If 2016 has been about anything, it’s been about the power of shouting down criticisms with angry untruths and using the defenses of the disenfranchised against them. On the macrolevel, you see it with the ascent of Trump, who donned a teflon coating of mock outrage and bigotry marketed as “truth” and rode it all the way to a presidency. But on the microlevel, we’ve seen it so many millions of times this year in every conversation had with creatives who have been caught behaving badly. But few instances of this have been as conveniently structured as what happened with Abrams Books over the weekend after BookRiot’s Kelly Jensen criticized their decision to publish Bad Little Children’s Books, a collection of parody children’s book covers that seemed to only exist as an excuse to make racist and xenophobic jokes under the guise of “satire.”
In the ensuing social media debate, the argument could be simply split into two camps: those who felt what Abrams published wasn’t satire but purposefully offensive, and those who think satire really is just the presentation of purposefully offensive material. Jensen broke down her complaints as such:
What looks like “humor” here is the reality of how a big swath of our society views humans who are not white and/or are Muslim and/or are in any other way “Other” from the white, privileged, cis-het, penis-bearing norm.
This “humor” adds to the misinformation, adds to the hatred, and ultimately, makes living in this society more frustrating, difficult, and dangerous for so many. And this “humor” is the kind of garbage that needs to be eliminated at all levels, particularly in publishing.
Effective satire is pretty easy to identify because it typically works by subverting expectations and turning the joke around on the people who think the joke is for them. There is a clear target of the satire when you get to the end of it, and a clear twist signalling who is the true audience. You can take the classic case of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” which takes the general public’s insensitivity to the plight of Irish famine sufferers to its “logical” conclusion by suggesting the Irish eat their young to survive, the point being that society’s refusal to help is as barbaric as forcing families to starve and cannibalize one another. Swift forced his audience to examine their prejudice and their inhumanity and made them look at the situation in a new light. But try to apply that line of thinking to this sample page from Abrams’ book:
Who, exactly, is the target of this “satire?” Under the absolute most charitable of readings, it could be white America, for viewing even Muslim children as potential suicide bombers. But that charitable reading isn’t backed up by anything present in the image. All of the visual signifiers in the piece only serve as simplistic, surface level outrage jokes– the “Ben Laden” pseudonym, the young suicide bomber, the burka contrasting with more “normal” children’s clothing. The piece is clearly meant to make a “poor taste” joke about terrorists’ use of children soldiers, and it doesn’t subvert any audience expectations or make any profound statement on, well, anything. Even the intro itself admits its only real intent is to “cause the reader to say WTF?” which isn’t remotely satirical.
Although Abrams can of course claim it is a parody of children’s lit visual tropes, that alone does not make it satire. This is a work that is creatively and politically bankrupt, it serves essentially the same purpose as Cards Against Humanity in that it allows its audience to feel safe making distasteful, inappropriate jokes. For further proof of how creatively bankrupt this release is, just look at this page, which doesn’t even have a joke in it unless the joke is “some countries the US doesn’t like have nuclear weapons”
The only consistent element of the book (outside of how painfully unfunny it is) is a fear of the other. Which is why audiences are right to feel hurt by this book in a way that the Irish weren’t hurt by “A Modest Proposal.” Satire, in its purest form, is an immensely useful tool of the disenfranchised. It is a way to signal support subtly, and to point out flaws in an opponent in an engaging and easily shareable way. On the Wiki page for “A Modest Proposal,” Charles K. Smith is summarized as arguing that one of the great victories of “A Modest Proposal” is that it “persuades the reader to detest the speaker and pity the Irish,” but nothing of that sort happens in Bad Little Children’s Books. You don’t come away with pity for any of the joke recipients, and despite what the book’s anonymous author thinks, there’s never any messaging that indicates you should detest the fake illustrator. And even if there were hints of that kind of messaging, it would be upturned by the real life messaging Abrams unleashed when it was called out for the publication of this book.
When criticized by people from the actual communities targeted in Bad Little Children’s Books, Abrams once again seized a weapon the disenfranchised rely on by claiming they were being “censored” and that the fault lie in the readers’ inability to “get” the joke:
Some reviewers and commenters on social media have taken elements of the book at face value, which, we believe, misses the point of the book as a work of artistic parody and satire. We stand by our publication and invite readers to make up their own minds.
The last portion of that quote is especially notable because it contradicts Abrams’ own behavior with their statements. Readers had made up their minds and, to quote Neil Gaiman, felt the book was “deeply rubbish.” Abrams weren’t really inviting readers to do anything except back up their belief that the book was unimpeachable and worthy of praise, not scorn. And by wielding the National Coalition Against Censorship (and a sidebar naming its partner organization) in their statement, Abrams clearly wanted to turn its critics against themselves, trying to portray them as allies of censorship rather than fellow First Amendment utilizers. To muddy the waters even further, CNN disclosed that the National Coalition Against Censorship wasn’t even a neutral party in this situation, since Abrams’ Michael Jacobs sits on its board of directors.
Abrams’ tactics here are par for the course in the current social landscape, where First Amendment rights only apply to bigots and not their critics and censorship means any public criticism rather than government interference in media and art. And it only became more ludricrous when the book’s still unnamed author stepped in, arguing
“The artistic statement that I tried to make in the book is to offend and, by doing so, to shine the uncomfortable light of day on bigotry, prejudice, and hate; in effect, to refuse to let those pernicious and undermining sentiments stand.
If you look around, you’ll notice that bigotry, prejudice and hate are mainstream, they are not operating in the darkness, they are quite clearly in the spotlight of national elections, media and art. Abrams and the book’s author come from places of privilege, where giggling at the existence of blunt bigotry is a political act and being criticized for their own bigotry is censorship. The author may have demanded the book be pulled from Abrams’ catalog, but it’s a hollow victory because neither the author nor Abrams seem to have any awareness of the wrongness of their actions or the ways their behavior only further encourages hatred. Like Airboy, and Vice Principals, and so many other recent works that mistake the mere presentation of bad behavior as astute, necessary commentary, Bad Little Children’s Books undermines the real value of satire, watering the word down until it is essentially meaningless and really does come to mean “purposefully offensive.” Satire can’t survive if it’s continued to be presented as such material, used as a cloak by safe parties who want an excuse to say offensive things. In its current state, satire is being robbed of its sharpness and subversiveness and has become a tool of the oppressor, not the oppressed. Which makes Abrams’ critics the true subversives here as they try to reclaim the word and shut down those who wish to diminish it.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover