Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Pop culture in fiction: a ticket to obscurity?

Matt Zoller Seitz has an interesting post up on Salon today about pop-cultural references in TV shows. Recently he noticed that a classic episode of The Simpsons from the early 90s relied on cultural references (to Arnold Schwarzenegger's action-film persona and the Hollywood Squares) that his kids completely missed. He wonders if popular TV shows today, which rely heavily on current references, are sentencing themselves to obscurity in the near future.

I've often wondered the same thing when writing fiction. Should I refer to, say, Justin Bieber or Twitter, if, by the time this piece is published, those phenomena will have gone the way of flip phones? I use the phone example because, in editing some stories for upcoming publications, I noticed a definite lag in their depictions of cell-phone technologies. The stories were originally written a couple of years ago, when human beings other than I still used flip phones and thought they were pretty neat. Of course, this update will only hold for another six months or so. After that, those phone references will likely slide into the worst possible crack of datedness: recent enough to be recognizable, but with that whiff of mustiness that tells us the story (and writer) are just a tad behind the curve.

But back to Bieber and Twitter. If you're writing a story set in present day America (or any number of other countries, really), and it involves kids and/or parents of a certain socio-economic set, you're going to have a heck of a time steering around these things. By consciously trying to avoid topical references, you might tie your story into such knots--or make it so implausible--that it's better just to go through the Bieber, not around it. Still, when Justin embarks on his inevitable decline--not that I wish this upon him or his fans by any means; I'm sure the prospect is still many months off--will he take your story or novel down with him?

One consoling thought is that if your story or novel is around in twenty years (and I'm sure it will be!), those references to Justin Bieber may no longer seem musty. They may actually help root your piece in place and time. That's assuming a) Bieber has reached a sufficient critical mass of fame now that his name will evoke an "oh, yeah, I've heard that name" response in your as-yet-unborn-college-student reader, and b) without making your current readers scream out "Duh!," you've provided enough description and context for Bieber that future readers will at least gather he was a young, cute singer whose haircut sent shockwaves around the world.

In other words, if you're using Bieber in a winking, we-all-know-who-this-is kind of shorthand--as The Simpsons used Schwarzenegger--it will likely be a problem in the future. But if he's not just shorthand, if his presence makes a substantive contribution to the story, you'll be forced to spell that out at least somewhat. That should cut down on the "huh?" factor. Presuming shared knowledge, or shared "knowingness," between writer and reader (or viewer) may be the real ticket to obscurity--as Matt Zoller Seitz suggests.

Here are a few other ways I've thought of to use pop culture references in fiction while ensuring your story doesn't seem dated:

  • Set the story in the past. This can be the very, very recent past. I remember talking to a guy in a writing class who said he was writing a "historical novel" set in 2007. It was 2008 at the time. Folks, 2010 is now a setting for historical fiction. Heck, so is March 7, 2011. So is the last minute. My point is, I think this mindset will just slightly shift the way you talk about "current" cultural phenomena--enough that you'll feel compelled to put it in a context.

  • Create a realistic but alternative world, in which Justin Bieber is, say, Jason Beebler. You then can--and must--explain who he is and why he is loved by zillions. Most future readers will probably get the echo, but if they don't, it's no big deal. You've created your own character, who may prove more useful to you anyway, and more interesting.

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