This is topic Practical Irony in forum Open Discussions About Writing at Hatrack River Writers Workshop.

To visit this topic, use this URL:;f=1;t=007975

Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
Recent thirteen-line challenge raised for me a question of how much signal is needed by readers to interpret a work, sentence, paragraph, or passage as ironic, other shortfalls notwithstood.

Readers generally, I guess, associate irony with humor, satire, and sarcasm, and not on its own. An irony type that stands alone Connop Thirlwall labels practical irony: dissimulation for practical purposes. Dissimulate: "to hide under a false appearance" Webster's.

Instructors, for example, dissimulate for practical reasons. An instructee cannot possibly learn the entire knowledge set of an instructor in a single session, so an instructor holds knowledge in abeyance, dissimulates, yet provides immediately necessary summary and explanation and detail, and structures the instruction such that an instructee is not overwhelmed by cognitive load, a useful method of which is the worked-example effect, a tactile learning mode, and parcels out knowledge piecemeal -- a practical irony.

Narratives generally entail practical irony dissimulation, too. Before readers read a first word of a narrative, at some previous point, a writer fully realizes the narrative's portrait: start, middle, and end, and theme, meaning, and intent. The story outcome is held in abeyance as well as some degree of dissimulation of what the narrative is really about, so that the story movement unfolds practically and appealingly -- ironically, ideally, the writer knows the whole, perhaps more so than readers might at first read. Otherwise, the outcome might as well be the whole of the narrative. Jimmah tragically died as she had lived, as she was an idiot.

Therein lays my dilemma, how much signal of practical irony suits a general audience and a close-reader audience's irony sensibilities as well. What methods of irony signals work most economically and effectively, and comprehensively suited to a work? Much practical irony, for example, in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, not a drop of humor appeal in it.

Methods: humor, no doubt; sarcasm, no doubt; satire, more challenging; practical irony, yet more challenging. At present, I realize one satisfaction is more leisurely development and word count. Yet based on the given that thirteen lines is a make or break proposition, and how very much more thirteen lines must accomplish, how?

I do have one potential satisfaction, though. From Wayne Booth's A Rhetoric of Irony, stable practical ironies could be developed from a "second voice" that expresses personal secret, deep, and disturbed, per se, thoughts, like first we execute all the lawyers and intellectuals not far behind, al la Shakespeare and Lenin. The second voice expresses a kind of courtly irony -- praise by condemnation and condemnation by praise, though at some point the second voice's irony ought should possibly be expressed straight. Stable to mean readily interpretable and accessible and subject to readers' consensus.

[ October 05, 2015, 07:11 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]
Posted by Disgruntled Peony (Member # 10416) on :
Originally posted by extrinsic:
Recent thirteen-line challenge raised for me a question of how much signal is needed by readers to interpret a work, sentence, paragraph, or passage as ironic, other shortfalls notwithstood.

Honestly, comprehension of irony (practical or otherwise) depends entirely upon the reader in question. Everyone has different experiences, past and present, which affect their reading skills and comprehension. I try not to think about whether or not my readers will 'get it'; I start by thinking about whether or not I would get it and move on from there.

I will grant you that this process has its limits, as I am only so intelligent and clever. However, even if a person doesn't recognize practical irony on the initial read-through, they might catch it later when they are older or have more time to mull things over.
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
What I get and what an average reader gets, if such an entity exists, even of an age-level average, are farther apart than I care to define. I am not especially smart though enjoy the satisfaction of feeling as smart or smarter than what I read. Bracketing that magic bull's-eye is my goal.
Posted by Disgruntled Peony (Member # 10416) on :
My honest advice is to write what you enjoy rather than what you think will appeal to the masses. Not everyone will get it, and that's fine. You're not writing for everyone. You're writing for you and your audience (although if you don't know who your audience is yet, just write for you and see how things go).

This is going to sound weird, but the first example I could think of are 'family films' like The Incredibles. (Please, bear with me here, I know how silly this sounds.) Films like that are written in such a way that children can enjoy their more obvious appeals, but adults can also enjoy them because there are deeper meanings hidden in some of the jokes and story-lines.

I would like to note, for the record, that I am very much aware that children are likely not your audience, but I feel that the same principle applies.
Posted by Grumpy old guy (Member # 9922) on :
I'm definitely not a writer of irony--I honestly wouldn't know where to start or even why I might want to use it. Of irony's sisters, I do read some satire--Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, and Harry Harrison, but that's only because the stories themselves grab me, not the satire itself. In my own case, I have been known to have my characters indulge in the odd bit of sarcasm, but of irony there is not one jot or tittle purposefully done.

Now, as to your question: . . . how much signal is needed by readers to interpret a work, sentence, paragraph, or passage as ironic, other shortfalls notwithstood. For me, personally, the barest hint in narrator tone is usually enough for satire, however, in the case of simple irony I think a flashing neon sign, blaring trumpets, and five or more re-reads will be required. As I said, I don't automatically look for irony in the style of story I read.

The only advice i could offer is to read the works of other proponents of ironic narrative and examine each opening for clues and signals that shout out, "Hallooo, irony on display here!" I doubt you would see anything quite so crass, but I dare say that there are tones, narrative styles, and metre that will signal to a discerning reader that what follows is ironic.

Sorry I can't be of more help than that.

Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
I study satiric writing; I enjoy satire, sarcasm less so, if at all. Irony I enjoy most. Narratives that evince a layered meaning or layers with ironic depths I enjoy above all. Narratives that can be read straight or ironic or both at once transcend their discrete layers and reach a writer-reader conversational meeting location on each layer and synthetically overall that reconciles to a central dissonance of the several.

Recently, I appreciated that fourth space, like Maria Etheridge's "An Essay on the Noble Science of Self-Justification," and of course Gulliver's Travels' famed satirist Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal." Both of which a considerable number of readers only access their straight-read layer and no other. Those narrative essays transcend their ironic layers and reach a stable meeting place of exalted yet negatively critical social commentary.

Satire, though often ironic, expresses negative social commentary: exposes human vice and folly, usually of social situations, to include governance political situations like Swift's.

Fine and dandy for their eras -- Swift's early eighteenth century and Etheridge's early nineteenth; later, early twentieth century Modernists like F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner, and latter twentieth century, Joan Didion. I think that this early twenty-first century era has yet to see their like. Plus, the latter twentieth century saw an excess of sarcastic satire that mocks and ridicules ironically -- the toxic kind, often mocks and ridicules virtue and nobleness, or at least everyday social situations' at times acceptable and at times admirable vice and folly.

That former toxic irony inverted is my intent, not to be contrary for contraries' sake -- to celebrate virtue and nobleness. Because that's what I like to read and write. I have few worked examples to study thereof. Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle into that Dark Night," Emily Dickenson's "Tell all the Truth," and Shakespeare's "Sonnet Number 130," for examples, no contemporary prose of similar celebratory caliber or alignment, of similar practical irony, except the ancient Greek Homer and Sophocles and the like, though poets too.

Wayne Booth notes that stable irony invariably victimizes individuals or social groups. In order to signal irony, a "hot seat" candidate target is required. The above examples, though, target natural and necessary moral human condition forces, not persons, per se -- practical ironies: Frost, decisions, perhaps trifles of later monumental significance; Thomas, life and death; Dickenson, managing cognitive load; Shakespeare, objectification. Swift and Etheridge target entire groups of persons -- both Anglo-Irish persons inveigled by the five-century-old Irish Question, and heavily sarcastic.

I believe exposing social situations' vice and folly portrays social justice problems, emblemizes and makes fun of them and does little, if anything, to address causes, effects, and outcomes for common good. On the other hand, exalted, to me, practical irony celebrates the human condition and ironically exposes virtue and nobleness for common good. For example, O' Henry's "Gift of the Magi," about compromise and sacrifice for common good, even if an observable irony about inverted good intentions' outcomes and a mite heavy on preaching to the choir.

Heck and libel! an epiphany's realization slips away from my grasp -- the edges only scratched at. That of irony about larger-than-life human and natural forces as a key for what I seek.

Read Plato's accounts about Socrates' trial, "Apology," and execution this week. Ironic on so many levels -- what Socrates' mission in life was yet he missed the mark as well on so many levels.

Titles often signal irony, or soon thereafter from over- or understatement, from assertions baldly contrary to fact, from practical dissimulation -- like the law person last night said the cordon around the neighborhood hereabouts was for a tactical exercise, was really for an active shooter incident -- like Etheridge's essay's "Noble Science of Self-Justification" contradiction. Booth defines a gamut of irony signals, some with claxons, some sublime. I don't know of a narrative that rings alarms yet the alarms are sublimely ironic themselves. Then again, too many irony layers destabilizes the meaning such that any ironic-read reader will question what the true intent and target is: Samuel Becket's "Waiting for Godot."

Who's my audience? Sure, a straight-read audience that wants appeals of straightforward spectacle and action drama, as well an ironic-read audience that wants appeals of irony's victimization -- schadenfruede: pleasure obtained from the misfortunes of others -- and more so, a transcendent reconciliation of both. Yet the irony signals' strength, stability, and method teeters precariously between poles. I seek a third polarity; closer to realization now from this discussion -- a humorous synthesis of virtue and vice for common good. Nell Zink's The Wallcreeper novella, a parody of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, comes close, except for a few problematic shortfalls.

[ October 07, 2015, 11:41 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]
Posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury (Member # 59) on :
I think the best work is that which can be enjoyed by a straight-read audience, and yet offers more subtle delights for those who can perceive the other levels, whether ironic or not.

I remember reading Jerome K Jerome's THREE MEN IN A BOAT because someone told me they were referenced in Connie Willis' novel TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG, which I also read.

As the three men, who'd been punting up the Thames (if I remember correctly) began the return trip in a rainstorm, I realized that the narrative had turned into a poem (though still written in prose format) that had the same meter as Longfellow's "Hiawatha," and I found myself wondering if there had been such little "easter eggs" throughout the novel that I had missed. I was both delighted to have found that one, at least, and saddened that I might have missed others.
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
I've read Three Men in a Boat and To Say Nothing of the Dog, the latter the subtitle of the former as well as the Connie Willis novel title. Both contain ample subtext, irony, satire, sarcasm, allegory, and parody -- rich Socratic dissimulation tapestries.

Three Men in a Boat is a pivotal novel from its appeals to "vulgar" everyday English low-brow and no-brow audiences. High-brow critics condemned the novel for "vulgar" language, which, of course, drove the novel's marketplace revenue and culture performance, even among high-brow audiences.

The novel's pivotal cultural contribution aspect is its era and appeals was ahead of technology that made novels economically accessible for most everyone. The novel's performance indicated society widely was eager for more accessible narratives and a precursor that implied further large-scale industrialization of book manufacture was warranted, among other novels, though that perpetuated sophisticated language prose.

Three Men in a Boat also parodies high-brow culture's idle aristocracy -- the very point disapproving critics objected to -- the target victim of the novel's irony overall. Not to mention allegorical allusions to classic literature as pretentious though exactly on point about the moral human condition victimized.

Anyway, both novels contain ample practical irony; that is, a practical function or two of appeals to everyday culture and social commentary about a moral human condition of pride -- can be read straight, and read ironic, and read for both and a reconciled synthesis overall. Good examples of practical irony prose, in any case, though I feel their sarcasm is a mite on the toxic side for my sensibilities.

Not to say unappealing, that a potential for full realization of self-actualization responsibility in contrast to self-privilege, to me, was overlooked in both novels, more so for Three Men in a Boat. Pardon my shades of Henry James' critical outlook.
Posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury (Member # 59) on :
If I understand this all correctly, I'd say that Connie Willis is also a great writer of irony.
Posted by Reziac (Member # 9345) on :
Originally posted by extrinsic:
Three Men in a Boat also parodies high-brow culture's idle aristocracy -- the very point disapproving critics objected to -- the target victim of the novel's irony overall.

Critics are the idle aristocracy of literature.

Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
"The Battle of the Books" by Jonathan Swift satirizes an ongoing contentious critical debate that pits ancient classics against contemporary publications. A similar clash takes place between reader-analysts (critics of whatever stripe -- approving, disapproving, strictly analytical, methodology and moral complication, etc.) and writer-producers. Modernity is a contemporary belief propelled by an era's technology that all things old are worthless and all things new are valuable. Put the three together for a narrative -- that clash is fertile fodder for irony, satire, parody -- ahem -- sarcasm.

Artful criticism is an art and science as prone to challenge and heartache and flaws as the primary works under a microtome's scalpel. More than a few critics use a broad axe and blinders instead, like writers. The true criticism art vivisects a worthy work and instills greater life into the work, which is why a work may pass several years before critical analysis appreciates a work somewhat fully, partly because intended ironies are overlooked and not strongly enough signaled, or the ironies are flat from too obvious of signals.

Connie Willi's ironic depths know few bounds. I interpret To Say Nothing of the Dog partly as a parody of the time travel topos introduced by H.G. Wells and a retro turn back to Wells' time travel's metaphorical approach to recorded history, a theme very few time travel narratives do -- and use the topos superficially for other intents. Willis "gets" Wells' point and transformatively reimagines the topos. Exquisite irony.

Edited to add:
Saith Reziac:
Critics are the idle aristocracy of literature.
Contains one of irony's universal signals; that is, a target is victimized, perhaps sarcasmus though. Straight irony (courtly irony, for example), maybe practical irony, might exalt critics as aristocratic martyrs who contain literature within social propriety's presupposed moral boundaries.

[ October 11, 2015, 01:29 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]
Posted by Reziac (Member # 9345) on :
Perhaps ironically, I disliked To Say Nothing of the Dog to the point that I stopped reading Willis.
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
Misuse of "ironically" is an observed irony -- intent and actuality at odds with each other, though the use itself probably isn't about an ironical situation. When used to mean coincidence, synchronicity, or déjà vu, "ironically" is misused and often.

On the other hand, an intended ironic use of "ironically" and its other forms is ironic of an unstable nature -- not easily interpreted as irony, more like sarcasm, though still unstable. Too many layers of irony causes possible instability.

Figured out from an article about developing antiheroes another method for practical irony. A few more example methods and I might be able to synthesize a basic and comprehensive first principle, aside from the several dissimulation methods and the one universal: who, or what, an irony victimizes.
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
Developed a common principle for practical irony absent satire and sarcasm. Clawed back through a first principle and farther back to a singular basis; that is, practical irony's intent of dissimulation contains signals of intent, meaning interpretation, and depth and breadth of exponentional meaning.

For example, Robert Burns' simile example, often cited for illustration of the trope -- "My love is like a red, red rose" -- alludes to love as like a rose: attractive, fragrant, passionate, and thorny. That's exponential meaning in few words. Though simile, is a practical irony that signals an intent of abstract comparison between a human condition and a natural object emblemized if not symbolized.

The economy of words holds further meaning development in abeyance -- dissimulation for practical reasons, to each reader to interpret as full a meaning as circumstances establish, though is no less strong and clear of meaning and stable once a full appreciation of the simile is reached. A reader cannot go back once the Rubicon is passed, even if the reader wanted to.

The full song from traditional Scots folk songs as reinterpreted by Burns, 1794:

O my Luve's like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve's like the melodie
That’s sweetly play'd in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I:
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry:

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun:
I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only Luve
And fare thee weel, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ it were ten thousand mile.

No victim target of the irony, though an eternal and unconditional love is the target human condition of the practical irony's substance, its dissimulation of love unconditional and eternal despite how thorny love is always -- the dissimulation of substance: the practical irony. Commentary about love's rosy thorns would dilute the song's meaning and focus and emotional strength.
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
An ah ha! moment arose about irony this past week, practical irony, too. Studies of the irony opus explosion that came out post World War II, I found many of the explications from various fields sought a single definition of irony and a final qualification of what constitutes irony. I'd stumbled into an abyss of quantity and contradiction, too.

Several socio-linguisitic investigations assert social functions for irony as meeting those two criteria, of final definition and final function. They and subsequent parallel investigations stop short of a final conclusion, though, implied maybe.

The studies also "beg the question," assume the conclusion from the outset, a circular logic process. Oh the many explications and investigations of irony I read that petitio principii, "postulation of the beginning: a logical fallacy in which a premise is assumed to be true without warrant or in which what is proved is implicitly taken for granted" according to Webster's.

The social function studies found that irony serves social functions, in particular, reduce the sting of criticism through humor, alter or affirm interpersonal status, exhibit emotional control, and adjust social behavior. Surely, therefore, irony functions to express social-moral commentary. From that basis, then, irony's singular definition is moral -- vice and virtue -- intent and surface moral circumstances of an incongruent nature.

Practical irony's function, then, is a higher moral purpose than a vice, per se, of dissimulation: deception.

Connop Thirlwall in Bishop Thirlwall's Literary Remains notes for practical irony:

"A friend may comply with the wishes of one who is dear to him, though he foresees that they will probably end in disappointment and vexation, either because he conceives that he has no right to decide for another, or because he thinks it probable that the disappointment itself will prove more salutary than the privation. Such is the conduct of the affectionate father in the parable, which is a type of universal application: for in every transgression there is a concurrence of a depraved will, which is the vice of the agent, with certain outward conditions, which may be considered as a boon graciously bestowed, but capable of being perverted into an instrument of evil, and a cause of misery."

In another interpretation: better to be likable, sociable, than be right and disliked.

For prose in general, then practical irony is a writer's depiction of moral transgression with attendant vice and misery and boon virtue outcome. A deception in itself that a writer knows an action's full sweep at some time prior to publication, though through dissimulation holds that knowledge in timely abeyance and until a bittersweet end. Not to mention other virtuous practical irony employments: instruction, due persuasion, and conscious and responsible critical social-moral commentary.

Not to say a narrative must or must not preach a moral law message -- that a narrative that appeals also contains a personal moral truth discovery, by misdirection's deceptions, congruent to a tangible action and of due persuasion excitement.

[ November 30, 2015, 05:18 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

Copyright © 2008 Hatrack River Enterprises Inc. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

Powered by Infopop Corporation
UBB.classic™ 6.7.2