D J Taylor
In Defence of Parody
If Sir John Squire (1884-1958) is remembered at all these days, it is for his role as an anti-modernist scourge in the literary gang warfare of the 1920s, his editorship of the arch-conservative London Mercury and his unforgivable remark that the printing of The Waste Land was 'scarcely worthy of the Hogarth Press'. But there was a younger, livelier Squire, who operated as a slashing reviewer and parodist - mostly in the pages of the fledgling New Statesman - and it was in search of his less hidebound former self that, last summer in a second-hand bookshop in Inverness, I laid out £5 on a copy of Tricks of the Trade (1917), a 'final essay', as Squire puts it in the dedication to his friend Robert Lynd, 'in a not wholly admirable art'.
For anyone raised on legends of Squire the anaemic Georgian, not to mention Squire the procrastinating literary drunk (he once excused himself from failing to deliver a commission on the grounds that the manuscript had blown out of the taxi window), Tricks of the Trade is lightning from a clear sky: cutting, hilarious, and unfailingly sensitive to the syntactical quirks that make his victims so susceptible to mockery. There is a terrific spoof of an H G Wells novel, in which a philandering statesman's troupe of girlfriends decide to confront him en masse on the steps of the House of Commons; a blistering approximation of a Belloc poem; and a ravishing send-up of the Celtic Revival, in which 'a fiddle weeps at the shadow of the night/With Pat Doogan/Father Murphy/Brown maidens/King Cuchullain/The Kine/The sheep/Some old women/Some old men/And Uncle White Sea-gull and all.'
Why did Squire think he was an exponent of a 'not wholly admirable art'? Generally speaking, parody gets a bad press. F R Leavis thought that it 'demeaned' the creative intelligences brought beneath its lens. There are endless interpretative debates about what distinguishes a parody from a pastiche (sometimes not much more than an admiring imitation) or the self-conscious comic exaggeration of the burlesque. Worse, there is the unavoidable drawback that, in an age of cultural fragmentation, large numbers of readers would not know what a parody was if it fell upon their heads from a great height or, having had its existence drawn to their attention, would fail to see the need for it in the first place. I once wrote a piece of burlesqued literary criticism for The Independent about a collection of verses to which Sir Paul McCartney had put his name and was ticked off by indignant readers not for attacking a national treasure but for rampant obsequiousness.
These difficulties are compounded by the rise of arts-world relativism, in which the awfulness of so many books, films and pictures will always be glozed over by the critics out of a commendable desire not to give offence to the people who like them, and by a cultural landscape crowded out by people and utterances that, as Craig Brown once put it, are 'beyond parody'. Significantly enough, one of the funniest sections of Brown's last collection, The Lost Diaries (2010), is a phonetic representation of Rod Stewart performing 'Maggie May' ('Way kup Mageh ar thing ar gos umfin ter say chew', &c). A newcomer to the form could read this and wonder where the joke was, deaf to the fact that what Brown has created here is a kind of meta-language, a series of codes needing to be cracked, a file of procedural assumptions that have to be deciphered before the piece works its spell.
Leaving aside its immediate aim of making the reader laugh, parody - literary parody especially - has an infinitely wider remit. Pace F R Leavis, it is ultimately a form of literary criticism, where the judgements are arrived at by amplifying a writer's stylistic idiosyncrasies to the point where they collapse in a wounded heap. Anyone who has read Brown over the years on one or two of the fashionable novelists that he regularly tears into would probably conclude that he dislikes their work profoundly, and that the root of this dislike lies in what he imagines to be their solipsism, their conviction that the act of writing is somehow more important than the story itself. All this is that much more effective for being conveyed by stealth, in the same way that Squire's send-up of the first generation of Great War poets ('O to be in Flanders/Now that April's here...') makes its point with a precision that half-a-dozen pages of reasoned exposition would struggle to achieve.
So if the parodist is first and foremost a humorist, then scratch him hard enough and he (or, rarely, she) will usually turn into a literary critic manqué. Inevitably, neither of these credentials makes parodists very popular with the people they lampoon. Disraeli never forgave Thackeray for including 'Codlingsby, by B. de Shrewsbury' in his series of Punch's Prize Novelists, and even after his tormentor's death could be found portraying him as St Barbe, the embittered critic of Endymion. On the other hand, there lurks the happy thought that parody is also a vital part of the authenticating process that keeps the reputations of the parodied alive. Who would remember the eternally aspiring but forever failing Brian Howard, Oxford friend of Harold Acton and Evelyn Waugh, were it not for 'Where Engels Fears to Tread', Cyril Connolly's deathless send-up of his progress from Twenties aestheticism to Thirties commitment (a parody that is all the more devastating for its exposure of some of Connolly's weaknesses in the same area)?
Jane Carlyle was once asked by a friend what John Sterling, the subject of her husband's Life of John Sterling, had ever done in his life to rate a biography, and she replied: 'Induced Carlyle somehow to write him one.' And so a parody of a badly written novel or a vainglorious autobiography may very well annoy its subject, but it is also an acknowledgement that the writer being parodied is worth criticising. There are worse destinies.
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D J Taylor's collection of literary parodies, What You Didn't Miss, is published by Constable this month. His next novel, The Windsor Faction, will be published in 2013.