Friends, I’ve spent far too much time this week a) reading TvTropes.org and b) watching the MTV VMAs. As Tv Tropes put me in the frame of mind to overanalyze everything, what struck me about the VMAs was how drastically the pop culture world has shifted in my lifetime, and, hell, within the last few years. I mean, most of the people who attended the 1999 VMAs weren’t at this year’s, weren’t even mentioned, and are possibly entirely unknown to kids starting High School this year. I mean, here’s a short list of performers/presenters:
Kid Rock, Aerosmith, Run-DMC, Lauryn Hill, Backstreet Boys, Ricky Martin, Nine Inch Nails, TLC, Fatboy Slim, Amil & Jay-Z, *NSYNC, Britney Spears, Eminem, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Korn, Garbage, Marilyn Manson, Lil’ Kim
Now, some of those folks still have hot careers, some are dead, and some are still plodding along, but very few of them are still part of the bubbling pop culture conversation. It’s amazing, really, to think what a difference 10 years makes.
So I was going to write a post about how pop culture references affect and date writing, but then I realized I wrote that eassay five thousand years ago in my zine The Inner Swine. So I’ll just reprint it here, slightly revised (very slightly):
How Many Simpsons References Can I String Together in One Essay, Anyway?
Pop Culture in Fiction
by Jeff Somers
FANS, I don’t claim to know much of anything at all. I know a few things: I know that Warren Spahn is the winningnest lefthanded pitcher in Major League Baseball history. I know that Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle states that one cannot simultaneously know both the position and the momentum of a given object to arbitrary precision. I know that irony is a form of speech in which the real meaning is concealed or contradicted by the words used. I know how to tie a Square Knot. I can write a Hello World program in BASIC. I know what a Fnord is. See, I know a few things, but nothing, really, of any importance, and nothing, really, that would convince you that I am qualified in any way to write intelligently about Serious Writing Topics. The fact that I’ve published a few literary gems doesn’t mean much, if you consider some of the crap that gets published these days—not just published, but the crap that wins awards. I don’t have any advanced degrees and I’ve rarely won an argument, usually descending to physical threats after about five minutes of stuttering impotence; I haven’t published any scholarly papers on the subject of writing and I’m not making millions through my art. So, there’s really no reason to pay any attention to me, is there? On this subject, I mean. If you need an essay on why a six-pack is good breakfast fare, I’m your man.
Of course, you’re reading this blog. That doesn’t say much for your intellectual abilities, bubba. So I can assume you’re not too picky about what you read, and plunge straight ahead into the subject at hand, which, in case the introductory paragraph wasn’t very clear on the matter, is the usage of Pop Culture references in fiction, and why I think they’re bad, and avoid them.
Now, in my zine writing—all the stuff I dump between the hallowed covers of each Inner Swine, natch—I use a lot of Pop Culture References (PCRs). I use them like my body uses oxygen. They are the building blocks of every issue of TIS, in fact, the skin-like webbing that binds together every issue. In your average TIS article there are probably between ten and twenty PCRs, most of them taken from the animated television show The Simpsons. This is because I generally have the imagination of a newt—small and narrow. In my fiction, of which I write a lot more than you might suspect, I avoid PCRs like the plague, because I believe that Pop Culture references are ultimately harmful: They limit the appeal of the piece to a certain point in history (and usually a very brief period), they disrupt the immersion that the reader experiences, and they’re generally used as a lazy sort of shorthand. I’m speaking here of fiction set in the contemporary era, of course; historical fiction is a different matter entirely, because if you are using any PCRs you’re using deliberately anachronistic ones to buttress the long-gone world of the past for your reader.
This is, of course, simply my opinion, and the opinion of a writer whose talent, not to mention his grasp of the English language, are debatable. If you must ridicule me after reading this article, please don’t ridicule me in unapproved ways; do so through accepted channels like www.ridiculejeffsomers.com. Thank you.
That’s it! You people have stood in my way long enough. I’m going to clown college!
Pop Culture only seems pervasive to you when you’re in a homogeneous group, culture-wise. If the people you spend time with watch the same shows, read the same periodicals, see the same movies, etc, then even the most obscure references pulled from these sources can be astute, amusing, and applicable to everyone. If your references come from a show or song that no one else in the room has ever seen or heard, your references will seem nonsensical and random, with none of the weight and meat that a PCR usually provides. PCRs bring with them all the pooled knowledge of the cultural artifact in question, granting whatever witticism or observation you’ve made heft and weight—a PCR is shorthand. If no one else has learned that particular code, no one will get your reference.
Inserting PCRs into fiction is a dangerous practice because a) you’re assuming all of your potential audience has had the same pop culture experience you have, and b) you’re assuming that the pop culture landscape won’t change dramatically, which is always, always a sucker bet. Things which have been part of our social landscape since we were born often have the look and feel of ancient immortality about them, when in reality they’re just corporations or artificial creations with a shelf-life.
An easy example of this is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. This fine film contained a number of PCRs which were current in 1968, and one that springs to mind is the depiction of space travel being administered by Pan Am (Pan American World Airways). Now, Pan Am still exists, believe it or not, but it is a far cry from the dominant US-based airline that it was in the late 60s. Back then, the sight of the Pan Am logo on the shuttles taking characters in the movie from Earth to the Moon was probably a satisfying PCR—people got the inference, they understood. Heck, the Pan Am Building stood astride the Manhattan skyline. Today, though, a whole generation of people have not heard of Pan Am. The Pan Am Building is now the MetLife Building. Pan Am is, pretty much, gone—and Kubrick’s PCR is rendered meaningless.
Of course, it’s not exactly meaningless, is it? Maybe we rent the movie and frown in puzzlement when Pan Am shows up, but some quick research will reveal the PCR to us, put it in context, and allow us to at least simulate the effect that it had on audiences on its initial release. Sure, you could gloss the damn movie and get the point, just like we have to do with Shakespear—but is that really the ideal? Wouldn’t it be better if people could relate to your work no matter how much pop culture changes—as long as the basic motivations of people stay the same?
Donuts. Is there anything they can’t do?
As an art form, fiction strives for the immersion of the reader. You’re trying to catch their imaginations and get them to believe in the story they’re reading. Or maybe you’re trying to construct some bizarre metaphor about man’s relationship to machines, or maybe you’re trying to make a subtle political point, in either case you’re not writing fiction, are you? You’re just using fiction as a disguise, so fuck off. If you’re writing fiction, if you’re telling a story, then suspension of disbelief is pretty important, and when seeking that all-important immersion PCRs are definitely a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, a well-placed and handled PCR can give the reader small details to grab hold of and increase their belief in the fiction you’re spinning. In the same way an accurate geographical detail can convince people they’re actually in a certain city or country, a perfect PCR can convince people they’re in the real world, and thus the characters they’re reading about are real people. But this kind of shorthand can backfire if, as mentioned above, you choose a PCR shorthand the reader doesn’t get, or if you place your bets on a PCR that doesn’t last—and none of them last. Pop culture is as ephemeral as the goddamn wind. What is ironic and hip today is tomorrow’s reader scratching his head and wondering what the fuck you’re talking about.
Of course, just about anything can eventually become a distraction as the world changes around you, you poor soul—avoiding dating yourself with technological advances isn’t a bad idea either, if you can. You may not be able to envision a world without television, but if TV as we know it disappears twenty years from now and you’ve written a book with a main plot twist that revolves around a television special, well, you’re fucked.
I’ve found that I can read anything written from the 1920s or so onward and be able to just immerse myself, and not be bothered by the occasional PCR that’s gone stale. Prior to that era, the technological and cultural differences are just too much—I’m constantly aware that I’m reading about a bygone era. You can’t really control that sort of thing; the reason things from the 1920s on up still make sense to me, assuming they aren’t littered with stale references to Al Jolson, President Harding, or The Washington Senators, is because the basic framework of the technological world I live in is still there. Characters talk on the phone, drive cars, fly in planes. Movies and radio, at least, are there. But as time goes on the gulf widens, and eventually stories which seemed perfectly fine to me when I read them ten years ago will drift into that grey area where people have to ask for overseas operators and hand-crank their cars. You can’t defend against that. When I watch a movie from ten years ago and the mobile phones all the characters are using are the size of fucking shoeboxes, you can’t blame the creators for not having the superhuman powers to know that cell phones would soon be tiny and sleek. All you can do is your best.
Old people don’t need companionship. They need to be isolated and studied so that it can be determined what nutrients they have that might be extracted for our personal use.
And there’s the rub—doing your best to make sure your stories stay fresh for decades, or even centuries. Okay, Bill Shakespeare gets away with his ancient references to the fads and catch-phrases of Elizabethan England because he was a genius. How many of us writers are geniuses? Damn few, and certainly not me, and certainly not you. Besides, if your stories start to get a little stale after a few centuries, that’s pretty damn good. If you’re, say, Douglas Coupland and your most famous book is a museum piece five measly years after it’s publication, then you’ve failed. Sure, maybe you coined a catchphrase and made a mint off of lapsed film rights deals, but your book is turning into mite-food on a million used-book shelves across the country, and no one is even paying fifty cents for it. Big whoop.
The point is, PCRs are a cheap, lazy way to get something across. In the same way I will resort to a quote from The Simpsons when out with my friends because I can’t think of anything truly clever to say, writers often fall back on a PCR in order to convey something they don’t want to take the time or energy to convey in a more elegant, and more lasting way. The reference does all the work for them. The problem is that PCRs are fleeting in their effectiveness and poetic value. The more gloss your work needs as time crawls by, the less it will be read by people. It’s as simple as that. Now, maybe, if you’re one of them aforementioned geniuses, your work will be studied. People may take the time to investigate what the fuck you meant when you wrote Charlie hopped on his Segway and did his best The Fast and the Furious imitation, writing a careful gloss on the margin of college textbooks of the future. But if you’re like most writers, this won’t happen, and if someone finds a dogeared paperback copy of your novel fifty years in the future in the giveaway box at the local bookstore and they’re totally confused by the first sentence of your book because it contains four PCRs that have faded into the dustbin of history, well, you’re screwed.
I recall once watching this heinous movie called Sliver. Out in 1993, it starred then-hot Sharon Stone and never-hot Billy Baldwin in a ludicrous plot involving hidden cameras in an apartment building, hot sex that looked painful, and, for all I know, alien leprechauns who secretly ran the earth. It doesn’t matter much what the plot was, my example involve a scene early on in the film when the filmmakers were trying to demonstrate that the strait-laced, repressed main character played by Stone was young and hip. They did this by having her express a wish to skip the fucking opera and go to a Pearl Jam concert. Back in 1993 this was a not-bad stab at a PCR—Pearl Jam was at the height of its powers, riding the Grunge wave. Ten years later, it probably mystifies anyone under twenty, and it just amuses the rest of us, who know you can get Pearl Jam tickets in your fucking cereal these days. The writers used a quick-and-dirty PCR to get their point across, and although nothing was going to save Sliver from complete suckiness, it sure doesn’t help that its main character is forever frozen thinking that Pearl Jam is hip.
This is all personal opinion, of course. Just because I roll my eyes whenever I’m reading a book and they mention a TV show—as if anyone can remember any TV shows that last aired ten years or more before they were born—doesn’t mean you feel the same way. Especially since you’re not me, and are thus at a serious disadvantage. Harrumph—let’s face it, the pool of people who will get your witty play on The Flying Nun is getting smaller and smaller.