A week ago I wrote an essay, "A Most Modest Proposal," that I intended to be (note the allusion in the title) satire, and I thought when I had finished that it actually was satire, in fact very good satire indeed. The article suggested that one good solution to the brouhaha over same-sex marriage would be to get rid of the word marriage: that the problem was simply a question of semantics and could be easily solved linguistically.
The editor's response when he looked at it was that he felt the proposal was indeed modest and perhaps even serious. Moreover, he didn't find the piece particularly funny. Leaving aside the problem of whether there is some necessary relationship between humor and satire, as well as the question of who finds what funny, I decided that although I may have intended to write satire, if my reader didn't see satire, there was a problem. In the end, I decided to change my "satire" to "opinion" and let readers decide what they were reading.
The article was published and elicited several comments. One commenter questioned the allusion in the title, after another commenter had (perhaps tongue-in-cheek) suggested that the proposal might well have been a good idea. I responded — perhaps inconsistently given the point I am going to try to make in what follows — that I in fact had intended satire, but had acceded to an editorial suggestion. Then the other day another commenter wanted to know what it was I had intended to satirize. Clearly, if this reader couldn't tell where the satire was directed, there was a problem, and I should have kept my big mouth shut.
However, since some tricks are never learned by old dogs, once more into the breach:
Back in the middle of the last century, when the dominant critical stance informing the study of literature was something called New Criticism, it was fashionable to assert that the only thing that should concern the critic as well as the reader of a work of literature, indeed any piece of writing, was the work itself. This was in reaction to a lengthy period in which criticism was concerned with such things as the time in which the work was written, the impressions the readers reaped form the work, and indeed, most important to the present discussion, everything one could gather about the author of the work, his life, his psychological make-up, and all of the other things he'd written. The New Critics pointed out that none of these concerns, although they may have been interesting topics of investigation in and of themselves, was really relevant to understanding the work of literature or making judgments about it. The only relevant concern was the analysis of the work itself.