Being Xenophanes: How to Write Satire
Today a former student of mine wandered into my room with paper in hand ready for me to churn out writing tips. This student will graduate in a few weeks, and he has been assigned to write a satirical piece of his choosing about a social issue. Like Xenophanes of the 6th century who traveled the countryside of Greece spinning humorous tales that drew attention to social ills, this young person was trying his hand at satirical narrative. The student chose the topic of gun control, but his essay was more of a persuasive paper about the subject than a satirical piece about it.
I informed him that if he wanted to write satire, he must do three things:
1. Pick a Controversial Topic – The student was on the right track with gun control, but there are plenty of other topics out there that are just as divisive. Ireland is in pretty good shape, but in Jonathan Swift’s day the emerald isle had several humanitarian problems. Conditions were downright deplorable. Children were starving, most were out of work and the problem had to be solved. The King was doing absolutely nothing about it, and to defend his own people Swift took matters in hand, or rather pen, and wrote “A Modest Proposal.” Good satire is written when the author picks a topic that makes them angry and preferably one that is also debatable.
2. Go Overboard – The reason that Swift’s “Proposal” works so well is that he exaggerates the problem so much that it becomes absurd and laughable. Who would really want to eat Irish children and then use their skin for clothing? It is absolutely horrible to suggest such a thing. Swift was using an exaggerated problem to prove a point. If no one was going to do anything about the problem, then the worst solution is better than doing nothing at all. I suggested to my student that if the desire is to write about gun control, then why not propose that we do away with any regulation. In this way, those pesky children who egg your house every year at Halloween would get what is coming to them.
3. The Dark Side – Satire can, at times, use very dark and sarcastic humor. If it is shocking to read, it will remain in the mind of the reader for a long time. Satire is a kind of persuasion. It digs down deep to find our moral center as humans and activates it. In its best form it is able to disgust us or outrage us so much that we will want to do something about the problem being discussed. The way to people’s hearts is a two lane road: humor and sympathy. These are the two best ways to motivate anyone to do what you ask of them. If you can do these two things in your satirical narrative, you can tie the reader’s moral sense down with tiny ropes.
Don’t forget to revise your narrative a few times before turning it in to the professor or teacher or whomever you wish to bother with it. Understand that satire is not something received well. Swift’s masterwork of satire noted above was virtually ignored by his contemporaries. Xenophanes, the Greek satirist, lived much of his life in exile. Sometimes society does not want people pulling our dirty laundry out for all to see, even if it is presented with humor.