

Satire I: Definitions, the Trick of It, and A Modest Proposal

When we’re talking about a guy like Wodehouse, humorist extraordinaire, it’s impossible not to talk about satire. So we’re going to pause our regularly scheduled programming to talk less about our mentor directly (don’t worry, it’ll come back around) and talk in more general terms about satire itself–which we’ll define as a comeuppance to society via witty repartee or sarcastic/exaggerated presentation. I like Wikipedia’s definition of satire, found in full here.

The thing with satire, though, especially in literature, is that it’s tricky to pull off in just the right manner. The idea is to take something socially important (a problem) and then present a ludicrous solution as a viable option.

For example: proposing cannibalism (ludicrous solution) as an effective method to fight over-population (social problem). It’s ridiculous, right? Especially if it’s all about eating children. Which is exactly what Jonathan Swift, of Gulliver’s Travels fame, did in his essay A Modest Proposal.

Let’s hear the full title:

A Modest Proposal: For Preventing The Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being Aburden to Their Parents or Country, and For Making Them Beneficial to The Public

Sounds like something reasonable, right?

Ireland, 1729: Poor children are a social burden. How can the poor afford to raise these children? Abortions and child mortality rates are on the rise. Here are a bunch of beggar kids ripping around the streets of Dublin, stealing and consuming valuable resources.

Anything to make them beneficial, right? Well, according to this essay, the children are most beneficial in a nutritional capacity: “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.”~Swift, A Modest Proposal

The goal of satire is pretty much to offend the world in order to wake it up. Swift’s essay is meant to draw attention to the fact that it was a pretty bad time in Ireland, but the Irish (suffering badly from prejudices and foul treatment) are human and are therefore due human rights and dignities.

And how does Swift point this out? By pissing be off through sarcasm. In a letter to Alexander Pope Swift said: “the chief end I propose to my self in all my labors is to vex the world rather than divert it.”

To vex the world. To make the world think.

We’re going to go into the pitfalls of satire on Wednesday, but what do you guys think about this? Can you think of contemporary satires that have been effective?

As an example of the thought process involved in satirical rhetoric, check out this clip on the thought process behind The Daily Show’s rally.