The joy of parody?
By MICHAEL CAINES
You can’t always say that preparing to speak in public – or in my case, this week, to chair a public event – is an opportunity for joy. But when the subject is “The Art of Parodies” (tickets available here), the title for a panel discussion this Friday night at the LSE, as part of their fifth Space for Thought Literary Festival, preparation can be nothing but a pleasure.
For example, it involves:
Re-reading Craig Brown’s “extract” from the diary of David Hare (“The State of Britain, Part One: Three days ago, I went to a party. I don’t often go to parties, because I’m not that kind of person, I’m a playwright, with more serious concerns. But I went to this one. By bus, of course. I’m not the sort of person who takes taxis. So I hailed a double-decker in the King’s Road and told the driver to take me to Islington. He was then to wait for me outside the party for an hour or two and take me back. The instructions were quite clear. But of course this is Thatcher’s Britain . . . .”)
Re-reading Jane Austen’s parodies of sentimental novels, etc (“The perfect form, the beautifull face, and elegant manners of Lucy so won on the affections of Alice that when they parted, which was not till after Supper, she assured her that except her Father, Brother, Uncles, Aunts, Cousins and other relations, Lady Williams, Charles Adams and a few dozen more of particular freinds, she loved her better than almost any other person in the world.”)
Revisiting Ewan Morrison’s much-discussed piece about fan fiction from last summer (he’s one of the speakers, alongside D. J. Taylor and Martin Rowson; the piece only mentions parodies once, but it raises the relevant questions about imitation and “fans becoming creators”)
Reading as much as possible of a borrowed copy of the Oxford Book of Parodies, edited by a former TLS editor, the late John Gross. The first sentence of Gross’s introduction hands you a straightforward definition: “A parody is an imitation which exaggerates the characteristics of a work or a style for comic effect”. But is comedy the real point of the exercise? Is the target the book or author being parodied, or something or somebody else? There are, Gross points out, parodies that mock, and parodies that are “affectionate” (although presumably a parody could be both of those things, and the real opposition lies between affection and hostility, between friendly ribbing and the unfriendly desire to maim your opponent); there are “exquisitely accurate” imitations of another writer’s style and those that are “rough-edged but effective”. Is there any point in striving for “exact definitions” of such a protean genre?
One last piece of reading: there are examples of some extremely effective mockery of some of our most widely praised and popular contemporary authors in one of the inspirations for the LSE event, the fine collection of Private Eye take-offs recently published as What You Didn’t Miss: A book of literary parodies, compiled by D. J. Taylor (who also turns out to bat for the TLS on occasion).
The victims include Zadie Smith (“One may as well begin with Kiki in the delicatessen”), Philip Hensher (“It was 1974 in Sheffield and the Fothergills were having a party. The guests ate Coronation Chicken, hula hoops, Black Forest Gateau, potatoes wrapped in foil with cocktail sticks spiked with cheese and pineapple . . .”) and Andrew Motion (the author here of “How Boileth Ye Pot”, a “new civic ‘liturgy’ of the theme of St George”). There’s Graham Swift on being good at “noticing things”. “It’s my job . . . Noticing things. I’m a writer. Take water, for instance. It’s just melted ice.” (To which his agent replies: “That’s good . . . I like that . . .”.) One hopes that all of them can take a joke. There really isn’t any writer or any style of writing that can’t be made to seem ridiculous.
And I’m looking forward to being contradicted on all the points above on Friday night at the LSE . . . .