Monday, December 05, 2005

Irony and communication

Back when I first started blogging, I read a piece about writing for the web, and it included a caution against using irony. Irony, the writer maintained, is often misunderstood. People will take you seriously.

Well, I'm not sure if Ed Shelton's little workshop on writing for the web is the one that I read some eighteen months ago, but it too contains a suggestion that 'clever-clever' devices such as sarcasm or irony are best avoided. 'Your message,' says Ed, 'will then be understood by the widest possible audience.'

Hmm. I mention this because (a) I seem to have been misunderstood one day last week, (b) I was tempted to respond with further irony, and (c) on first reading an email recently I think I misunderstood it entirely.

Incident (a) is trivial. I reviewed a book published by iUniverse, and mentioned that the firm is less selective in what it publishes than is Random House. Thereafter a commenter took plains to explain to me that iUniverse is a firm which will publish more or less anything by anyone, if they just hand over the money. And actually -- ahem -- I did know that.

The same angry commenter went on to ask me how much the author of the iUniverse-published book had paid me to review it. The answer, as most of you will understand, is nothing. He just asked nicely. But I was tempted to reply ironically, and say that he didn't pay me anything, but that -- hey -- I was ready to review to order if there was anyone out there dumb enough to offer me money. I was also going to add that, in England, the tradition is to hand over the cash in used notes, in a brown-paper bag, and that the locale de choix is a supermarket car park. But perhaps, in the circs, I won't say any of that. It might lead to confusion.

And then there's the email sent to me by Sylvia Van Nooten. I thought at first, perhaps being somewhat sensitised by last week's experience, that she was having a little go at me. But actually I don't think she is.

Sylvia refers in her email to 'egotistical maniacs convinced they are the reincarnation of Swift and who splay their names and blogs wherever possible.' And she has coined an expression -- BlogBeggars -- to describe 'those sad souls begging for their blog to be noticed by a "someone".'

But when I saw that Sylvia has a blog of her own I began to reinterpret what she said. To labour the point, I don't think she was having a go at me, or anyone else. She was just making a comment (inspired, it seems, by one of mine) on the sad nature of many writers' ambitions.

Sylvia's blog is called (ironically?) I will be your guru, and she seems to be working on a novel. And the comment of mine which set her off was this: 'Publishing depends, for its continuance, upon a ceaseless flow of mugs, suckers, and assorted halfwits who are prepared to work for a year or more without any serious prospect of remuneration.'

And I was going to add that, in my case, I may have some prospect of remuneration if there anyone out there who (a) wants a book reviewed and (b) has some spare moolah. But I won't.


Anonymous said...

Ed Shelton is right. Irony always has been risky. Ask Jonathan Swift, who was jailed when one of his satires, The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, was taken literally.

Or ask me, why don’t you. I once submitted this short story to a competition, and was nonplussed to be informed that it contained many misspellings. In search of enlightenment, I then tried several other competitions (five in total, if I recall), and no one got it. To be fair, one judge said it was ‘not clear’ whether or not it was intended as a joke, but the others had no doubt. One luminous literato (or whatever the singular of literati might be), was kind enough to react with ‘A tip for you. Don’t use so many exclamation marks.’ Heigh ho.

The coming of the Web, has increased the dangers of the use of irony a thousandfold, and it's easy to see why. The Web is, as we all know, Worldwide, but irony à l’anglaise is not. George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1991 to 2002, once said that he had learned the hard way never to use self-deprecation: it is by no means common to all cultures. And when George MacDonald Fraser’s first Flashman novel was published in the US, one critic in three took it for a genuine Victorian document.

Inevitably, the Web gives has given rise to all kinds of misunderstandings, but nothing can justify the existence of those horrible smileys, aka emoticons. Someone once painstakingly explained to me that people face-to-face with you can always tell when you are joking (not true, if my experience is anything to go by), but when they are reading your words, only a smiley will prevent them from taking you seriously. I now fear that this may be true, but I will burn at the stake before I start using those ghastly things.

Anonymous said...

Correction. It was of course Daniel Defoe who wrote The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, not Dean Swift. No, on second thoughts, no correction is necessary. I was er . . . being ironic.

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