10 of the Best Satire Books About Race, Gender, and Society
What makes for the best satire books? Satire is the use of humor and irony to show how something (a person, community, nation etc.) is foolish and/or bad. It’s different from humor, because humor can be something that makes you laugh with or without having a social commentary. It also usually has some over-the-top aspect to it that takes it from comedy into satire.
The person who comes to mind that exemplifies satire is Anglo-Irish author Jonathan Swift, who wrote Gulliver’s Travels. In “A Modest Proposal,” he argued that the best way to solve the Irish famine was to eat children. It was a biting satire against England’s abuse of Ireland. However, some people have taken the essay at face value and were aghast (or even worse, in favor) of its argument. That’s the problem with satire — sometimes people think you are serious about what you are saying, instead of being serious about what you are ridiculing.
Here’s my list of ten of the best satire books. Like anything, the idea of “best” is subjective. I included works that I wanted to highlight and excluded some of the best known, including Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller. They are masters on their own right.
Classic Satire Books
The Satyricon by Petronius, Translated by Piero Chiara and P.G. Walsh
Starting with the classics, this 60 CE text has one of the best satirical dining scenes I’ve ever read. It’s a real send up of Nero’s Rome with the rich indulging themselves to the utmost. I’d read it just for that scene; the satire continues with the other fragments, but it gets really “out there” in the rest of the story.
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne
This is an 18th century experimental novel purportedly about Tristram Shandy, who relates the story of his life…sort of. It’s a book that defies summary, but I’d describe it as a satire about learning, literature, and philosophy as a whole. It’s all over the place, going forward and backwards in the timeline — so much so that the book includes a pictorial representation of the plot near the end that is basically a giant squiggle. It’s a strange and special book and really a book out of its time.
The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, Translated by Gregory Rabassa
Not many books are dedicated to the worm that is decomposing the author’s body, but here we are. Written in 19th century Brazil, Brás Cubas tells the story of his life with biting commentary — since he’s dead, after all. He interrupts himself at various points, at one point to relate a crazy dream about riding a hippopotamus. It’s a send up of 19th century Brazil, but also of society’s mindless adherence to traditions.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Winner of the National Book Award and considered one of the most important books of the 20th century, Invisible Man features a young unnamed black man who travels through the nightmarish American landscape from the South to the North. Through the surreal and maddening encounters, the book exposes the racial dynamics in the United States. It may have been written in 1952, but it’s still relevant in this day and age.
The Portable Dorothy Parker by Dorothy Parker
Parker is one of the great American writers, known for her sharp wit and commentary. This book is a collection of her short stories, essays, poetry, and more. Case in point, she once said: “The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.” Her scathing writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, exposes many of the contradictions in American society.
Modern Satire Books (Published After 1960)
Graveyards of Angels by Reinaldo Arenas
This is Arenas’s retelling of the classic 1839 Cuban story Cecilia Valdes about mixed race Cecilia, who falls in love with a wealthy aristocrat who ends up betraying her. Arena’s version tells the story from multiple points of view. It’s a satire of the original work, full of racial and gender dynamics, but Arenas puts his own spin on the idea of the tragic love story or even the love story in general.
The Power by Naomi Alderman
This book’s premise is that one day women realize they can electric shock people with their hands. The book meanders from a cast of characters, an American politician, a foster child, a girl from a crime family, and more. It’s not an empowering story of women’s liberation but a dark consideration of how things never really change.
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Korede keeps having to clean up after her sister Ayoola’s murders. So far, it’s been three. She could go to the cops, but she’s family, right? When her sister sets her eyes on Korede’s crush, though, things might have to change. It plays with the crime novel format as well as the idea of what we are willing to do for our families.
Temporary by Hilary Leichter
This book explores the absurd world of work. The narrator is a temporary worker who goes from job to job, everything from pirate, assassin, witch’s assistant, all in search for illusive performance. It’s a commentary on how employers ask workers for more and more for little in return.
Bitch Planet by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Taki Soma, Valentine De Landro, Robert Wilson IV, and others
While Bitch Planet is a dystopian three book graphic novel (two trade books and a third of short stories), it’s an incredible exploration of gender dynamics. Women who act out of their prescribed patriarchal gender roles are labeled non-conformist and sent to a prison planet indefinitely. Anything from not being the perfect mother to refusing your employer’s advances can get you a one way ticket to Bitch Planet. It’s been compared to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Sadly, it feels more and more relevant in our day and age.
These are just ten of the best satire books, both new and old, that use exaggeration, irony and more to ridicule and criticize our lives. Looking for more satire? Check out these satiric novels and this essay about understanding satire.