Egotism, Politics, Storytelling Geekery

IWSG: Can Satire Go Too Far?

This is my entry for July’s Insecure Writers’ Support Group, a monthly ‘blog hop’ with the intent of giving each other feedback and encouragement. The full list of participants can be found at the Insecure Writers’ home site.


Yesterday I published a satirical blog post, titled A Modest Proposal for Dealing With the Muslim Problem and Relieving Tension Between the Races of the Earth. You may recognise the format (of the title and the prose) as being drawn from Jonathan Swift, but there’s still the risk of what I wrote being taken at face value.

What I wrote isn’t the most tasteless thing ever written, (perhaps slightly graphic but against the right targets,) but it was still enough to give me pause for thought, to make me a little uncomfortable putting my name to it.

It’s the kind of thing that will be a problem when writing anything with a real world substance behind it – anything but a transparent, beat-the-audience-around-the-head message is open to misinterpretation.

As I was drafting this post, I read a blog from another writer – who regularly has readers assuming that her main character is basically identical to herself. Obviously any story will draw on things within the writer: the hero will generally hold moral beliefs that the writer considers reasonable, if not necessarily true; the villain will hold moral views which are a misinterpretation of the events around them, and will usually be personally unpleasant in some way. Generally the hero’s belief systems can be seen as roughly reflecting the writer’s, while the villain’s beliefs will roughly oppose the writer’s. However, a more sophisticated writer will muddy those patterns – with an honourable villain who merely happens to be positioned in opposition to the hero; or a hero with dark, unpleasant edges.

Shorter writing holds a greater risk of misinterpretation, and satire, being by definition a twisted version of reality, holds the same risk. But satire, as opposed to straight comedy, should have the intention of making the audience think, of causing them to re-examine the way they see the world – flawed writing, or a flawed reading of that writing can bring Poe’s Law (that a ridiculous exaggeration is indistinguishable from true stupidity) into play.

Poe's Law, incidentally, is an NBC historical detective drama, coming this Fall.
Poe’s Law, incidentally, is an NBC historical detective drama, coming this Fall.*

I’m not trying to claim that my silly little blog post was in any way profound, but I tried to use it to say something that I think is worth saying, and that’s something I intend to do in some, if not all, of the fiction I’m working on. In these stories, I’d rather encourage the reader to broaden their outlook if possible, rather than assault them with what I think is the ‘correct’ morality.

In response to my opening question, I don’t personally believe that satire can go too far – Jonathan Swift’s original ‘Modest Proposal’ has soon pretty brutal imagery, of children being eaten – but that brutality is needed to make the case for how the poorer families were being abandoned by the society of the age, to rile the readers up against an injustice that had become commonplace and lost the ability to shock. The bigger problem, I think, is to miss the target, and satirically attack the wrong people.

Fear of misinterpretation is one of the many fears that hold me back as a writer – perhaps the best approach is to accept that this will happen, and work around it when it does.


*If you had to check whether this was real, then it’s a demonstration of the power of Poe’s Law.

14 thoughts on “IWSG: Can Satire Go Too Far?”

  1. I don’t usually read satire so I don’t have an opinion about whether it can go too far. I just feel that if you’re offended by such writing, then you just shouldn’t read it.


  2. I just read a piece about JCPenney suing and winning the right to sacrifice young virgins to appease their god of worship. I do think that satire makes you think about things, and it’s great to use your mind in such a way. Not everyone will appreciate it, but I’m a strong believer in writing what you want and the way you want to write it. I’ve read some fantastic satires that really stuck with me for a long time.


    1. Haha, I assume that’s a response to the Hobby Lobby verdict?

      One of the great things about satire is that, as a reader, it can lay bare just how ridiculous something real actually is – if religious freedom and ‘genuine beliefs’ trump the law, then technically a true believer in Cthulu should be able to sacrifice employees.

      Thanks for the advice!


  3. Thank you for linking to my post! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I enjoyed your post here. I just had a discussion with a writer friend about satire. We were arguing whether or not satire that was questionably satire meant that is was, in fact, more powerful when you can’t be positive of the satirical implications. An interesting topic for sure.


    1. I think one of the main differences between satire and straight-up comedy is the intent of making the audience think – of either educating them or presenting something in a new light to encourage them to question what they believe, so a subtle, under the radar satire could be more effective in some cases.

      I was recently reading a satirical piece about David Cameron’s intentions in introducing internet regulations here in the UK, and the ‘alternative’ interpretation really made a lot of sense – it’s the kind of thing that gets you thinking as a reader.

      Thanks for stopping by!


    1. I think that should probably be one of the golden rules of writing, though it’s tempting to make it really obvious what the message of the story is. I suppose it must be more tempting for children’s writers!


  4. You can’t please all the people all the time. So I’ve heard. Say what you have to say, worrying about things you can’t control will only stop you from doing what you want to do.
    Keep moving forward.


  5. I didn’t have any trouble recognizing your piece as a satire, but if this is something you’re truly worried about, may I suggest building a good, diverse support group, people who will give you their honest opinions and alert you to the problems they see before you publish or post your work.


      1. I don’t usually ask for feedback on blog posts either, unless I’m writing about a touchy subject. I recently canceled a post because almost every woman I asked to read it found it… not offensive, but a little uncomfortable. I didn’t expect that. It was a feminist post, so I assumed my male readers might have a problem with it, not the women. I’m still trying to figure out what went wrong, but in the meantime I’m glad I didn’t alienate my female readers on my blog.


      2. Yeah, with anything that tackles ‘issues’ in any way there’s always the risk of causing offence.

        I’ve been trying to get a short film done for a few months now, based on a script I wrote. More than one male character mocks the female character in a fairly sexist way, and while my intent is for the film to take the female character’s side, the possiblity that for some people it accidentally sides with the sexist men is something that worries me.


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