CULTURE & ARTS

PSA: If You Have To Tell Everyone It's Satire, You're Bad At Satire

Looking at you, Calvin Trillin.
Calvin Trillin, food writer and author of conversation-starting poem "Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?"
Calvin Trillin, food writer and author of conversation-starting poem "Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?"

Have we run out of would-be satirists yet?

Venerable food writer Calvin Trillin, in the latest issue of The New Yorker, poses the question to us all once again, in the form of a humorous poem entitled "Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?"

If they haven’t, we’ve reason to fret.
Long ago, there was just Cantonese.
(Long ago, we were easy to please.)
But then food from Szechuan came our way,
Making Cantonese strictly passé.

The poem concludes with nostalgia for long-past days "When we never were faced with the threat / Of more provinces we hadn’t met." 

The oddly tone-deaf poem faced sharp backlash on Twitter, with many Asian writers voicing dismay with the doggerel verse's undertones of yellow panic and xenophobia. But of course, Trillin and various defenders made a common reply for those who run afoul of social justice activists these days: The poem was satire, and therefore the outrage was misdirected. As author Celeste Ng pointed out, the label of satire is all too often used as a retroactive excuse for simple bigotry.

A nasty outburst brushed under the rug (“he’s just a satirist, you know”) or a comedy piece with racist undertones recast in a more positive light (“it was meant to be satire”) fit this bill, and Trillin’s might. He clearly aimed for humorous poetry, not aggressive racism, but the satire bit ... eh, that’s unclear. But the satire excuse isn’t just problematic because it’s used to cover up for offensive, non-satirical garbage, but because it erases the responsibility to execute satire well. If something is intended as satire but poorly done, satire is no get-out-of-jail-free card, something many authors -- Michel Houellebecq and Jonathan Franzen, for example -- and their admirers don’t seem to grasp.

Like ironic racism, misguided satire is a favored pastime of the denizens of certain pockets of white male privilege. Also like ironic racism, bad satire often manifests as a pointless reenactment of hurtful stereotypes and tropes. “Look, here I am, saying horrifying things that are painful for the less powerful to hear, as people in positions of hegemonic privilege tend to do!” say these writers, chortling at their self-deprecation. Such satire doesn’t really achieve anything because it fails to puncture a widely accepted and yet problematic way of thinking; it’s performative both of one’s own enlightenment and, in a perverse way, the regressive thoughts lying underneath.

Perhaps Trillin really did want to make a point about moneyed white food critics, but it feels akin to taking a group of affluent students on a field trip to gaze upon the difficult living conditions of homeless people in their town. Those kids might learn a valuable lesson, but their education is being won at the expense of the dignity of those from whom they’re learning. Every marginalized group or person is not a potential tool in the enlightenment of a white man. (For what it’s worth, white men don’t even hold a monopoly on clumsy satire and ironic racism -- see Chelsea Handler’s "Uganda Be Kidding Me" and Chris Rock’s appalling Asian accountant gag at the Oscars.)

Well-off white dudes aren’t new to using minority cultures as props to playfully skewer their own highly entitled communities’ foibles -- in theory, it might be satire of the white community, but ultimately more insulting to, in this case, Chinese people, whose varied cultures and cuisines play no more than a bit role in this charming tale of American foodies who are just a bit too obsessed with keeping up with their fellow gourmands. Chinese cuisines merely make the grade as props in a discussion by and about white American restaurant culture, of which Trillin is very much a part.

As Jezebel editor Jia Tolentino put it in the comments section of the site’s truly brilliant takedown, A Sixth-Grader Writes a Book Report About the New Calvin Trillin Poem in The New Yorker, “the call is deeeeeeply coming from inside the house in a way that makes me stop and say ... why.” 

Another commenter responded, calling it “Columbusing Columbusing” -- basically, acting like he’d discovered how white people act like they’ve discovered things that were actually invented by people of color. (Hint: Asian activists and writers have been talking about the problematic way white people talk about and appropriate Asian cuisines for a long time.) Worse, he was doing it in a way that clumsily missed that target and seemed to mock white food enthusiasts merely for chasing trends rather than for insensitivity toward Chinese cultures -- while making a bit too much comical hay from the “too many to name” provinces from Szechuan to Shaanxi.

This poem, at best, achieves painfully muddled messaging. “Have they run out of provinces yet?” the poem repeatedly asks, not specifying who “they” might be, but in context, implying a vague Asiatic other of threateningly indeterminate hugeness. “They,” the entity throwing out province after province of Chinese cuisine, juxtaposes with “we,” the gormless Western foodies slurping up each dish in turn. It is, quite literally, us vs. them.

Trillin defended himself to The Guardian's Julia Carrie Wong, saying that he’d previously written a similar poem about French food published in The New Yorker. “It was not a put-down of the French,” he said. The poem, “What Happened to Brie and Chablis,” however, doesn’t at any point seem to take aim at a proliferation of French cuisines, or seem overwhelmed at the innumerable French regions, instead more directly tweaking foodie culture for chasing trends and abandoning long-established classic dishes like coq-au-vin:

You miss, let’s say, trout amandine?
Take hope from some menus I’ve seen.
Fondue has been spotted of late
And -- yes, to my near disbelief --
Tartare not from tuna but beef.
They all may return. Just you wait.

The notable difference -- it’s clearly a lamentation about beloved foods going out of style, not about a more diverse array of regional cuisines being brought to the marketplace. Besides, as author Matthew Salesses pointed out:

Others pointed out that he loves Chinese food and would never intentionally write such a poem with any intention but to mock white foodies. On The Stranger, Rich Smith quoted English professor Samuel Cohen: “He's been a food writer and poet of doggerel verse for a million years and I've seen him riding his bike around Chinatown, where he loves to eat. He is not actually complaining about the variety of regional Chinese cuisines and he is not actually nostalgic for the days of chow mein.“ Fair enough. As Smith added, “I think that's a bold bit of irony! ... It rests on Trillin's reputation, which me and many poets my age seem to be unaware of.” 

Guess what: Good satire shouldn’t rest on the author’s reputation. It’s not in the intent, or the reputation -- it’s in the execution. Cohen, and Trillin, are old enough, and well-educated enough, to know this. As a mere high schooler completing an assignment to write a 500-word satirical essay in the tradition of Jonathan Swift, I turned in an over-the-top piece making an argument I personally found absurd, and was surprised to receive it back with the comment that it wasn’t really satire. “There are people who would write this without any satirical intent,” my teacher told me. “But ... you know I don’t think this!” I said. “You can’t assume that your audience already knows what you think,” he explained.

If the success of a satirical piece depends on your audience already knowing what you think, that piece is in trouble -- even if you’re Calvin Trillin. If you find out that everyone is reading it dramatically differently from how you intended it, that's an opportunity for reflection on your subconscious biases, and your writing skills. Unfortunately, stomping your feet and saying "it's satire" doesn't make it so.

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