Taking Me Out Of The Story

Following on from last week’s post about alienating readers with difficult words, I had an interesting discussion with a member of my writing group about the referencing of popular culture in my WiP and pieces from other group members, and how this can have a similar effect to using unfamiliar words . Given that pop culture permeates our everyday lives at all levels of society, should we ignore it, or embrace it?

I was taken to task by the group member for mentioning a contemporary thriller writer in a short story. He complained that the appearance of the name held him up because he hadn’t heard of the writer. I maintained that referencing popular culture adds flavour to my writing and definitely earns its place. No one can be familiar with everyone who has ever written a book, so it’s a fair bet that some readers may not have heard of that particular author. His objection was to all pop culture references – why confuse your reader?

It made me wonder when or even if it is acceptable to mention famous people, songs, brands and trademarks in one’s writing. I know I do it all the time. Nothing defamatory, just the occasional reference to help with characterisation. Like mentioning that a woman borrows Catherine Cookson novels from the Library – it’s a neat way of expressing her likely age, reading preferences, personality; maybe even the state of her finances. Isn’t this what ‘Showing’ is all about?

It’s an individual point of view, so does it matter? Well, it might.

The beta reader for my first novel commented on a humorous reference in the narrative to the Lone Ranger and Tonto. It was probably my age that made me do it. My reader wasn’t familiar with the characters and this ignorance took her out of the story. I didn’t comment on the lamentable hole in her education, but I did eventually change the reference to something more modern, because the novel’s target audience was the same age as my beta reader.

So it cuts both ways. I see no reason why we shouldn’t use pop culture in our writing; it’s all around us, after all. We just need to be sure that the references aren’t so impenetrable that they leave most of our readers guessing, for all the wrong reasons.

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7 thoughts on “Taking Me Out Of The Story

  1. YES YES YES to popular references. I wouldn’t include a scene where characters discussed who won Dancing with the Stars, but talking about 9/11, current politics, using current slang…how could you not use those things? I suspect, if someone from my writing group had made that suggestion, there would have been some lively discussion.

  2. Glad you agree. No point making references of a transient nature, like current TV programmes, but my writing is much more colourful when I mention experiences that I know my readers share. The discussion at the writing group did go on a bit……

  3. I would say the complainant is a lazy reader. If you cannot expect me to accept references to today’s culture then how can you expect me to accept references to pre-1940, when I was born, let alone references to the mid-19th century, so making Dickens out of bounds. I suspect that I have never read any novel without needing to research something to understand the author’s intention and it’s a lot easier to do now than it was when I was reading more than one novel a week, 40 – 50 years ago. It’s one of the joys of reading, isn’t it? I follow some very young bloggers and often do not know immediately to what they are referring, but it is always interesting and illuminating to find out.

    • I agree, but I don’t think it’s an argument I’ll ever win with this particular reader. I write contemporary fiction and my writing is littered with references to popular culture, though I have to admit that teenage-speak changes too regularly and rapidly for me to keep up with!

  4. I would say the complainant is a lazy reader. If you cannot expect me to accept references to today’s culture then how can you expect me to accept references to pre-1940, when I was born, let alone references to the mid-19th century, so making Dickens out of bounds. I suspect that I have never read any novel without needing to research something to understand the author’s intention and it’s a lot easier to do now than it was when I was reading more than one novel a week, 40 – 50 years ago. It’s one of the joys of reading, isn’t it? I follow some very young bloggers and often do not know immediately to what they are referring, but it is always interesting and illuminating to find out.

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