The BJR Journal: From Caricature to Chiaroscuro

Do authors tend to become less satirical and more serious, with regard to their writing, as they get older?


Columnist Jones
The spark of this question ignited this morning as I was reading a review of T.C. Boyle's The Harder They Come by Dana Spiotta in the Sunday New York Times Book Review section. "This could easily have been an opportunity for a writer of Boyle's comic gifts to go full-tilt satirical, Boyle takes a darker and more restrained approach." she writes. This got me thinking about how many authors , not just Boyle, have grown away from the satirical or comic novel and have embraced or perhaps began to trust sincerity in their writing. Maybe as they mature they become more confident of their craft because, let's admit it, it's a lot easier to convey a strong message through satire, though it does require more flexing of the writing muscles (but by that I mean being ostentatious) than does serious, straightforward, or a restrained technique. Subtlety and nuance come with experience.

Some examples which should support my view include: 
  • Philip Roth whose early novels include Goodbye Columbus (1959) and Portnoy's Complaint (1969) both comic and satirical portrayals of Jewish morals and attitudes of the time. His later work turned quite serious with novels like Sabbath's Theater, American Pastoral and The Human Stain.
  • Thomas McGuane with early work like The Sporting Club (1969), The Buswhacked Piano (1971), and Ninety-Two in the Shade (1973), all darkly comic took a sharp turn after his 1978 autobiographical novel Panama to a more restrained tone in work like Nobody's Angel (1981) Nothing But Blue Skies and the short story collection, Gallatin Canyon.
  • John Irving's early novels The Water Method Man, The 158 Pound Marriage, and The World According to Garp were all darkly comic though later The Ciderhouse Rules marked a change in tone to the more straightforward and politically driven work that would come to be his trademark style. 
This of course is not to say all satirists grow more sincere as they age. Think of Swift, Vonnegut, Nabokov; all employing humorous parody to the end. But I do feel many writers begin their career with caricature and slowly hone their craft to either more realistic or subtle impressionistic prose, a chiaroscuro of literary style.