I had a bit of an epiphany the other day. A (much younger) friend asked if she could have a look at the first three chapters of my novel, prior to me sending it out to agents for consideration. I agreed, seeing it as another opportunity for someone disassociated from the process to point out any glaring errors I might have missed.
The friend was wholly complimentary – one of the dangers of using a friend as a sounding board – and I allowed myself a brief moment in the sun. But she did make one comment that made me sit up.
She queried a reference I’d made to the Lone Ranger and Tonto.
As I said, the friend is much younger than me, and she hadn’t heard of the famous cowboy and his Native American sidekick. She’d taken the trouble to look them up but this had taken her out of the story. And my carefully constructed cultural reference had failed to impress.
So what, you might say? Not everybody will get every reference and besides, I’ve used lots of modern references and turns of phrase elsewhere in the novel. Anyway, isn’t it part of our job to entertain, to inform, to educate and enlarge our readers’ horizons?
You’d be right. Up to a point.
But, and it’s a big but, my novel is aimed at my friend’s age group. If there’s one cultural reference she doesn’t understand, there may be others, and I’ll have disenfranchised my target audience. The trouble is, in my head, I’m still 28. The body might be degenerating, but the mind is still sharp. Which might explain why I wrote my novel for this age group – it’s the demographic I thought I identified with, after all. But referencing TV programmes from my past won’t win me any plaudits from readers too young to remember them. They might just stop reading.
Cultural references add colour to a story and establish a sense of time and place. Our fictitious characters are defined by their cultural influences. But we have to be circumspect. In these days of ebooks and downloading, where our work can be seen all over the world, by people of all ages and backgrounds, popular references can alienate readers. On the other hand, if we leave them out we risk producing bland, featureless work which lacks texture and interest.
It’s a balancing act, but I have one suggestion: a cultural reference should tell the reader something about the character. If it doesn’t, why keep it?
The next novel is targeted at women nearer my own age, my real age. Any artistic or lifestyle references I make, any period details I see fit to include, will resonate with the correct peer group. We’ll all experience that warm, fuzzy sensation we get when we’re reminded about something from our past – that comforting feeling of being part of a larger collective memory.
I’m somewhat heartened, however, by a novel I’ve just finished reading. At one stage the protagonist is having a conversation with his daughter about their shared memories. She remembers a picnic, the food they ate and the soft drinks they drank. I could relate to this; I have similar memories. Too similar, actually. In the novel, the protagonist is probably in his forties, his daughter in her twenties, but the picnic items she remembers are from my childhood, thirty or more years before. It just didn’t ring true.
The cultural landscape is constantly changing and it has to be reflected in our writing, otherwise we’re trapped in a time-warp. Just because an event or a personality predates me doesn’t mean my readers won’t have heard of it, or them. That’s history, right? But the moral of my story is, make sure your cultural references will be understood by your readers. Otherwise, you’re taking a calculated risk, which could be an expensive mistake.
P.S. A re-read is now in progress, checking for time-specific cultural allusions. I’ll let you know if I find any more.