Tuesday, September 4, 2007

My Bad (Seed)

by Nina Wright

Recently a friend sent me a letter of complaint that he'd drafted after local authorities mishandled a neighborhood incident. He wanted my critique of the letter before he mailed it. Now, my friend is a darned good writer; his missive was a model of lucidity and concision. And yet I advised him not to send it as written. Why? The last paragraph contained cynical jabs at the town’s apparent attitude toward minorities. I wasn't sure whether those remarks, framed as they were, would yield the response he was seeking. Call me cautious, but I’ve learned the down side of sarcasm.


Some years ago I wrote a darkly comic play called Mimi’s Famous Company, which reviewers compared to The Bad Seed. If you know that film, you can guess that my play was about a truly evil child. Except my play was intended to be over-the-top funny…in a wincing sort of way. Mimi’s a teen-ager who has been raised by her extremely bitter single mother to believe that she deserves whatever she wants and shouldn’t let anyone stand in her way. Unfortunately, Mimi takes that advice literally and incapacitates or eliminates rivals and foes, including—eventually—her own mom. When my play ran in venues across the country, reviews ranged from “Black humor shines brilliantly” to “Utterly unfunny. The playwright demonstrates a disturbing lack of morality.”


Trust me, I know right from wrong. I didn’t write the play to advocate either ruthless child-rearing or matricide. I simply believe that certain imbalances can be best illuminated by dark comic exaggeration. Witness Dr. Strangelove.

Likewise, I’m a fan of Mark Twain’s Pudd’n’head Wilson, which is not only brilliant social satire but also a cutting-edge detective story. And I marvel at works by Peter Lefcourt (The Manhattan Beach Project and Di & I) and Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club and Diary).

I haven't flexed my own sarcasm much lately. Although Whiskey Mattimoe and friends trade barbs, most of the humor in that series comes from the dogs. No satire required when describing a species that licks its privates in public and dry-humps human limbs. Nonetheless, because I love dark guffaws, I can't resist sharing this 25-words-or-less summary of an American classic:
“Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first woman she meets and then teams up with three complete strangers to kill again.”


That’s journalist Rick Polito’s wry take on The Wizard of Oz. I challenge you to have fun with cynicism. Come up with a skewed 25-words-or-less summary of something you've written. Here's one view of the Whiskey Mattimoe mysteries:


"An oversexed Afghan hound commits numerous felonies as bodies pile up and her reluctant owner tries not to get sued."


Better yet, share with us how sarcasm has gotten you into trouble. Mimi’s Famous Company produced the most uneven collection of reviews I’ve had to date. Ah yes. My “disturbing lack of morality” still makes me smile.


Nina Wright's latest releases:

Whiskey and Tonic, the third Whiskey Mattimoe mystery, and

Homefree, published by Midnight Ink's sister imprint, Flux/Llewellyn

4 comments:

Karl said...

OK, here's a cynical take on one of my favorite series. (I don't write it, I just read it.)

"Cajun Viet Nam vet who can't stay sober, hold a job, or keep a wife hates rich people and likes to catch them doing bad shit."

Bill Cameron said...

Since Lost Dog is already pretty dark and twisted, I guess I have to go the other way:

"A Christmas quest for a little girl's lost Beanie Baby leads to a series of rollicking adventures for an offbeat ne'er-do-well."

Anonymous said...

Tone and voice are fascinating considerations when we write fiction. The key is making sure that we're clear and consistent in the tone we choose to use.

Some fictional "flavors" are more likely to offend readers than others, and those include sarcasm, rage, and frequent obscenities as well as graphic sex and violence. But good writing is still good writing. If we censor ourselves in an effort to please everyone, we'll succeed in pleasing no one, least of all ourselves. I doubt that the vanilla writer is a published writer.

Nina Wright said...

Thanks, Karl & Bill & Anon for the comments. Bill, I love that take on LOST DOG and the reminder that sarcasm doesn't have to be dark!