Satire, free speech, “ands” and “buts”

It’s not a “but”. It should never be a “but”, it’s an “and”. “But” is a hinge that folds back on itself and disavows what came before. “I believe in free speech, but Charlie Hebdo published racist cartoons,” “terrorism is abhorrent, but Charlie Hebdo published racist cartoons”: the “but” establishes a relationship between the two clauses, and suggests that the latter statement cancels out the former. The speaker claims a principle, then gives it up in the next breath. “”I believe in free speech, and Charlie Hebdo published racist cartoons,” “terrorism is abhorrent, and Charlie Hebdo published racist cartoons”: that’s better. Now we have to take responsibility for the relationship between the propositions. Now we can talk.

I wasn’t going to write anything about Charlie Hebdo, and yet here I am. We have enough opinions, and I am going to write one more. It strikes me that I’ve made three claims so far regarding Charlie Hebdo and the massacre at the magazine’s office. Two of those are probably uncontroversial: most people would say they agreed with free speech, and most people are against terror. Perhaps you’re less inclined to agree that Charlie Hebdo published racist cartoons. Perhaps you accept that racial imagery was used, but the magazine’s mockery was applied universally and part of a distinctly French tradition of mockery, so no specific racism can be imparted to it. Or maybe you’ll point to the fact that one of the magazine’s major targets of mockery is Front National leader Marine le Pen.

The sharp edge of many of the le Pen images strikes against her sex. Being a woman is a grotesque, mockable quality (and this has often been the case in satire, which is hardly an inherently radical or “progressive” medium. Thackeray, for example, starts Vanity Fair by setting up Jane Austen as a prim, prissy old governess before figuratively chucking her out of a carriage window, in a novel that cribs relentlessly from the woman he defenestrates). Charlie Hebdo had le Pen as an ersatz Joan of Arc with her tits jutting out in hideous metal cones, le Pen shaving a Hitler sweep of fringe and toothbrush moustache into her pubes. Race, like sex, is a vulnerability that the cartoonist can catch on: the Boko Haram kidnapping victims as big-mouthed welfare queens, a black politician as a monkey, big-nosed semitic caricatures. (I find all these images fairly horrible, and they are within the lines of free speech because they do not directly incite or threaten violence.)

The qualities “white” and “male” can’t be exploited in the same way. There’s no trope of exaggerating them to undermine an individual, because they are the neutral attributes of what we accept culturally to be the human subject. It’s not just about who is mocked. It’s also about who does the mocking – who has the licence to make fun. Charlie Hebdo is staffed, largely, by white men. Its laughter ranges over several targets, while the power to direct that laughter stays within the class that habitually exercises power. And this doesn’t make the magazine bad or inherently racist, it’s simply true, and worthy of observation when we’re considering the relationship between satire and power. From Pope, Swift, Addison and Steele to Hislop and Merton on Have I Got News For You, its most successful practitioners work from more-or-less inside the lines of cultural authority.

That’s true too of Chris Morris, my favourite satirist working right now – he’s male, he’s white, and he went to a public school. What I like most about Morris is the way that he exploits this position of default authority. Sometimes this is direct, like with the vox pops he did for local radio and The Day Today. Formally, these are simple: he asks an absurd question of a member of the public, and they reply with something that’s preposterous because it doesn’t challenge the terms of the question. (A typical exchange: “Can you tell from people’s faces if they’ve got an awkward stomach velocity?” “I think you can, yes…”) The reason they work is more complicated. Morris presents himself as entitled, and the people he addresses react with automatic deference, because the habit of challenging authority is rare. In general, we use a small number of cues to decide what social position someone holds relative to us, and then shape our own demeanour appropriately.

This technique worked magnificently on celebrities in Brass Eye, and then the same dynamic became the basis of a lot of the sketches in Blue Jam. The woozy, unpinned horror of the nightmarish scenarios in that show often comes from the fact that authority figures are behaving in bizarre, unaccountable ways – and the characters they’re talking to have no way of escaping from the situation, because they can’t muster the social capital to say no. Sometimes while listening to the programmes, I have a desperate, clawing feeling of wanting a character to just refuse when a doctor is suggesting an unnecessary bone removal, or telling them their child has “symptomless coma”, or forcing a patient to hit him on the bottom with a ruler (doctors figure a lot).

In his 2010 jihadi farce Four Lions, a lot of the humour Morris extracts is from his would-be terrorists trying to look like terrorists: when they make a video, the prop gun is absurdly too small and a menacing diatribe against western culture turns into a rambling discussion of fast food joints. Protagonists Omar, Waj, Barry and Faisal are idiots. They’re clumsy, incompetent and querulous, and being laughable doesn’t make them less murderous. Ultimately, even though their suicide bombing campaign devolves into Honey-Monster-costumed absurdity, even though Omar tries at the last to refuse, they end up playing the part they were supposed to.

At the end of the film, we get a glimpse of the aftermath, in which the police response casts them as a deviously clever internal menace, tidying away the ridiculous to make them an enemy worthy of national dignity, arresting Omar’s devout and peaceful brother. It’s not a “but”, it’s an “and”: the terrorists are moronic, and they are violent, and the response of state and public validates them when it’s supposed to be opposing them, and it’s not clear how anyone could step outside the predefined lines of the role they’re put into. And, and, and. It’s never a “but”.

A reliable source

I’ve discovered the high point of my stunted academic career: I have become a Wikipedia footnote. And, until I get to be as famous as one of Paperhouse’s guest posters, that will have to do. The best part is that, if you look at the discussion page, it seems as though my article on Bret Easton Ellis and his not-very-good horror novel has been included as a result of an etiquette-smashing argument between contributors about whether satire can co-exist with unreliable narrators:

let’s just stop this squabble while we still have some dignity.

I’ll add a reference for American Psycho and we’ll leave it at that.

Helping to maintain the dignity of Wikipedia. It’s very nearly as exalted as getting a doctorate.

© Sarah Ditum, 2010

[Guardian Books Blog] Can the newspaper novel survive in the internet age?

I’ve got my first piece up on the Guardian books blog:

In a world of declining newspapers, is there any future for the newspaper novel? I recently stormed through Michael Frayn’s satirical 1967 newspaper novel, Towards the End of the Morning, and Nick Davies’ scathing study of how reporting works now, Flat Earth News. For the press, dawn is closing time, when the final edition has been printed and the hacks can go to bed – so Frayn’s title is a reversal of the usual metaphor: the end of the morning implies more of a shutdown than a rebirth. The novel, with its warm satire of the gentlemanly dissolution of the newspaperman in the fading days of old Fleet Street, makes a tender record of a deeply flawed but somehow loveable industry – before colour printing, before Wapping, and back when TV had only just begun to threaten the papers’ ownership of the news and comment business.

Read the rest at The Guardian…

Picturehouse: In The Loop

In The Loop Tucker posterI once got to drink wine with a junior civil servant and ask a million questions about government. The thing about ministers, I was told, is that they don’t succeed on their intellect or their analytical ability (anyway, there’s more information sloshing around than any individual could handle – that’s what the researchers are there for). The skill that makes a ministerial career is memory: having the right figures ready to pull out at the dispatch box, and the right lines in place when an awkward question comes up.

The plot of In The Loop (the feature film adaptation of sweary satirical sitcom The Thick Of It) launches from a minister who doesn’t know what to say. Hapless Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) of the Department For International Development is a simple man caught between vanity and careerism, making the occasional desperate clutch at doing the right thing. After he tells an interviewer that “war is unforseeable”, he’s obviously on the long slide out of the cabinet. Oblivious to the cool competence of Gina McKee’s Judy Malloy (his department’s head of communications), witlessly reliant on Chris Addison’s Toby Wright (new to the department and ineptly ambitious), and on the wrong side of Malcolm Tucker’s fury (Peter Capaldi, of course, whippet-slim and whipsmart with the magnificently obscene dialogue), the only issue is whether the hawks or the doves can get the most use out of him on the way down.

If you’ve had one eye open anytime in the last six years, you’ll know exactly how the story is going to play out – and if you’ve paid any attention to British sitcoms at any stage in their history, you’ll know that they’ve got dubious form when it comes to big-screen spin-offs. So, what makes In The Loop work? For one thing, it’s not the narrative that grips but the detail – the agonising complexities of compromise, self-interest and error that cause things to happen, rather than the things that happen themselves. This feels like the way politics probably really does happen, and the terrifying thing is that politics is screwed not because of some elite conspiracy, but because the people doing it are as prone to stupidity and self-preservation as everyone else.

It doesn’t suffer the normal pains of transition from TV to movie because it cleverly holds onto its style while expanding its scope. Shot in the  handheld DV style of the series, but making expansive use of outside scenes and locations in DC and New York, In The Loop translates its TV ancestor into cinematic terms brilliantly by not clinging too tightly to the original material. Cast of the TV show appear in different-but-similar roles – a ploy that could have been confusing but actually works fine, because the characters are mostly functions of the jobs they do. It doesn’t really matter that Chris Addison’s performance as Olly Reeder is nearly identical to his performance as Toby Wright – the two characters have nearly identical roles, so it makes sense that they’d look the same, talk the same, and have doppelganger girlfriends.

Of the Americans, James Gandolfini as a Pentagon general doing everything he can to avert war is easily the standout, and a satisfyingly fierce opponent to Tucker. In fact, Tucker finds Washington a whole lot tougher to roll over that Whitehall. Seen from high over DC running frantically to get to a meeting, looks unexpectedly small and vulnerable.

And while the film is viciously funny, it’s also got a note of the tragic: the President and the Prime Minister, the most powerful characters in the film, are godlike in their absence, directing events towards a predetermined conclusion which makes all the organs of diplomacy redundant. “We have all the facts we need”, says a war-hungry American minister as he flicks away an analysis of the potential invasion’s costs: “In the kingdom of truth, the man with one fact is king.” It’s that funny, and (for people who are quite keen on truth) that tragic, all the way through.

Paperhouse reads: Liver

Liver‘s subtitle is “A fictional organ with an anatomy of four lobes” – because it’s a collection of four short stories all set in the same fictional universe. Between the gory physicality of that summary and its literary precision, Will Self gives a perfect biopsy of his style. Funny, bleak, grotesque, dispassionate: Self’s liver is a bilious organ.


I started reading Self when he was doing the cult books segment for Mark Radcliffe’s graveyard shift show on Radio 1: every few weeks, he’d show up and laud a work of fiction, and a bit later I’d borrow it from the library and add it to my store of teenage pretension. I read Lolita, Perfume and Kafka on Self’s recommendation. I also read Self’s Quantity Theory, Grey Area and Cock And Bull, really enjoying the mixture of dismal sex and absurdist satire. But then Tough Tough Toys… was a bit disappointing, and the columns in the Indy felt laboured and drab, and I let Self drift out of the circle of things in which I was interested. Look, I was 18, barely out of Point Horror and working my way through the best books ever written. It’s almost completely not my fault that I totally underrated Self.

I even managed to miss this happening. But I’ve started to catch up now, and Liver is a decent place to start. All of the extended short stories take place in the same fictional universe, with characters moving between as connecting tissue, although each narrative is essentially self-enclosed. And, more jarringly, each one twists distinctively out of realist-satirical mode and into another genre of its own: Greek mythology, supernatural interventions, sci-fi. The lobes of the book are separate but related, forming a whole from which any part could be lost without changing the function of the book (apart, obviously, from the function of being like a liver).

And it’s also about livers, and the abuses the organs are put to by human appetites. Scabrous about consumption and acute about addiction and desire, there’s a striking lack of compassion despite all the close observation. Sometimes – especially with the characters who stick around across more than one section – this feels almost too hard to take. It’s not the dreadful things Self does to his characters that you mind: it’s that he can’t say anything nice about them while he’s acting as their tormentor.

But the mysanthropy’s the only thing you can see coming. I’ve never read a fiction narrated by a chorus of microbes before. Nor have you (I imagine), and Self throws out these unexpected inventions with the ease of someone who can make this shit up with some to spare. And he can write, too: not just slinging together a few well-constructed sentences, but rolling out perfected phrases by the pageful. His language is excessive and his vocabulary ripe, but it’s controlled excess – the abundant swears have a well-timed precision, and the moments where he throws in one deliberate cliché too many are rare enough to be tolerable.



Newswipe, episode 1 on iPlayer (until 1 April 2009)

I got a Private Eye subscription for Christmas. The biggest perk of being an Eye subscriber is having cancellation as the ultimate threat if they do something I really dislike, so obviously ever since January I’ve been looking out for something to inspire a tart letter and a stopped direct debit. And handily,  it turns out that I do think the Eye is flagging a bit.

They didn’t feature anything about the Dunblane story in the last issue. It looked like they swiped the Glen Jenvey story from Bloggerheads without crediting it (unforgiveable really when the Ad Nauseum column makes so much play of calling out advertisers who thieve from Youtube). They did a parody of Steven Fry’s lift tweets that misunderstood the @ tags, and consequently totally overlooked the usefulness of Twitter as a tool for spreading information. As a media watchdog they look badly outpaced by the internet, the takedown of churnalism in Flat Earth News was more comprehensive than the Eye‘s fortnightly digs, and however doggedly they refuse to do a proper online version, the classified pages definitely look less packed than they used to.

I’m not cancelling my sub yet, but I’m only holding out until Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe becomes a rolling service. Last night’s show was purgingly funny and properly revelatory – especially the big finish about reporting mass murders. It’s sickening to see Dr Park Dietz’s comments juxtaposed with the news footage that explicitly ignores his advice. Don’t cut the story as a drama. Don’t cast the killer as an anti-hero. Don’t give blanket coverage to massacres… oh no, they already did.

The degree to which new reporting ignores its own role in making stories while asking “why?”  is obscene: newspapers did exactly the same over the Bridgend suicides, grimly demanding an explanation for all the deaths while they made front-page heroes of the deceased and publicised the methods used. (“Look, all your friends are doing it, and we’ll even show you how!”) There’s actually a set of guidelines in place for reporting suicides that should prevent that sort of covert incitement – and good luck to you getting some compensation out of the PCC for the loss of a loved one. These stories are the definition of self-sustaining flat earth news, and you’d hope that when people are actually dying the media would notice that it’s doing something wrong.