A Teacher's Writes

One teacher's thoughts on life, literature, and learning

Satire as a Narrowing Agent

“Does anyone know where my needle nose pliers are?”

I had not seen them since my children borrowed them. They had been making ornaments, I think–I don’t really know what they were doing but it involved wire and beads–and I hoped they hadn’t forgotten where they were.

“I put them away last time I used them,” my son declared with total confidence. He is eight-years-old and possesses an appetite for projects. I once walked into the garage to find wood and nails scattered across the ping pong table and my son far away, involved in something else. “This is not a work bench,” I explained after I caught up with him, speaking like a hotel clerk to a foreigner.

For this inquiry about the pliers, we were sitting at the dinner table, and in my disbelief at my son’s response my next words slipped from my lips as easily as unconscious thought. “Right. Like that’s ever happened.”

I mumbled the phrase quietly enough that he didn’t hear me, but his twelve-year-old sister did. She hears everything. And she remembers everything. And that is the problem.

Actually, the problem is multi-layered. The first problem is that my son is just like me. My primary difficulty with his taking and losing my things is that I am usually taking and losing my things; I don’t need his help at being foolish, and when he supplies it, I feel like I’m losing the game in a blow-out. Any frustration I harbor toward my son is frustration that, upon reflection, I harbor with myself. But even if I’m justified in my frustration toward him, even if I wasn’t carrying a log in my own eye, what does my comment accomplish? Does mocking my son motivate him to change?

So I’m ultimately wrong to complain and criticize him. But compounding my wrong is that while my son never even heard me criticize him, my daughter did. Thus, my complaint colored my daughter’s attitude toward her little brother, because she then knew he had frustrated Daddy, that his indifference about losing track of the pliers was Irresponsible.

I’ve been considering this exchange recently as I’ve contemplated the nature of criticism in our American moment, particularly our favorite style of criticism, satire.

It’s not possible to keep up with all the satirical barbs aimed at the current federal administration, though it looks like Americans are trying, since Stephen Colbert is riding his satirical wit to a resurgence, Trevor Noah is using Trump critiques to grow his audience, and The Atlantic is devoting repeated commentary to Saturday Night Live’s artistic choices for skewering the President and his administration.

It’s SNL that got me thinking, because Melissa McCarthy has begun portraying Sean Spicer. I know a bit about Spicer, but I have never watched him work with the press. I know lots of people have taken on watching news as a part-time job, as Tom Papa amusingly observes, but if I get to that point I will question what I’m doing with my life–what would Henry David Thoreau think of my watching a television with Sean Spicer on it? I’m not going to do it.

For me, therefore, SNL’s skits are coloring my perception of Spicer without my having engaged the real person. I’m consuming the satire without knowing thoroughly what is being mocked. And while the skit might also spur me to look into the man’s work, I admit it frames my view of him–will I ever see the real Spicer without feeling like he’s imitating SNL?

In his essay “On Satire,” Aaron Belz shares the insight of Henri Bergson, a French modernist philosopher, who points out that the context for comedy is “our ‘life in common.’”

What I wonder when watching McCarthy play Spicer or listening to Colbert’s live specials is how broad this common life is that I’m sharing. Is my absorbing the satirical version of reality without substantial reference to the original narrowing the breadth of my common reference? Am I cutting myself off from others via satire?

I’ve always been an apologist for satire, justifying Mark Twain’s work, for example, “as a corrective of human vice or folly” (to pull from M.H. Abrams’s Glossary of Literary Terms). In this sense, I realize I’ve portrayed satire as a tool for unity, describing satirical jabs as attempts to bring people back to a common and more virtuous vision.

I have therefore seen myself positively in Belz’s further explanation of Bergson’s idea: “One important way we know that we’re living life in common is that we laugh at the same things. We also recognize error together. The joke itself, the thing that causes laughter, is incongruous, but its very existence suggests deeper congruity and agreement.” In this way, the joke I share reveals my agreement with those laughing and those joking, so satirical jokes confirm our common vision and encourage unity.

But now I’m wondering what kind of unity it encourages. Is the satire I’m reading or watching reclaiming stray members through winsome persuasion or tightening the circle against infiltration?

Jordan Peele, a contemporary master of satire, suggests that the dark element inside humans gives us “the ability to scapegoat. Our fear can drive us to destroy somebody for fear of being on the wrong side of the mob.” What if our satire is, then, an act of sorting? Of setting borders of congruity and establishing the side of the mob? Are satirists encouraging wayward sheep to return to the fold or establishing which sheep are allowed in the flock?

While I admit satire makes me laugh, I need to ask if it is accomplishing good. Is it pushing me to love my neighbor, or is it pushing me to think he’s a moron?

With those needle nose pliers, I soon came to my senses and realized I should not be angry with my eight year old; I am sorry I was critical of him. My concern now is how my criticism affected the way my daughter thinks of her little brother. Have I encouraged her to love him? I don’t think so. Satire rarely accomplishes that.

Writing thoughts from George Saunders & Margaret Atwood

One thing I found was—maybe it’s more about my approach to storytelling. It’s so simple. You’re in a scene, and you kind of have a vague idea of what the scene is supposed to do, but you’re mostly having fun within that scene. You’re trying to make the lines work, trying to have a nice pace, trying to get some jokes in.

You’re working closely within the text on its own merits. Almost like cooking to taste. At some point it will spit out a plot point.

So, say a bunch of people are sitting around a table talking, and one of them is really grouchy because it’s funny. And you go, “I wonder why he’s so grouchy?” At some point he says he hasn’t eaten in a day. And you go, “Ah!” So the next talking point is: Get that guy some food.

It’s nothing really theoretical, it’s coming out of the natural energy of the piece. And then, having done that, you might want to look upstream to the proceeding section. Why hasn’t that guy eaten in two days?

All storytelling is kind of that—there’s a bit of text that you put pressure on that spits out some desire that a character has and then you follow that. The other part is that every scene raises an expectation in the reader’s mind—that’s part of its job is to make you look in and be curious.

The next thing kind of satisfies that, it’s entertaining, but it does that whole process over again. You can see a whole book as a series of creating an expectation and then delivering a skew on that expectation so it’s not totally satisfied.

–          George Saunders

Not all of my ideas have been amazing. Some have not, NOT worked out! As they say (I think it was Beckett): try, fail. Try again, fail better. Or something like that. We have all had projects that have ended up as smashed eggs on the floor.

–          Margaret Atwood

 

Saying, “Good for you. Proceed.”

In My Writing Education: A Time Line, Saunders narrates his literary adventures in the Syracuse Creative Writing Program back in the 1980s. He pays particular attention to the generosity of two of his instructors: the short story impresario/memoirist Tobias Wolff and the novelist Douglas Unger. Saunders conjured up that pervasive form of graduate school angst – wanting desperately to impress, while obsessing desperately over potentially being a fool. What stands out is the generosity of “Doug” and “Toby” – how they received criticism as well as gave it, and how they managed to critique their students while promoting their dignity and potential. The whole article rewards a read, but allow me to highlight Saunders’ conclusion:

Why do we love our writing teachers so much? Why, years later, do we think of them with such gratitude? I think it’s because they come along when we need them most, when we are young and vulnerable and are tentatively approaching this craft that our culture doesn’t have much respect for, but which we are beginning to love. They have so much power. They could mock us, disregard us, use us to prop themselves up. But our teachers, if they are good, instead do something almost holy, which we never forget: they take us seriously. They accept us as new members of the guild. They tolerate the under-wonderful stories we write, the dopy things we say, our shaky-legged aesthetic theories, our posturing, because they have been there themselves.

We say: I think I might be a writer.

They say: Good for you. Proceed.

When I read a writer like George Saunders, at the top of his game, it is easy to presume that there has always been an air of inevitability about his eventual success. But how many people simply drop out, because someone eviscerates them with criticism or starves them with neglect? Especially in those pivotal moments, when their talent is underdeveloped, and their psyches are as brittle as eggshells? How deeply do we crave for someone to say to us, or over us, “Good for you. Proceed.” And perhaps, at times, to say it, even when they don’t necessarily fully see it.

Larry Parsley

“Our fear can drive us to destroy somebody for being on the wrong side of the mob”

“I think the scariest thing to me is humanity, it’s people. It’s what we’re capable of when we have permission from the people around us. We’re capable of the worst monstrosities that any kind of demon you can drum up in the film, so this one, sort of taking on the ideas of racism, is just one example of that. But I plan to do more movies that explore the human demon, as I call it. It is dark, we are dark. We have the ability to scapegoat. Our fear can drive us to destroy somebody for fear of being on the wrong side of the mob.”

Jordan Peele

Writing as a Strange, Magic Device

Anthropologists know that the written word . . . is not merely an echo of a speaking voice. It is another kind of voice altogether, a conjurer’s trick of the first order. It must certainly have appeared that way to those who invented it, and that is why we should not be surprised that the Egyptian god  Thoth, who is alleged to have brought writing to the King Thamus, was also the god of magic. People like ourselves may see nothing wondrous in writing, but our anthropologists know how strange and magical it appears to a purely oral people–a conversation with no one and yet with everyone. What could be stranger than the silence one encounters when addressing a question to a text? What could be more metaphysically puzzling than addressing an unseen audience, as every writer of books must do? And correcting oneself because one knows that an unknown reader will disapprove or misunderstand?

Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

Two ideas on justice and judges

These are two ideas that strike me as pertinent and connected.

It has long been frustrating to me that the only criterion by which Americans — almost without exception — evaluate judges is: Did he or she make decisions that produce results I’d like to see? Virtually no one asks whether the judge has rightly interpreted existing law, which is of course what the judge is formally required to do. Americans — again, almost without exception — want judges to be politicians and advocates. The idea that a judge should strive to interpret existing law regardless of whether it does or doesn’t promote politically desirable ends never crosses anyone’s mind, and if by some strange chance it did, the person whose mind was so crossed would reject the proposal indignantly. Americans in this respect resemble toddlers and their own President: they evaluate everything in terms of whether it helps or hinders them in getting what they want.

This devaluation of interpretation amounts to a dismissal of the task of understanding: everything that matters is already understood, so the person who would strive to understand is not only useless, but an impediment to the realization of my political vision. To the partisan, the absence of partisanship is always a sin, and perhaps the gravest of sins.

Alan Jacobs

To be sure, most people . . . tend to be intensely interested in justice when it is for themselves. It is the notion of justice for all that is missing from much of our public discourse.

Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion

Why is Viola Davis considered a supporting actress?

I think it’s an insult that Viola Davis may be up for an Oscar for “Best Supporting Actress” [in Fences]. Denzel Washington should be nominated for “Best Supporting Actor.” But Davis carried the film with her multi-layered character. Her portrayal of “Rose” made her the star—by far. I don’t think we’ve ever seen a more robust depiction of the valor of Black women and “violence” against Black womanhood. I found myself both rooting for “Rose” and mournfully wishing so many sisters didn’t have to live lives exactly like hers—and worse.

Thabiti Anyabwile. Davis did get that nomination for supporting actress. So what is the difference between supporting and lead role? I just finished reading the play, Fences, because when I heard August Wilson had won a Pulitzer for it I wanted to read it before I saw the film, and I thought Rose’s situation was not only central to the action but thematically even more gripping than Troy’s–that fence, as Anyabwile points out, represents Rose’s attempt to keep her family in, her hopes that Troy will not drive Cory outside it (she is the one who has asked Troy to build it). Saying Rose is not a lead character is like calling Mark Antony a supporting character in Julius Caesar; but Marlon Brando was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role in 1953. So, huh.