06/01/2012 11:13 am ET Updated Aug 01, 2012

A Look at Literature That Lampoons

With apologies to Joseph Heller, I've managed to catch 22 or more satirical novels during my lifetime.

Fiction books that spoof might be best in small doses -- perhaps one every couple of months -- but they can be a real pleasure. Who doesn't want to laugh while seeing certain things and people get deservedly skewered? Plus, if the author manages to also offer a compelling plot and cast, we're in literary heaven even when the topic is hellish (or Heller-ish).

I've been thinking about satirical novels after just finishing Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls. That 1840s book is an indictment of greed and corruption as well as an often-hilarious smackdown of rich Russian landowners. Some of these exploitative one-percenters are portrayed as dumb, cheap, lazy, and/or eccentric blights on humanity who inherited their properties and have their serfs and servants do all the hard work.

The spoiled wealthy are of course ripe for tweaking. Another expert at that is Edith Wharton, whose satire is subtle yet effective. She shines an unflattering spotlight on both the old-money set (in novels such as The House of Mirth) and the new-money set (in The Custom of the Country, etc.).

Also fine fodder for lampooning are the warmongers targeted in novels like Catch-22 (alluded to at the start of this post). Heller writes that you can avoid combat by being nuts, but if you want out of combat for being nuts that's a sane request so you aren't nuts, and... whatever!

Another anti-militarism classic is Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court -- a grim yet laugh-out-loud novel that makes warfare seem crazy (like it usually is in real life) when the time-traveling Hank Morgan brings 19th-century killing technology and techniques to the age of Camelot.

Speaking of Twain, he also satirizes class differences in The Prince and the Pauper and racism in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Pudd'nhead Wilson. Racism is skewered as well in any paperback collection of "The Boondocks"; oops -- Aaron McGruder's now-defunct comic strip isn't a novel!

Sexism is yet another prime topic for literary parody. One excellent example is Margaret Atwood's novella The Penelopiad, which takes a scathing and witty look at how women are often minimized by the writers of history. Meanwhile, Atwood's dystopian novel Oryx and Crake satirizes greedy corporations, rampant consumerism, runaway genetic engineering, and more.

Then there are novels that lampoon other novels. One such work is Joseph Andrews and its virginal, too-good-to-be-true title character. Henry Fielding wrote his 1742 book to humorously mock Pamela, the 1740 Samuel Richardson work that starred a female paragon of virtue. But Fielding went beyond satire to also make Joseph Andrews an exciting and at times moving novel.

Other 18th-century books that can be enjoyed on both a satirical and story level include Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels and Voltaire's Candide and Zadig.

In the 19th century, Charles Dickens was a master at mixing satire with other elements that make a novel more than just satire. For instance, his The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit features some priceless lampooning of America.

As for the 20th century, other memorable titles that tweak include George Orwell's Animal Farm (which takes on totalitarianism) and Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry (which ridicules hypocritical evangelism).

I realize I've only touched the surface when it comes to lampoon-laden literature (readers of this post will catch fewer than 22 book titles). What are your favorite novels with strong satirical elements?


Dave Astor's new book Comic (and Column) Confessional is scheduled to be published this month by Xenos Press.

The part-humorous memoir is about Dave's 25 years at Editor & Publisher magazine covering, interviewing, and meeting notables such as Arianna Huffington, Heloise, Hillary Clinton, Walter Cronkite, Coretta Scott King, Martha Stewart, Ann Landers, and Abigail Van Buren ("Dear Abby"); and notable cartoonists such as Gary Larson ("The Far Side"), Lynn Johnston ("For Better or For Worse"), Mort Walker ("Beetle Bailey"), Charles Schulz ("Peanuts"), Stan Lee ("Spider-Man"), Bill Watterson ("Calvin and Hobbes"), Garry Trudeau ("Doonesbury"), Berkeley Breathed ("Bloom County"), Scott Adams ("Dilbert"), Jim Davis ("Garfield"), Milton Caniff ("Terry and the Pirates"/"Steve Canyon"), and Herblock. The book also chronicles changes in the media, discusses personal stuff, and more.

The book will soon be available for online purchase. If you'd like information about ordering a signed copy, contact Dave at