When I was working on my Associates’ degree, I took a creative writing class in which I wrote a short story that I was quite proud of. (Hey, when you’re 20, everything you write is gold, right?) And I still remember the huge kerfluffle that ensued over my use of one tiny word. Hint: it’s not what you’re thinking. In a million years, you’ll never guess.
I’m not kidding. That’s the word. Kleenex.
“It took me completely out of the story,” the main griper griped. “I mean, in fifty years, will anyone know what that word is? You need to use tissue. Everyone knows the word tissue.”
Well, I’ve read historical fiction for most of my life. I read Black Beauty when I was eight, for crying out loud. No one has hansom cabs and overchecks anymore, either, but guess what? They’re still part of that novel!
I was thinking about this topic this week as I read yet another New York Times bestseller, The Nanny Diaries. Again, not my usual reading fare. My paperback edition was published in 2003, so yes, it’s a bit old. It’s set in New York City; ‘Nanny,’ the main character, works for the X family, who are, let’s say, very well-to-do. As in, they buy Gucci for their son’s piano teacher for Christmas. This story is nothing but pop culture – references to The Lion King and all manner of Disney movies, every major designer in New York, including Manolo Blahnik, ultra-expensive restaurants, and more.
Question: does this date the novel?
This is a huge debate among writers, readers, agents, and editors. How much is too much? At what point do you risk ‘dating’ your novel and making it unpalatable for future generations? At what point does it become so bland that it’s unreadable because you’ve left out every pop culture reference you can?
For me, pop culture references don’t date a novel; they create setting for a novel. How different would On the Road be if you couldn’t include all the 1960s references? Or the Sherlock Holmes stories? Dogcarts and skirts trailing in mud? Where would the clues go? 🙂
Maybe it doesn’t bother me so much because I read so much historical fiction. I can say that the only thing that truly bothered me about The Nanny Diaries (aside from wanting to reach through the pages and strangle Mr. and Mrs. X so that Nanny could just take the little boy, Grayer, home with her), is the cell phone. Now, I’ve had a cell phone since 1998. My first plan was 100 minutes/month for $100. I really do remember most people having cell phones in 2003. But here’s the exchange when she first gets hers:
The girl with her own cell phone calls her best friend, Sarah . . . “Hey, it’s me. At this very moment I am walking down the street and talking to you. Just like I could on a train, a boat, or even from the makeup floor at Barneys, because . . . I got a cell phone. She (Mrs. X) gave me a cell phone! See, that’s not a perk you get as a professor’s assistant. Bye!”
Then I ring Grandma . . . “Hi, Gran, c’est moi. I’m out on the street talking to you on my brand-new cell phone. Now all I need is a Donna Karan bikini and we can hit the Hamptons. Woohoo! Talk to you later! Bye!”
So in two paragraphs, we see several pop culture references AND get the sense that this character has no idea about cell phones (in fact, it takes her other friend to let her know that this could be a pay-as-you-go plan). This took me out of the story more than the pop culture references. But then again, I’m inured to those. I still watch Will & Grace and Sex and the City. 🙂
So as you work on your novel, consider your references carefully. I myself use them – sparingly. In my urban fantasy novels, set in Oxford, I have references to both Top Gear and Doctor Who. Since my books are meant to appeal to readers who like urban fantasy AND England, I’m sure they’re going to be familiar with those references. Read Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett – their references to common British pop culture are hilarious (like when the demon, Crowley, takes immense pride in the role he played in creating the Ring Road around London). Now, if you’re familiar with British-isms, this is SO FUNNY. But if this novel were written today, the demon might instead be proud of the congestion charges in The City. 🙂
A friend recently wrote a manuscript in which the band Green Day features. I’d never heard of Green Day until I read her manuscript . . . so you have to keep that in mind as well. I gather Green Day isn’t that far in the past, but will your readers get the reference?
So this is where beta readers come in handy. Finish your novel first. Don’t worry about the pop culture references. Then hand it out to as many different people as possible. My friend had no idea that there were people in the world who didn’t know about Green Day! And I’m constantly shocked when I find people I know – I KNOW! – who have never seen Top Gear. This is why Easter eggs are so popular – because to those in the know, they’re a lovely, hidden inside joke. Like in the episode of Supernatural where Sam meets up with a woman he should have killed when they were both teens – but he let her go. She tells him her new name is Amy Pond. He grins and says “Great name!” (Given that Mark Sheppard – who plays Crowley on the show – also played a Secret Service agent in a two-episode arc of Doctor Who, this is a GREAT reference, and a fantastic Easter egg.)
You won’t catch everyone. You can’t please everyone. You will find readers who have no idea what you’re talking about. But if the reference is part of the setting – or better yet, part of the plot – use it. Curious readers – good readers – will figure it out.