The Staying Power of Satire and Political Literature

Kenneth Lee

With politically charged Saturday Night Live skits, Daily Show clips and Samantha Bee monologues shared on Facebook and Twitter, satirical content goes viral on a regular basis. However, videos aren’t the only form of satire available to the public, and they might not even be the most effective form of criticism in today’s political climate. Literature such as personal essays and fictional narratives are also examples of political satire that are able to strike a chord with the public.  

Jared Sexton, a creative writing professor in Georgia Southern’s Writing and Linguistics department, covered the 2016 election, attended multiple Trump rallies and had his political writing appear in publications such as The New York Times. He explains why SNL skits, and other videos of its ilk are unable to act as scathing satire for the current Trump administration.

“[SNL] is only entertaining the left. It’s only entertaining critics of Trump and feeding back to him,” Sexton said. “We’re at a point right now where I can’t even imagine Trump supporters turning on SNL. This is actually for liberals to talk amongst themselves. On top of them, it takes a little bit of sting out of him.”

Sexton describes the satire we’re all familiar with on television as “very surface level,” faulting its inability to “get below the surface.”

Fictional narratives in literature, on the other hand, can be far more successful critiquing government. When equipped with compelling characters and an engrossing plot, political literature can act as a Trojan horse and “get across ideas that people would normally be fenced off against.”

Along with films and TV shows, people seek out political literature due to its staying power and relevancy in satirizing politics. For instance, after White House counselor Kellyanne Conway coined the phrase “alternative facts” when defending press secretary Sean Spicer’s fumbling attempt to convince journalists that Trump’s inauguration ceremony had the largest audience ever, George Orwell’s “1984” found itself on Amazon’s bestseller list shortly after.

Regardless of administration, Orwell’s dystopian novel about a tyrannical government that practices unethical, omnipresent surveillance has proved to be a relevant source of literary satire, as sales also spiked in 2013 when Edward Snowden leaked crucial information about the scope of NSA surveillance.  

“People read ‘1984’ because it’s a cool dystopic book. ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ is the same way,” Sexton said. “It’s also in a dystopia. It has a great plot, it moves quickly, so people will read it in the same way that they’ll read the ‘Hunger Games.’ That whole thing is about greed, about government guiding, about economic inequality. People will read that, even if they’re conservative and even they’re pro-Trump and digest it.”

Dr. Olivia Edenfield is a professor in Georgia Southern’s Literature and Philosophy department and the executive coordinator of the American Literature Association. She explains how humor can be an effective tool in literature.

“When we laugh about ourselves, when we come at things a little sideways, when we’re able to use that kind of Horatian satire, it takes us off our guard,” Edenfield said. “And when we’re laughing at ourselves, at our own narrowness, at our inability to see pass our own partisan ideas, it gives us a chance to relax a little bit. I would say Gary Trudeau’s satire, ‘Doonesbury,’ the political satire he’s written, has allowed us to laugh at our government in a way that’s not off-putting. It allows us to be critical and look at issues at all sides. When you’re laughing about them, it can bring all voices together. Humor has a way of doing that.”

According to Edenfield, even personal essays have weight and potential in influencing policy making and fostering understanding. She elaborates on how David Sedaris’s autobiographical essays and comedic New Yorker pieces act as a tool for empathy and policy change.

From 1994 to 2013, Sedaris has written multiple essay collections covering a range of topics such as: wacky family antics, his upbringing in Raleigh, North Carolina; growing up as a homosexual in the 1950s, the list of odd jobs he found himself working at, etc.

“A lot of his pieces, if you read them, just seem like comic biographical sketches, but in all of that is a wonderful portrait of a young man who felt ostracized by the fact that he was gay,” Edenfield said. “As he’s satirizing the politics of his community, he’s also made a very human portrait of himself. And so I can engage in that and start to understand and see things from his point of view.”

Edenfield also referred to Nora Ephron’s written pieces to elaborate on how personal essays and satire were used to combat workplace sexism and gender inequality. Ephron was an American journalist and essayist who wrote numerous pieces satirizing systematic sexism in the workplace. In fact, she was among the group of women who sued Newsweek in the 1970s for refusing to hire women writers. Ephron’s essays covered the rampant sexual harassment women in journalism had to put up with and the struggle they had in achieving an equal voice in the workplace.

Satire and comedic essays have proven to be not just tools for political change, but antidotes for those without empathy, giving marginalized groups the power and opportunity to voice their concerns towards a growing audience.

“So oftentimes marginalized communities have had to use humor to get their voice heard,” Edenfield said. “Because if I come at you in a didactic, very pragmatic, forceful way, I might turn you off, but if I can get you laughing with me, then maybe you’ll hang around to listen to the real message, and if we’re laughing together, then haven’t we built a community?”

Photo credit Anthony Wu.