By Reece Hirsch
A twenty-something beta reader of my new manuscript suggested that some of the pop culture references might be a bit dated. The comment made me realize something that probably should have dawned on me a long time ago – by attempting to write popular fiction, I am now, by definition, writing for an audience that includes readers who are considerably younger than me, with cultural reference points that may begin in the 1980s or 1990s.
I don’t consider myself out-of-touch with current pop culture. (I know what you’re thinking: that’s the sort of thing that is also said by people who still “get jiggy.”) I listen to new music, see new movies, read new books, watch a probably unhealthy amount of television, and regularly read (or at least flip through) Entertainment Weekly. There are admitted gaps in my pop culture IQ like reality TV and tween culture, but I am more than comfortable living with those blind spots. I prefer to consider myself pop culture enhanced – I've been sucking down pop culture long before many of my readers were born. That means that sometimes I probably need to just keep those references to myself.
I took that beta reader’s comment to heart and looked very carefully at my pop culture references in one of the last passes through the manuscript. Along the way, I developed two working rules. First, make sure that the references really work in context or you may be dating your book to no good purpose. Second, try to stick to references that are “classics” (an idea that Meredith touched on in her post last week). By classics, I mean something that, whether old or new, is entrenched enough in the popular culture that the reader should know it whether they are 18 or 50, both today and several years from now.
Here is a list of pop culture reference points that either were in my first book, are in my second book, or were deleted from my second book. Which ones do you think are “classics”? Which ones are too obscure, dated or “non-classic”? Which ones work today but probably wouldn't work for a reader five years from now?
1. Leonard Cohen
2. Ross Macdonald.
3. Thievery Corpration.
4. “Love Removal Machine” by The Cult.
5. Glenn Gould.
6. The Warner Brothers cartoon with the sheep dog and the wolf who punch the clock.
7. Keyser Soze.
8. Shaquille O’Neal.
9. Charles Barkley (trend emerging, need to watch that).
10. The Godfather.
12. Bikini Kill (associated with the same character as 11).
13. Sir Ian McKellen (who makes a fleeting appearance in The Insider as the Grand Marshall of the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade).
14. Steely Dan.
15. Taylor Swift.
17. Boba Fett.
18. William Gibson.
19. War Games.
Let me stress that I learned my lesson and did not use all of the above references, but I wonder if we agree about which ones didn't make the cut?