Five things to hate about pop culture references in novels

Aren't those the Spice Girls?
Aren’t those the Spice Girls?

Whether by coincidence or not, I’ve come across a few articles recently about the wisdom (or folly) of including snippets of song lyrics in your novel.  The consensus seems to be that it’s a bad idea.  Allen Klein is dead but those who adhere to his mantra are still far and wide squeezing the vice of legality against the temples of well-meaning, starving scribes who seek to pay a tiny bit of homage to that epic anthem that helped get them through a rough patch of their lives, or, more cynically, want to drop in an overly familiar reference point that will elicit immediate emotional identification without putting in the effort to craft their own.

I get it.  It’s difficult, and even a bit scary, to risk originality in a self-referential culture where everything seems to link back to something else like a giant Wikipedia.  Going where no one has gone before is even more daunting given that every time you think you’re venturing down a fresh trail, you find someone else’s bootprints on it.  There are simply too many of us writers attempting to figure out the human experience.  It’s inevitable that more than a few will reach identical conclusions – sort of the thousand monkey/thousand typewriter argument featuring mildly more intelligent monkeys.

In one of my more wrenching experiences as a gestating writer, I lent a draft of the novel that preceded my current opus to my best friend for his feedback.  I can still recall with gut-churning anxiety the pregnant pause that hung between us one afternoon when I was forced to ask him the question that chills all writers’ bones as it spills across our lips:  “So, what did you think?”  I don’t think the word had entered the zeitgeist yet, but his reaction was the equivalent of “meh.”  I should point out here that my friend is not evil nor inconsiderate of others’ feelings.  But like the most ideal of companions he will never let you twist out in the wind with your pants down if he can help set you right.  And his most germane suggestion, while wounding to anyone convinced of one’s own genius as most beginners tend to be (and I certainly was back then), was not only invaluable, but continues to inform me when I compose fiction.  Paraphrased, it was simply this:

“Cut the pop culture references.”

Between the tears and the simmering hatred (which quickly subsided – we’re still besties, no worries folks), it was a cloud-parting Voice of James-Mason-as-God moment – and yes, Eddie Izzard fans, I am aware of the irony of using a doubly-meta pop culture reference to illustrate this point – that I could not believe I had not seen before.  And it reinforced the notion that you can’t write in a vacuum.  Because I never would have come to that conclusion at that time in my life, and yet it was exactly what I needed to move forward and become a better writer.  Whether it’s in using song lyrics, referencing TV shows or framing your character’s predicament in terms of how much it makes them feel like Ryan Gosling in The Notebook, there are, to me, five main reasons why popular culture should be flung far from the pages of your book:

1.  It dates you

And not the good dinner-and-a-movie type either.  Pop culture’s shelf life is shorter than that of the mayonnaise you’ve been meaning to throw out of your fridge for the last few weeks.  Your bon mot about your hero’s wisecracking best friend being a combination of Sue Sylvester and Honey Boo Boo is going to go way sour long before your book even makes it to the shelves.  I remember a few years ago when Desperate Housewives premiered and every entertainment trade paper, magazine and website could not shut themselves up about it; every goddamned article about anything television-related found a way to work in some mention of Desperate Housewives and how it was a divinely inspired paradigm-shifting watershed point in the history of broadcast programming.  Ask yourself whether in 2013 and beyond, anyone is going to view a witty Desperate Housewives reference as anything but sad.  (Fair warning, Downton Abbey and Girls, it will happen to you too.)  You want your story to mean something to people for decades and generations to come – timeless is preferable to timely.

 2.  It’s meaningless unless your audience gets it

In the realm of stand-up comedy, one of the worst offenders for dropping obscure references is Dennis Miller, with the result that even the most well-read of his audiences will only laugh at his material a fifth of the time (of course, ever since he was reborn as a Dubya-lovin’ right-wing pom-pom waver, he’s been considerably less funny anyway).  A reference that a great number may not understand is not the most egregious violation of “good writer etiquette,” but a major beat should never hinge on it.  If, at the moment of her deepest anguish, your heroine is compelled to confess that she feels just like Bitsie Tulloch’s Dylan on Quarterlife, that’s awesome for the three people out there who remember that show and completely baffling for everyone else (i.e. 99.9999% of your readers), and thus any hope you may have harbored for soliciting empathy will be lost to the winds like the passengers and crew of Oceanic 815 (see what I did there?)

3.  It’s the last refuge of the unimaginative

Licking my wounds back then, I was compelled to ask myself why I was relying so much on what other people had created instead of forging ahead on my own.  Writing moments that resonate is a lot like method acting:  you have to look deep inside and wrench the truth screaming from your own gut, not rely on what you once heard or saw in something somebody else wrote.  And it’s an opportunity that you should never pass up, even if it is intimidating.  If you’re running down the field with no one in the way, why would you pass the ball to another guy for the final five yards?  You should never abdicate the chance to be creative.  If you’re writing about a group of characters who have bonded over their love of a favorite TV show, why not make up your own show?  I’ll get you started:  every show is about cops, doctors or lawyers, so have your guys quote lines from Sergeant Lawyer, M.D.  Okay, I’m staking a claim to that one and writing a pilot.  “FADE IN:  INT. COURTROOM – DAY – CLOSE on SERGEANT LAWYER as he contemplates a scalpel in his right hand and a semi-automatic pistol in his right.  CUE the opening chords of The Who’s ‘Behind Blue Eyes.’”  Aw, crap, there’s Pete Townshend’s attorney on line one.

4.  It’s giving away free advertising

I’ll invoke the mighty Aaron Sorkin and repeat his maxim that a writer’s job is to captivate you for however long he’s asked for your attention.  And we writers are serious bear huggers.  We don’t want to let you go.  We want you firmly ensconced in our world, and not thinking about TV shows and songs that have nothing to do with the story we’re trying to relate.  We certainly don’t want you thinking about other products you might like to purchase.  Ever wonder why you don’t ever see commercials for handguns?  Because there are enough glowing closeups of barrels and triggers and bullets flying in sexy slow motion, and irrelevant exchanges of dialogue about muzzle velocities and stopping power in movies to do all the advertising gun manufacturers will ever need.  Walther probably owes a great chunk if not the lion’s share of the sales of its PPK to James Bond.  Sex and the City and chick lit do more for Manolo Blahnik shoes than ten years of paid ad campaigns ever would.  (If I can digress further into the cinemarr for a moment, one of the most vomit-inducing examples of this was the trailer for 10 Things I Hate About You – the ad trying to get people to see the movie, oh irony of ironies – which opened with a character saying “There’s a difference between like and love.  I mean, I like my Skechers, but I love my Prada backpack.”  Spew.)  If that’s truly your wish, then why not just publish a novel full of empty pages stamped with “Your Ad Here”?  Or go to work writing advertising copy since it’s probably more up your alley.

5.  And it will probably cost you

So not only will you not be paid for name-dropping all these lovely corporations and pushing their merchandise, but you’re just as likely to get dinged by the same people for using their content without the express written consent of Major League Baseball.  This is an older article, but a good one from The Guardian where novelist Blake Morrison talks about how much it cost him to include fragments of popular song lyrics in his work.  Don’t these people have enough money already without needing more of yours?  And what’s worse, the money probably won’t even go to the artist who wrote the lyric in the first place – it’ll get split amongst various anonymous shareholders in the faceless publishing company that holds the rights to the song.  If you really, desperately, achingly want to have your character sing “Bitter Sweet Symphony” to the extent that you’re more than willing to cough up whatever atrocious fee you’re invoiced for, Richard Ashcroft isn’t getting a penny, as much as he may be tickled that you quoted his signature composition.  It’s going to whoever now controls ABKCO Music, the actual rights holder of that song.  The thought of that should turn your stomach enough to lead you in another direction.  Here’s a much better thought:  Even if you can’t write chord progressions, you can probably make up your own original lyrics.  Then one day, maybe someone will want to compose a song using those lyrics, and they can pay you for the privilege of doing so (or, conversely, you can sue their ass off when they steal it without acknowledging your authorship).

Having said all that, let’s make it about me again.  Does any of this apply to my novel?  Well, fortunately, when writing fantasy there’s less of a temptation to include popular culture since it makes no sense within the context of the story – or worse, pulls you out of the story when a grizzled medieval warrior makes anachronistic mention of the Seinfeld episode about Teri Hatcher’s boobs (argh!  Desperate Housewives reference!)  That isn’t to say you can’t or won’t slyly drop in semi-clever hints or vague references about the galaxy far, far closer to home.  I’ve been pretty good about steering clear of that, with two or three arcane exceptions (in extremely non-consequential passages) that I won’t mention except to say that when you do read the book you get +1 Internets for finding them.  I have, however, committed the faux pas of including allusions to songs as chapter titles.  Not in all of them, but enough to be potentially embarrassing and/or expensive.  So a quick trip to the rewrite shed is in order.  But better to do it now than to get too far down the road and receive a sternly worded letter from Sergeant Lawyer, M.D. demanding recompense for what is, essentially, a throwaway gag that has no significant bearing on the greater narrative.

The moral?  Make your story one hundred percent yours, soup to nuts and credits to navy beans.  It’s like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman:  cheaper, easier and more fulfilling too.

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8 thoughts on “Five things to hate about pop culture references in novels”

  1. Well, this is a disturbingly timely post, Graham. Most of my morning’s writing was about the influence Dan Savage has had on my partnerships… then I read this! Maybe the rules can flex for memoir? 🙂

    Glad that you and your friend survived his honesty. That’s the mark of a good friend, of course, but my gut still shriveled in recognition in that awful moment of having to ask, “What did you think?” Funny to see how many of us write with the hope that our words will ultimately be available to anyone and everyone, but the thought of placing them in front of particular individuals is terrifying.

    Carry on, friend.

    1. Well, as long as you don’t find yourself in the position of having to pay Dan Savage anything, then you’re good to go. Another friend of mine pointed out some examples (like Ready Player One, and 11/22/63) where the pop culture is key to the actual story, so I’d never say it was an absolute rule. I think I’m speaking more to those who use reference as a quick and easy substitute for their own original content – and I’d never place you in that category!

      It is one thing to have a stranger dislike something we write, but yeah, nothing is as soul-crushing as feeling like we’ve failed to measure up to the expectations of someone we’re close to. But then I tend to think that if we were completely secure in ourselves we probably wouldn’t be writers. 😉

  2. Perhaps dating yourself is not bad as much of what goes on in this modern world sucks. As to figuring out the Human Experience, its easy You’re born, you live, you die, everything that happens in between is window dressing.

  3. I think pop culture references in blogs, reviews, and online articles are fine, as they effectively tie-in to the immediacy of the format. Novels, though? No. Books that are meant to last the ages should be show/book/movie/song title-free and allowed to stand on their own spine. Timely references are fine as long as the pop culture bit ‘o’ fluff isn’t necessary for you to get the joke. I do think, conversely, that stories set in 1960s London should be able to mention The Beatles without people getting too chapped over it.

    And ha! to your Teri Hatcher reference. Meta, but funny!

    1. Exactly. The rules are not hard and fast. I think I’m addressing more the people who saturate their work with popular culture because a) they have no other point of reference and b) their work is bereft of any truly original ideas.

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