These past couple weeks I have found myself mulling irony. This is an often poorly understood term that deserves clarification. I define it broadly as a humorous or skeptical form of expression intended to convey something other than—and especially the opposite of the literal meaning of—the words one uses.
Irony comes in many shades, from gentle to derisive to caustic. It may be a tool of satire, with which it is often confused, but the relationship between the two is hardly necessary. Satire always has an agenda to ridicule, scorn or discredit what the satirist perceives to be folly or vice. Such an agenda is not intrinsic to irony. In fact, such an agenda is alien to many, very many, instances of ironic expression.
Another term with which irony is often confused is sarcasm. Here again, irony may be employed in sarcasm, but is in no way essential to it. Easily the most pedestrian and uninspired misuse of cleverness, sarcasm is inseparable from an intention to mock or hurt. It is the lowest form of humor, and reliance upon it as a primary method of “being funny” is an infallible indicator of mental laziness. Irony may be utterly, thoroughly ironic without ever descending to sarcasm’s nastiness.
My preferred form of irony is gentle, often subtle, and free of malice. Wry irony delivered with a straight face is my second favorite form of conversational humor. As a jokester, I hold only punning wordplay in higher regard. Punning, of course, requires wit and a keen eye for incongruity to appreciate, but it is generally recognized for what it is even by those who do not relish it. Parsing subtle irony requires exactly the same cognitive skills; however, it further demands a mirroring or resonant sense of the ironic before its existence is even perceptible. This fact has left me in an uncomfortable position more than once, because irony separate from satire or sarcasm is either invisible or opaque to vast numbers of people. Even highly intelligent people. A sad truth—which I express without irony—is that nothing is capable of producing bigger idiocy than is genius.
I prize irony as an essential aspect of my authorial voice. The risk in this literary posture is the same as in conversation, namely that some readers, even very smart readers, miss it completely. On the other hand, the potential payoff is great, because for readers sensitive to its nuance an ironic voice can open entire layers of significance in a profound and profoundly economical manner. Like a Taoist sage, irony can communicate meaning without ever explicitly stating it. I am aware of few other options in a writer’s toolkit that can effectively say without saying. Given, it may limit the possible audience for a literary work, but so does every other decision one makes about how, what and why to write.
The ironic voice is inseparable from my fiction. It colors the three novels I have produced to date in greater or lesser degree. In fact, an absence of ironic sense cripples a reader to an extent that anyone with such a lack is not going to grasp the heart of my books. This is especially true of Entranscing, my second novel. A recurring criticism I have heard since appearance of the first edition of this small book is that it is filled with cliches and worn genre tropes. Well, yes, it is. That is deliberate. The criticism, however, is actually no criticism, because the cliches and tropes are manipulated and refreshed by irony.
To date, Entranscing is the single most thoroughly ironic fruit of my imagination. I admit the result was rough in the first edition, which was produced under severe time constraints, but the second, current edition from Blue Moose Press cleaned up nicely. I am well satisfied that it accomplishes the aims I set for it, both in its place in The Hidden Lands of Nod and as comment on life, literature and the polyvalence of being. There are times when some smart, earnest, literal-minded reader is castigating me for writing such a “flawed” book that I wish I had slapped a warning label on the cover. Those are moments when I take solace in comment such as the cover quote provided by my compañero Michael Ambrose that “…Entranscing will unfold in your mind and heart like a multidimensional fire flower.” Or when I recall my friend Jon Lebkowsky, eyes twinkling like those of Budai, telling me simply, “I get it.” Michael, Jon and their ilk are the people for whom I write. Their numbers may not be those of the masses, but the quality of their readership is more precious.