At the writing group we have one of those pot-boiler issues that circulate and resurface occasionally – should we include cultural references in our writing? Opinions are divided. Some argue that drawing attention to elements specific to an era risks alienating readers who don’t ‘get’ them. Others, myself included, think that as fiction is mainly disposable, why should I care if future generations might get hung up on my references to popular television programmes or magazines?
I want to establish a connection with my readers so I try to create well-rounded, credible characters who inhabit the real world. I want that world to be reflected in how a character interacts with it and that means utilising their particular terms of reference. Imagine a twenty-something character in a story set in 2017, who doesn’t mention social media. Unreal, right?
However, there’s still room for caution. My own experience made me think.
After I’d finished writing my first novel I passed it to my beta reader, a much younger woman, prior to sending it out to agents and publishers. I always regard this process as a valuable opportunity for someone disassociated from the process to point out any glaring errors I might have missed. The reader 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 known about the famous 1940’s TV 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. Maybe it’s because my fiction tends to feature elements of autobiography that I almost subconsciously allude to my past. Besides, 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. I took out the Lone Ranger reference and substituted Lady Gaga. The trouble is, in my head, I’m still 28. 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 and pop songs 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.
With this is mind, my second novel features a minor character called Ariel. As far as the narrator is concerned, the name comes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but the character herself is ignorant of this connection; her parents named her after the animated Disney heroine from The Little Mermaid. Covered both bases there. Phew.
So it’s a balancing act. As I edit my WIP I now check for era-specific cultural allusions, as well as relying on the beta reader barometer to point them out. 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.
The cultural landscape is constantly changing and I think it has to be reflected in our writing, otherwise we’re trapped in an uneventful time-warp. My characters’ vocabulary echoes that in common usage at that time. If that means that they echo what’s happening in the world in the way they express themselves, then so be it. That’s our shared history, right?
Keep the faith, and take your readers with you.
I suspect that I’m closer to your age, if not older, but was still able to confuse someone by once blurting out “oooh, he’s fallen in the water!”, which is from the Goon Show. “I didnt think you were old enough!” “repeats sweetie, repeats”.
So there are some generations who will understand older references, but you cant guarantee it. Because of something a younger person once said to me (something like “Crunchy on the inside”), the automatic response was “Armadillo!”. Her confused look led me to ask if anyone else had ever said that to her (yes) and did she know why (no). I then had to dig out the Harry Enfield Daim adverts on YT,
A lot of my friends are younger than me, and it’s nice when someone recognises my references to the past. I blame the parents…
I am 28 in my head, and have been for the last umpty ump years! But you’re so right, Maggie. It is crucial not to allow your own era of references to get in the way of a story you’ve actually set much later. (What is current in music – and how people listen to it – is one of my bete noir.)
However, I do think you can get too hung up on expunging anything that might be unfamiliar. I often don’t ‘get’ something when I’m reading. If I’m enjoying the book, it doesn’t interrupt my concentration.
One of my big frustrations, (I’d been published x2 but my publisher had gone out of business) was being told by agents that no one wants to read about issues. But if characters don’t have opinions, or remain aloof and unaffected by whatever is going on in the REAL world, what on earth do they talk about. And how do they know they like each other … or not? Where do you find your conflict? It doesn’t have to be heavy or polemical.
My current book has references to the middle east, the referendum, Trump, et al. I can’t imagine reading a novel set now, that doesn’t at least acknowledge what is going on in the world.
I completely agree, Gilli. If we don’t introduce something of what’s happening in the world we end up with characters who talk about each other and nothing else, existing in bubbles like soap operas. I have no problem with my characters using ways of expressing themselves that are very ‘of the moment’ – in fact I’ve just finished a terrific modern thriller that was crammed full of popular cultural references, but I suspect that a reader who didn’t ‘get’ them wouldn’t be in any way short-changed, because the story was so good. I think we have to follow our hearts and if that means disagreeing with agents about issues-led fiction, then so be it.
Food for thought, not only if writing a novel but also for writing a blog, where it’s not a problem to take a minute to explain something, in my opinion.
I agree, but only up to a point. Too many explanations, in novels and on blogs can slow our reading down and will quickly get annoying. Sometimes we just have to trust that our readers are on the same wavelength as us. It’s all a balance, isn’t it?