Pop Culture References in Fiction: Yes or No?

Leona asks an interesting question about pop culture references in fiction — something that I’ve actually been thinking a lot about recently:

I’ve often read that children’s books should be timeless. That addressing current technologies, trends and even political situations should be avoided because it dates the material. Yet, I’ve picked up a lot of books where the authors are referencing pop culture. What’s your take on it?

pop culture references in fiction, referencing pop culture
Ah, yes…the great great great great great grandfather of the Apple watch. Even this ol’ guy would’ve been the latest and greatest in technology at one point in time.

First, before I give you more thoughts, I wanted to point everyone to a great article that WoW Women on Writing did about the issue of technology references. I was interviewed and quoted in it a few times, but it gives a really comprehensive stance on this issue. You can find it here.

Pop Culture References in Fiction: Less Is More

I’ve always told writers to take it easy with technology and pop culture references in fiction. They’re not my favorite part of a story anyway, and my gut feeling is always “less is more.” It does tend to date your manuscript if you’re using slang, references, technologies, brand names, movies, websites, etc. that may go out of style before your book is even published. There are lots of YA books out there that talk about MySpace…and MySpace has really fallen out of favor these days for a lot of teens.

For my taste, references like this are akin to slang. You can use them to pepper the story, but too much will make your writing feel forced and perhaps even cheesy, especially after a few years go by.

A Different Take On Referencing Pop Culture

A few weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of seeing Ben Folds and Nick Hornby do an event at the Housing Works in NYC. You see, Ben, of musical fame, and Nick, of literary fame, recorded an album together: Nick wrote the lyrics, Ben crafted the melodies. And if you’re familiar with Nick Hornby’s work — most notably, probably, HIGH FIDELITY and the YA novel SLAM — you know that he is a bit of a pop culture junkie. His books are full of references.

At the event, someone posed Leona’s question to Nick. While I don’t agree with him — again, I think less is more — I found his answer very interesting. He said that pop culture references in fiction and all those specifics are crucial to novel world building. He said that we know so much about past cultures and eras and people because their writing is full of period details. He doesn’t want the cultural anthropologists who are reading our literature a hundred, two hundred, five hundred years from now to be alienated from the specific details of our time. So he advocates that writers take full advantage of referencing pop culture and not sterilize their work.

The Takeaway

While children’s books should be timeless, timelessness comes from the themes and characters and experiences more than from references or other small details. Regardless of dated elements, we still read the classics because they’re good stories and great voices…those will always be the key to staying relevant.

When you hire my book editing services, I’ll help you craft details that elevate your story — not date it.

20 Replies to “Pop Culture References in Fiction: Yes or No?”

  1. I tend to concur that books should be as timeless as possible, though I understand what Mr. Hornby is saying. I mean, what if Louisa May Alcott had tried to make Little Women timeless by making the time period vague? The story is timeless despite the fact that it clearly takes place during and after the American civil war.

    On the other hand, J.K. Rowling really disappointed me by attaching a date to Harry Potter. I went through my middle school and teenage years with Harry. When the fourth book came out, I had a connection to Harry because we were both 14–at the same time. When in the seventh book she attached a date to Harry’s parents’ deaths (via their headstones), I realized Harry was not my age. He was my older sister’s age (who is seven years older than me). I was disappointed. My illusions that Harry and I had at any point an age commonality were shattered. It meant that Harry had been a teenager in the 90’s (he would have graduated from high school in ’99 like my sister). I felt she could have just as easily left that one single date out and preserved the timeless feeling of the books.

    That being said, I love Harry Potter. You can’t erase 10 years of reading and connection with a character through one small line.

  2. I have to say that I can see Nick’s point, but I’m more like you, myself. Being a fan of dystopian and post-apocalyptic works, I love remarks or mentions of items/terms that ‘take me back’ but I get annoyed by books that obsessively dwell on terminology and current trends. Since I write YA, I try to stay up on what books are in that market, at the moment. I have to say that many I’ve picked up recently – some of which are highly recommended – seem inundated with slang and very specific voices that are relevant to ‘now’ but will sound pretty strange twenty years from now. I have to wonder if I’d love reading a book now that was written in the nineties and contained numerous terms like ‘sike’ and ‘bogus’. I doubt it.

    I liken good writing (YA or otherwise) to fashion, in many ways. Turtlenecks might come and go, but Katherine Hepburn will never be out of style. She was unique, but timeless. I want my writing to be Katherine Hepburn, not Lady Gaga…

  3. Hmm…Nick’s assessment is interesting. There is definitely weight to it. I tend to go ‘light’ on those references; although, I do use them. I try and make them part of my current world, but in the background. So far, I haven’t used any devices that are the crux of a plot. Hmm….again, now you’re making me think. I do have a new YA mapped out in which blogging and the internet does play a pivotal role. What do you think about that? Is blogging and the internet like the telephone or television?? References that are dated, yet almost timeless because of how they connect us all?

  4. His comment is interesting, but I think there are many other aspects to our culture that shine through. LIke the use of cars and electricity. Who know what we’ll be using in 200 years!

  5. I have to say, I really think it depends on the book. I can see the need for mentioning technology and making certain slang references if a writer is DELIBERATELY trying to date their book. One of the best ways of building a more vivid impression of that society is by mentioning those kinds of things. I’ve seen certain books set in the 70’s and 80’s that just would not have worked without those references.

    However! I do see a problem, especially in long running series. I’ve seen certain series last over ten books (which, at one book a year, is over a ten year span), but the time line in the book is much slower. So then the technology and slang referenced becomes inconsistent with the time period that is supposed to exist in the book.

    An example off the top of my head is LJ Smith’s VAMPIRE DIARIES. The first four books of the series were set in the early 1990’s, and make references to things like the Walkman. Flash forward about 15 years after their publication, and the author decides she wants to extend the series. In the new books, virtually no time has passed since the last novel…but she mentions someone checking a mobile phone and using the laptop. So now the publications show an inconsistent time line, and the first four books are now dated much, much earlier than the new ones. And it’s jarring.

    So I’d say: if you’re deliberately trying to date the book, make pop culture references. If you aren’t, shy away from it.

  6. Heather Petty says:

    I just had a conversation similar to this with a writing friend. I briefly mentioned Howard Hughes in my latest project, and she wondered if teens would know who he is.

    It’s something like: “…a true eccentric, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Howard Hughes…”

    I let the reference stand for two reasons:

    1. It is still understandable even without knowledge of Hughes.

    2. I didn’t know that Hughes was an eccentric until I read it somewhere and looked it up, most likely in my teen years.

    Maybe my editor will tell me to take it out someday, but that’s the argument I’d make to her as well. I don’t think it’s horrible to pepper your work with obscure history facts here and there. It’s probably the idealist in me, but we all learn this stuff somewhere. As long as the work is still accessible, I think it’s okay.

  7. I must not have gotten a good night’s sleep last night, because I spent half this post trying to figure out how this had anything to do with “dating” your manuscript (as in, taking it out on a date)… Too bad I can’t go back to bed:)

  8. Leona Broberg says:

    Thanks for the insight, Mary. I tend to agree with “less is more.” Considering how the sheer volume of published works has changed over the centuries, I think we have plenty of cultural references preserved for posterity. No worries, there!

  9. This was seriously the perfect post at the perfect time for me. I love Nick Hornby (About a Boy and Juliet, Naked are two of my absolute favorite books), but I teens don’t necessarily suffer from nostalgia like adults do, so where pop references in adult lit set the scene, pop references in YA lit date the dialogue.

    Ah, this ever-changing world we live in.

  10. Hmm, Nicky Hornby’s point of view makes a lot of sense for some of the novels he’s written. But if you’re writing commercial fiction, then it’s probably got a shorter shelf-life than literary, right? (I’m guessing here.) So maybe he CAN put more of those details in because his works are more likely to hang around a long time and be read precisely because they offer insight into another time?

  11. Nick Hornby’s perspective got me thinking. When I read classic novels, I’m more interested in the characters than their technology. References to the physical details of their lives spice up the way I imagine the scenes, but I get more insight into history from the the way the people think and talk.

    On the other hand, I do see how SLAM makes an especially clear picture of our world today, mainly because the thematic content is so strong, but also because of the pop culture stuff. If I were reading that book 200 years from now, I’d probably find it difficult but fascinating.

    But for myself, I’m too busy trying to write good books to think about posterity yet. Someday, maybe. For now I’ll just do what seems to serve the story.

    Krista V., your comment made me laugh. Thanks!

    And Mary, thanks for the post. Wonderful, as always!

  12. This is a great point. But generally I am a fan of classic books.

  13. KDuBayGillis says:

    For my MG WIP, I’ve not mentioned technology at all. But I’m wondering if my readers would say “Why doesn’t she just whip out her cell phone and call for help??” So, I’m wondering if absence of technological references would strike readers as odd in the opposite extreme. Technology isn’t central to my story, so hopefully no one will mind that it’s not there.

  14. Kelly Andrews says:

    The story I’m writing has cell phones and search engines. In my opinion, it has to address these things, although I try not to use brand names. These are kids in current times and they’re trying to solve a puzzle. The first thing they do won’t be to break into the anthropology museum to try to make crayon rubbings of a sarcophagus so they can translate the hieroglyphics using the ancient text they stole from the library. Maybe they will do that later, but not if the information they want is readily available on Wikipedia.

    A harder thing for this story is that there is a time frame for events in the past, and in this case, I can’t have everything happen 25 years ago or 24 years ago. I need specific dates.

  15. I see both sides of the argument and while I generally lean toward the timeless end of the continuum, I also lean toward thinking about context first, hard and fast rules second. I recently queried a manuscript that made more than one reference to pop culture and technology in the first ten pages. I did this purposefully and knowing the risk I took might very well have sent my query directly to the slush pile. However, in the end, I felt it grounded my story in time, a story that essentially weaves together two stories, one that occurs in the present and one that occurred a hundred years before, in a way I couldn’t without bringing in those details.

    Could I have found another way to do this? Sure. Would I be willing to revise and do it in another way? Absolutely. But in the end, every page we write and share with others is a learning experience. You go with your gut, hope for the best, learn from your mistakes, and move on to your next manuscript.

  16. Kelly Andrews says:

    KDuBay, I think sometimes you have to *acknowledge* that technology exists, just so the reader doesn’t get mad at the character for not doing the rational thing. Maybe the character pulls out her phone and has a dead battery or no signal. I don’t think that kind of technology is intrusive unless she whips out her brand-new Samsung Propel a767, or something that is quickly dated.

  17. Authors from past cultures and eras probably did write books for readers in their immediate times (not thinking about future readers), and we’re lucky to have the literature written that way. But we wouldn’t be reading most of those books today if they weren’t successful in the times they were written. If the readers in the past thought the books sounded dated, would those books have ever become successful?

    Fortunately for writers in the past, technology didn’t change as fast as it does today. Riding a horse to the next village to deliver a message probably didn’t sound old fashioned nearly as fast as descriptions of today’s communications. By creatively holding back on specifics when describing technology, we let readers to fill in those blanks with some details that weren’t even around when the book was written.

  18. Horserider says:

    I’m on the fence. I like references to the real world in novels, but when there are a lot of them it actually pulls me out of the story. For example, I recently read a novel where the main character names almost every song she listens to over the course of the book. I had no idea what any of the songs were or their artists and I didn’t love the book enough to have interest in looking them up. A year after reading the book and that’s the main thing that I remember about it.

    I worry about the recent releases dealing with Twitter. For one, Twitter will most likely go the same way as Myspace. No one can predict when that will be. It could be next month or five years from now. For another, when I see a book that deals that directly with something in modern teenagers’ lives, I hesitate to pick it up because I wonder if the author was trying too hard to be modern.

    As a modern teenager, I’d rather have a book with few references than a book with so many that it feels like someone was trying too hard to make it feel real.

    Note: None of this applies to hidden references which I love. The best references are the ones you don’t have to get to enjoy the story but make you laugh when you do.

  19. Stella Michel says:

    Your posts are always spot on. Thank you for yet another logical piece of writing advice.

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