Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Clever References

Writing Wednesday

I once heard of a study which claimed to show that modern children were much smarter than their ancestors because of The Simpsons. Okay, it wasn't simply because of that one program. The study tracked the number of reference to things, ideas, or events outside of the immediate story. They found that number increased over time. In other words, what the average viewer was expected to "get" moved in the direction of more and briefer references to a broader background of common knowledge.

Working references to popular culture into MG and YA work is tempting because it shows that you're oh so clever. But it's difficult enough to do that you should probably avoid the temptation.

First, there's the practical matter that most references will date your story. [Don't believe me? Find a picture of yourself twenty years ago--the trendier the better. How proudly would you display that picture now?]

Second, and more importantly, references to popular culture will almost always pull your reader out of the story, either to shake their heads if it's clumsy or in admiration if it's clever.

Consider the following lines from Phillip Reeve's Starcross. Together with Larklight and Mothstorm, the three MG books tell rollicking tales of daring-do in the space-ways of the solar system in a steampunk world where Isaac Newton's discovery of the alchemical secrets of spaceflight propel the British Empire across the stars. In that world, the American Revolution was only the American Rebellion (thanks to the Royal Navy's aether ships). In the midst of a series of adventures, a French agent, who has just revealed her plans to relaunch the Liberty (the one American aether ship from the rebellion) says,

"My grandfather hoped that he might capture a British warship or two, and set up a free American settlement upon one of the outer worlds ... He dreamed of founding a Rebel Alliance which would strike at your empire from a hidden base ..."

This is perhaps the best embedded reference to popular culture I've ever read: every single word in the sentence is both completely consistent with and fully motivated by the story. It's beautiful because it works on so many levels. And yet when I read it, I dropped right out of the story in admiration.

You're probably on less shaky ground if, like Reeve, you're working with comic material. That said, I still think the best advice is to minimize your references.

What do you think?

Deren blogs daily at The Laws of Making.
Image: Simon Howden /


Scott said...

Good post, and excellent question.

These allusions can work, but, like you said, you have to be careful. It's probably better to avoid referencing something that's trendy today. It might not be recognizable later.

I think you're safe with small references to classics, as long as you know you're treading dangerously close to cliches. Lines like "I don't think we're in Kansas anymore, Toto" can work, but are used a lot. But references to classics have been a part of literature since, well, since the classics were written.

Same goes for using elements from classics in your stories. Where would The Hobbit be without Beowulf? But how many of us are good enough and knowledgeable enough to get away with what Tolkien did?

Sachiko said...

I have a love/hate thing going with cultural references.

They can be such a handy shared shorthand, expressing complicated concepts of emotional states or situations with just a few well-placed words or images. That's all that keeps me watching the Simpsons.

OTOH--and isn't there always another hand?--pop culture has become overwhelming because of greater information transmission and blah blah blah, insert "information revolution" commentary here.

I don't think we're too different from other cultures in the AMOUNT of things we reference. All we differ in is WHAT we reference.

Our young men who once might have quoted Lord Byron now quote Adam Sandler. (and do you know, bad as Adam Sandler is, I find I prefer him to Byron)

So maybe that's the trick with Pop-Culture Reference and her dressed-up big sister, Allusion. Reference enduring classics, instead of the mayfly Hollywood-ridden "culture" we're accustomed to.

Also, referencing original material is almost always better. Many pop culture references fall short because they're secondary references--someone quoting the Simpsons when they reference another popular work. That's just too derivative.

I think people enjoy cultural referencing because we're skilled information consumers and "getting" stuff and using that shared meme-language helps us to feel part of a club, which is always intoxicating, if not really RIGHT. Morally speaking. Or even important.

Since I'm okay with some references, either because I'm media-saturated or lazy or both, my problem is finding and using ones that don't offend by cliche.

Great post--it really got me thinking. I love reading books with beautiful writing, but I agree that a writer needs to decide between telling a story and showing off and being the brillian autuer, you know? The temptation to show off is so strong....and some writing styles BEG for passages full of packed referencing (Neal Stephenson's, for example).

Sachiko said...
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