Sunday, March 15, 2009

To Mention Pop Culture or Not in a Story

I've finished reading the revised edition of The President's Daughter, by Ellen Emerson White (and yes, I did read the two side by side the whole time - which is a bit awkward.) The experience left me wondering about mentioning any current popular things by name. Now we could all be so lucky to have our work still being read 25 years later - and find these kind of changes necessary - but is it worth it to mention hip and trendy things that a few years later might make your work seem out of date?

Some of the references that Ellen Emerson White had to change (that were all perfectly understandable in 1984)
Tab - changed to Coke
Talking Heads
Old Time Rock and Roll
Tom Cruise imitation (a la Risky Business)
Stray Cat Strut
Meet the Press with David Brinkley
"set the record to the right song"
TV references to Hill Street Blues and the Brady Bunch are changed to watching the shows on DVD
TV references to the Bionic Woman, Bewitched and Gilligan's Island and a reference to UHF are eliminated.
"soaking in Palmolive" - taken out, since the commercial reference is now obscure.

And the list goes on and on.

When I first read this one of the things I really enjoyed were all of the pop culture references that I did get. To me it just showed a book reality that existed in the same reality I lived in.

But clearly if this is to be presented as a book with a modern sixteen year old girl as the main character these things had to change. Ellen Emerson White was fortunate to have the chance to update the series and give it renewed life.

It still leaves me wondering - how much pop culture is too much to put into a story? Is it better to make up the names of TV shows and bands in order to not run the risk of the pop hero you put in the story ending up in jail before the story is published? Or is it better to be hip and mention things that your audience will recognize and enjoy getting the connection between the book world and the real world?

I once wrote a story that had my characters going to the Berlin Wall. At the time it seemed impossible that a time would come when it didn't exist. But a few years later it was torn down.

I suppose it's impossible to know all the things that will one day date your story.


  1. This is such a balancing act, and I don't know the answer. It's one reason of many that I like to write historical -- cultural references there are totally different than in an "older" contemporary. The Berlin Wall goes to show that we'll never completely avoid this problem. In a lot of cases, it probably does make sense to just say "soda" instead of Coke, etc.

  2. Marcia,
    You're right - it is a total balancing act. And I suppose part of it comes down to how quickly people are actually going to be reading your book from the time you write it. If you're Meg Cabot - it's mere months. If you're me - it's a bit longer. :)

  3. It is such a fine line--between being contemporary and being outdated. I try to pick references that are unique and entertaining, such as "he's a beast!" for "He's awesome!" or use universal things that are unlikely to go out of date, such as Coke.

  4. I mostly write historical and I love that I can avoid this because of it. However, I wrote my first contemporary last year, and I found myself facing these very same things. It probably is best to be as generic as possible, but some things we just can't know.

  5. Marcia's reference to "soda" made me think that there are regional variations also. For example, my wife grew up in Rochester, NY where a "soda" meant an ice cream soda. If you wanted a Coke or Pepsi or root beer, that was called "pop." Also, if you wanted a "hot dog" you would be asked, "White or red?" They are sold in packages that way, both white (pork) and red (beef or whatever). In the parts of Pennsylvania with which I am familiar, "submarine" sandwiches are called "hoagies." In some other places they are called "heros" or "grinders."

    If a writing is set in a particular place or time period, I think it is more acceptable to add pop culture references that are authentic to the place or period. It probably wouldn't do to refer to a building in a story set in 1900 as art deco. Interesting discussion. I just finished reading a novel by Elmore Leonard which was replete with contemporary police and gangster jargon. Guns were referred to as "nines" or "sigs." I don't know what they are, but all of that made the story seem more real. The devil is in the details.

  6. Dad, you're right about the devil being in the details. If setting something in a specific time or place you want as many details as possible to show you know what you're talking about. Those same details in a contemporary piece could date a story that you don't want dated in that way, but yet they are what give it the authenticity to the reader!

  7. I've been thinking about this. There must be a pop culture museum, or at least a blog. If someone ran one of those, think how busy they would be with the way things change. Details are so important to make a story real. So how do you put them in a "contemporary piece?" What is a contemporary piece and how long does it take for it to be uncontemporary? Ten years ago if you said "blog" people wouldn't know what you were talking about; probably less than ten years. Do kids today know what a record player is? By the time Tyler (born Jan 5th) is Harry's age, will he know what a disk player is? By that time will we have 3-D TV, or holographic images dancing around the living room? Will kids laugh at flat screen TVs when everything was two dimensional? So, what's the point of all this rambling, anyway? You have to put something in a story and as Jennifer said, there are some things you can't know. It's interesting to think about this when reading something written 50 or 60 years ago. Many times they are pretty generic, but then the way they are written and the language used can date them. But, not to worry, just keep writing on and when they do the screenplay, they can adjust for the big screen.

    You mean people went into buildings with a whole lot of other people and looked at a big white screen. Gosh, Mom, why didn't they just use their video glasses?