You’ve probably come across satire in your daily life without even realizing it. From contemporary pop culture platforms like Saturday Night Live to the hand-drawn caricatures artists use to pull in the tourists, satire is everywhere.
But what does satire mean, exactly, and where does it come from? Can it ever be useful to us as poets and fiction writers? Keep reading for everything you need to know about this contentious literary device.
What is satire?
Satire is a literary genre which uses a fictitious lens to ridicule or draw attention to real-world failings, especially societal or political issues. Satirical stories often use elements like irony, hyperbole, and juxtaposition to show the reader the innate silliness or degradation in a person, group of people, or societal value.
For example, if you want to take a stand against a corrupt and dangerous political party, you could write a story about a ridiculous and lecherous king who inadvertently drives his kingdom into poverty. Or, if you want to draw attention to the arbitrariness of racial segregation, you could write a satire about a society in which people are judged by whether they were born at an even-numbered hour or an odd one.
By taking an element of the world around you that you disagree with and amplifying it, you can convey a real and powerful social commentary to your readers.
What’s the difference between satire and parody?
Satire and parody have a lot in common, and it’s easy to get them confused. Sometimes, they even overlap. The main difference between satire and parody is the message they’re trying to convey to their audience.
A parody emulates another work or body of work using exaggeration and humor. The purpose of a parody is to entertain. For example, Scary Movie is a parody of the horror movie genre, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a parody of Jane Austen’s famous novel. Rather than relying on deep, thought-provoking themes, these parodies use comedy to create a fun reading or viewing experience.
A satire, on the other hand, is a form of social criticism. While it often uses humor (though not always—we’ll look at the different types of satire below), its purpose is to make the audience think about a social issue in a new way or draw attention to aspects of these issues that have been problematic.
For instance, a satire of the horror movie genre would probably be less funny and more focused on asking questions about why people are drawn to body horror, or why certain tropes so often feature minority identities. In other words, satire is meant to get people thinking critically about human nature. And Pride and Prejudice is already a satire! It uses humor to poke fun at the constricting marriage conventions and social politics of the time.
Types of satire in literature
We tend to think of satire as one literary genre, but did you know there are actually a few different kinds? Here’s a closer look at the different types of satire you’ll find across history.
Horatian satire, popularized by the Roman poet Horace, is a lighthearted and comic way of poking fun at the foibles of human nature. While this type of satire encourages its audience to examine their own errors of judgement and grow, the social criticism tends to be on a more personal level—Horatian satire isn’t trying to bring about a widespread cultural change.
Contemporary examples of Horatian satire are tongue-in-cheek news platforms like The Onion or The Colbert Report. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift—one of recent history’s most notable satirists—is a famous example from classic literature. Today, this is generally what we think of when we think of the word satire.
If you think Juvenalian satire is juvenile, you’re off the mark—the name comes from the poet Juvenal. This type of satire is dark, bitter, and carries a core message: something is very wrong in the world today, and Imma tell you why.
Juvenalian satire isn’t meant to make the reader laugh, but rather to draw the reader’s attention to problems in contemporary culture. You’ll often find this type of satire in dystopian fiction. For example, The Hunger Games can be seen as a Juvenalian satire of reality television and celebrity culture.
Menippean satire comes from the philosopher Menippus, and refers to satirical writing that explores broad, general flaws in humanity. Traditionally, these often denounced the problems in upper class intellectualism and elitist attitudes towards the working class. However, Menippean satire can also be used as a lens through which to examine contemporary issues like homophobia, agoraphobia, or racism.
This type of satire can overlap with Horatian and Juvenalian satire, and it can be amusing or bleak. Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which pokes fun at the pastimes of the Victorian elite, is an example of Menippean satire.
Visual satire communicates satirical perspectives through a visual lens, like animation or comic books. The most common examples of these are political cartoons, in which the artist says a lot of big ideas in only a moment. Cartoons like The Simpsons often communicate social and political satire in a visual way, as do comic strips like Calvin and Hobbes.
If you’re writing a comic book or graphic novel, you have a wide range of visual literary devices available to you. Even if you’re writing a satirical prose novel, remember that your cover illustration can communicate to your deeper meaning, too.
Examples of satire from popular culture
Here are some more examples of beloved satires—the dark and the light—across classic literature.
Temporary by Hilary Leichter
If you’re of a certain generation and have crossed paths with a computer in the past decade or so, you’ve probably come across the toxic buzzphrase of corporate nightmare, “Hustle culture.” The protagonist of Leichter’s novel yearns for the one thing all little girls dream of: a steady job with benefits. Unfortunately, her career is one of being thrown from one temp role to another, which include becoming a department store mannequin, pirate, surrogate mother, and personal assistant to an assassin, among other jobs.
Temporary both mocks and illuminates the way attitudes towards the millennial workforce, job security, and career advancement have changed, making the reader laugh and ask probing questions at the same time—exactly as a good satire should.
Self Care by Leigh Stein
In today’s hustle-happy day in age (see previous), we could all use a little self care. However, there are those that take it a little too far in the name of Likes, free stuff, and artificial self-validation. Self Care follows the founders of a wellness community and app called “Richual,” in which people (read: love-starved women) can track their mindfulness minutes, “me time,” and other measurements of self care on the app, then compare results with all their friends. Nothing like a little competitive spirit to be your best self.
This novel is a rich satire of a personal practice which has, in recent years, become immeasurably commercialized. It encourages the reader to take a break from their phone and consider what self care really means.
Cold Comfort Farm by by Stella Gibbons
The oldest twentieth-century example on this list, Cold Comfort Farm was published in 1932 as an intentional satire of a certain genre of rural fiction—think the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen, and Lucy Maud Montgomery. The protagonist, Flora Poste, is a meddling city girl who moves in with her eccentric family in the sticks. The family consists of a cousin who’s a preacher just a bit off his rocker, a cousin who moons around the countryside quoting poetry, another cousin with a healthy dose of roguish charm, a cow named Pointless, etc., etc. And don’t forget the creepy crumbling manor house.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because these tropes have been done to death, which makes them fertile ground for satirical writing. This novel is a great example of how you can use a satirical approach to take tired clichés and give them a fresh lease on life.
How to incorporate satire into your own writing
As a literary style, satire can be a wonderful way to explore political issues and expose flaws in the world around us in a light-hearted, entertaining way. It can be thought-provoking, and even—the goal of all truly great literature—put into motion a real change.
Here are some things to keep in mind while you explore the long tradition of satiric storytelling.
Consider your core message
All satires have a message they’re trying to communicate with the reader—it could be the absurdity of the housing crisis, or the toxicity of the lengths some people will go for love. Try and pinpoint what social, personal, or political issue you want the reader to take notice of before you begin writing. Then, your entire story structure is built around this message.
Once you know what you’re trying to say, you can look for small details that you can enhance for dramatic effect (and we’ll look at how to do this down below).
Create an allegory
An allegory is a story within a story—an entertaining fictional narrative overlying a deeper true narrative. For example, Animal Farm is a story about a community of farm animals who come together after their farmers leave. It’s also a story about the politics of the Russian Revolution. George Orwell uses the family-friendly overstory to create an indirect satire of the political figures of the time.
If your core message is delicate or potentially inflammatory, consider if there’s another story you could use as a framing device to convey your message in a clear, accessible way.
Use irony and hyperbole for dramatic effect
Irony and hyperbole are the cornerstones of satiric writing. Hyperbole, or extreme exaggeration to make a point, draws the reader’s attention to certain aspects of the work (you see this a lot in cartoons and other satiric art forms). By taking these aspects to their extreme, you encourage your reader to re-examine them in their own lives.
Irony achieves a similar effect. By using words or scenes that convey the opposite of what the reader or character expects, you encourage readers to question why those expectations exist in the first place. You can read more about using irony as a literary device here.
Use symbolism and metaphor
Satire is rich in symbolism and metaphor beyond its literal meaning. Very often, objects, characters, and places in a satire mean something other than what they first appear as. An expensive handbag could be a metaphor for the global disparity of wealth, or a shoebox filled with childhood memorabilia could be symbolic of coming of age in a rapidly shifting society.
When writing your satire (and particularly in the revision process), look for places in which you can heighten your story’s message using these thought-provoking literary devices.
Convey theme—not cruelty
It’s super important to remember that satire is a vehicle for social change—not a cheap opportunity to tear people down. Try to frame your message around ideas, social frameworks, and cultural beliefs rather than specific people. And instead of using your writing to simply say, “This sucks,” try saying “This sucks—but we can do something about it.”
Consider your destination, not just the vehicle.
Satire is a tool for humor, social commentary, and widespread change
Satire is a great literary genre for making people laugh—but it can also be used to explore serious topics and real-life cultural issues the world is facing today. You can convey satire through hyperbole, metaphor, and other literary devices, and through it, encourage people to think about society in a fresh and critical way.