Roundup: Satire in a Divisive Age

The Times last week carried an opinion article by James Marriott in which he welcomed the announcement that the political satire TV series Spitting Image will return to the screen. But he wonders whether, in the current age of divisive partisanship, satire will have the same effect as in previous times:

…satire is shaped as much by its audience as by the politicians it targets. The puppeteers and joke writers of the new series face a tougher crowd than their predecessors in the 1980s and 1990s. Evelyn Waugh, surely the greatest satirist of the last century, wrote that satire “flourishes in a stable society and presupposes homogeneous moral standards”. That is: for satire to work, we all need to agree, even loosely, on what we hate.

Waugh suggested that was why the early Roman empire and 18th-century Europe were golden ages of satire. He’s spot on. Consider the cartoonist James Gillray’s caricatures of the slovenly future George IV. The vices that preoccupied Gillray — sloth, gluttony, stupidity — were the ones that were anathema to the ideals of his commercial, rational, democratic age.

Our society lacks the shared moral framework in which the best satire flourishes. What evils do we despise? The small-minded, pigheaded, Little-Englander absurdity of Brexiteers? Or the pompous, condescending smugness of Remainers?

The Waugh quote is taken from his 1946 Life magazine article “Fan-Fare”, reproduced in EAR, p. 304.

–Another successful satirist from a previous era has posted his list of the best satirical books. This is Jonathan Lynn, co-writer of the BBC’s political satire series Yes Minister. His list of six is posted on the website Gentleman’s Journal. One of his choices is Waugh’s Scoop:

This is a satire about sensationalist newspapers and foreign correspondents. Written in 1938, the proprietor of newspaper the Daily Beast, Lord Copper, sends a journalist called Boot to cover a ‘promising little war’ in Africa. Boot does get a scoop in the end but is not given credit for it because that’s the kind of journalist he is.

Lord Copper seems to have been some combination of Lord Northcliffe and Lord Beaverbrook, the owners of the Mail and the Express and Standard respectively. The book is about the impact and influence of scary newspaper proprietors and really is still applicable to Rupert Murdoch, The Sun and The News of the World and, I think, to the Barclay brothers who own The Telegraph.

Other choices include A Modest Proposal, Animal Farm and Catch-22.

Scoop is also among the books recently recommended on the website of the Slovenian TV network RTV SLO. The book was issued late last year in a Slovenian translation entitled Ekskluziva. See previous posts:

The 1938 published novel, originally titled Scoop, is a satire on journalism. Waugh wrote the novel in part from the personal experiences he described in his book Waugh in Abyssinia (1936), and the characters of the newspaper magnate and other persons, in whom we can easily recognize now our contemporaries, are based on real persons. Waugh, is a master of satire […] which has given the novel a wide-spread response and ranked it on many charts of the best books of our time. (Translation by Google with edits.)

–A recent novel has been described as a satirical comedy by two reviewers. This is House of Trelawney by Hannah Rothschild. In Town & Country magazine, Adam Rathe’s review opens with this:

If the idea of eccentric British aristocrats in a crumbling mansion seems familiar, that’s because it’s at the heart of some of literature’s greatest works. “Brits love satire, and to do a satire well, a house becomes a useful thing,” says Hannah Rothschild, whose new novel, House of Trelawney, makes fine use of one. In her story the ancient, noble Trelawney clan has hit rock bottom: Siblings are estranged, fortunes are squandered, and the family manor is ready to collapse. And that’s when things get interesting.

Rothschild’s book is the latest in a long line of novels by the likes of Jane Austen and Evelyn Waugh that put this very specific world at their center. “I was lucky, growing up, to stay in various collapsing stately homes,” she says. “Sometimes you’d have to run from the kitchen to the sitting room, because those were the only two areas they could afford to heat.”

A similar assessment is adopted in The Lady magazine:

With echoes of Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford, although not as crisp, this is a highly entertaining, lively and mildly satirical family saga of the impoverished aristocratic Trelawney family as they struggle to survive the financial crash of 2008 and shore up their crumbling 800-year-old castle in South Cornwall, which ‘has a room for every day of the year’, ‘miles of freezing corridors’ and ‘bad plumbing.’

–Finally, writer Will Self in an essay published in a recent “Freelance” column of the TLS considers the question not of satire (of which he is quite capable) but of self-plagiarism (to which he also admits). After consideration of a case where an interviewer copied some words from his subject that had appeared in earlier interviews or published works of that subject, Self takes up the case of:

…borrowing one’s own words from oneself, rather than from one’s subjects – surely this cannot be accorded a great crime? […] At certain times during my freelance career, I have been filing anything up to a quarter of a million words a year (I include books in the estimate), so is it any wonder if I’ve repeated myself – and sometimes knowingly? For years, my rubric for self-plagiarism was this: in my fiction I tried to create new conceptual space, coin fresh metaphors, bend and warp language in surprising ways – the books had fewer readers than the newspaper and magazine work, so it seemed perfectly legitimate to transplant images, riffs and coinages from this sequestered word-garden into the brighter but more ephemeral light of the daily and weekly press. […]

I think it was Evelyn Waugh who said that most writers are lucky if they have one original book inside them – and that therefore an awful lot of literary careers consist, perforce, in rewriting it. Jorge Luis Borges invented “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”, as a heuristic with which to explain the polyvalent properties of prose itself: there was no plagiarism involved in Menard’s writing of “the Quixote”, because it wasn’t the same text as Cervantes’s, by definition. Of course, when it comes to the far shorter forms filled in by journalists, Waugh’s dictum heralds disaster, as we rewrite the same old articles again and again. The Menard defence cuts no ice with our jaded editors, sickened as they are by the never-ending go-round that the prolific Observer writer and scourge of cultural bubble wrap Nick Davies has dubbed “churnalism”.




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