Thursday, July 19, 2012

Natalie Wexler: When Is Humor In Writing Too Much?

Welcome to the Mother Daughter Show Blog Tour!!!  Today, I have the author of The Mother Daughter Show, Natalie Wexler, here to discuss humor and satire - when is it too much? as part of the tour.  Included in the post are a short bio of Natalie and a description of her novel.  Have fun!


The Mother Daughter Show (book description):
At Barton Friends a D.C. prep school so elite its parent body includes the President and First Lady - three mothers have thrown themselves into organizing the annual musical revue. Will its Machiavellian intrigue somehow enable them to reconnect with their graduating daughters, who are fast spinning out of control? By turns hilarious and poignant, The Mother Daughter Show will appeal to anyone who's ever had a daughter - and anyone who's ever been one. 

When is it (humor/satire in writing) too much? 
I’m sure different authors—and readers—have different answers to that question. The definition of “good writing” is to some extent subjective. The definition of “good fiction” is even more subjective. And I would guess that the definition of “good satire” is the most subjective of all. 

Just speaking for myself, then, I’m not a big fan of broad satire, especially in novel-length form. It’s hard to sustain for more than small stretches—essays or short stories—and I’m not sure I’m capable of doing it. When I was writing The Mother Daughter Show, a couple of readers advised me to make the characters and situations more exaggerated—they thought it would make the book funnier. But when I’ve read novel-length broad satire, I’ve found it got old pretty fast.

Besides, from the beginning I wanted the book to be more than a satire. I also wanted to say something serious about mother-daughter relationships, albeit in a light-hearted way. And it seemed to me that in order to do that, my characters had to be more than cartoons—they had to be three-dimensional beings that the reader would actually care about, even while she was laughing at them. And if I was going to spend as long a time as a novelist needs to with her fictional creations, I had to care about them as well.

Another way in which satire can go off the rails is when it’s directed at specific individuals rather than at general traits within a specific group. It just so happens I’m working on a historical novel right now in which the main character is based on a real woman named Eliza Anderson who edited a magazine in Baltimore in 1807. Her goal was to raise the cultural level of the city through satire, and to some extent that boiled down to making fun of her fellow citizens. She was attacked for cruelly skewering certain individuals—or at least, that’s what some in Baltimore claimed she was doing. Anderson’s defense was that she meant her satire to be “general,” and that anyone who saw real individuals in her sketches was completely mistaken.

It’s hard to know who to believe at a distance of two hundred years. But one thing that’s inclined me to be sympathetic to Anderson is that I myself have been the subject of attacks similar to those leveled against her. Some people in Washington, D.C., where my novel is set, have claimed that the characters in The Mother Daughter Show are thinly veiled portrayals of real individuals.

To me this accusation is ludicrous, because I know exactly how much I made up—and not just in terms of plot elements. Of course I incorporated some real things I’d observed—all novelists do—but fundamentally my characters are my own inventions. And yes, I was satirizing certain elements of private school culture, but the foibles I targeted (including things like the obsession with admission to prestigious colleges and the lavishing of expensive clothes and accessories on teenage girls who leave them lying around in piles in their bedrooms) are indeed “general,” at least in that milieu. I’ve been very much a part of that culture, and I was satirizing myself as much as anyone else.

And I do think that’s one way to guard against satire being “too much”: try to include yourself in the group you’re satirizing. Of course, you’re the one who’s making the jokes, and there’s no guarantee that others will agree with you. But it’s worth the risk. There are times when satire will cause offense, but there are also times when satire will open people’s eyes to some things that actually deserve to be laughed at, in a way that direct criticism of those things might not.

As Eliza Anderson said in 1807, “It is ridicule alone that corrects mankind. Banish criticism, satire, and raillery, and there will no longer be any salt in society.”

Natalie Wexler is the author of The Mother Daughter Show (Fuze Publishing 2011) and an award-winning historical novel, A More Obedient Wife. She is a journalist and essayist whose work has appeared in the Washington Post Magazine, the American Scholar, the Gettysburg Review, and other publications, and she is a reviewer for the Washington Independent Review of Books. She has also worked as a temporary secretary, a newspaper reporter, a Supreme Court law clerk, a legal historian, and (briefly) an actual lawyer. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband.

What do you think? When is there too much satire/humor in writing OR is there even a such thing as too much satire/humor in writing?  Follow Natalie Wexler and the rest of the Mother Daughter Show blog tour on Natalie's website, Goodreads, blog, Tribute's Facebook, Fuze's Facebook, and Twitter.  Happy Blog Tour Day!


Tribute Books said...

Hilary, thanks for allowing Natalie to stop by today :)

HilyBee said...

I loved having this post! :D A different opinion to humor/satire in writing is always nice to hear. Plus, I had Ira Nayman as this week's ANSA, a scifi humor author. How perfect!