Episode 70: Beam Me Up, Scotty! Pop Culture References in Literature

On November 23, Kasie and Rex riffed on pop culture use in written work. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Pop Culture References in Fiction & Poetry


  • What are pop culture references?
  • Advantages of using them
  • Disadvantages of using them
  • What our SC writers are up to this week
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Link to podcast

Segment 1

Last week between segments we ended up talking about whether you should use pop culture references in your work. There’s a slew of reasons not to and we’ll get into that. But suffice it to say that most MFA programs and literary types will tell you a pop culture reference dates your work and may not be relatable for all readers. So using them is risky at best and against the rules at worst.

What do we mean when we say pop culture? Let’s get some resources in on this.

What is pop culture? The thoughts, attitudes, trends, and perspectives of a specific era and culture. Often it manifests as music, film, television, sports or other arts and entertainment. Sometimes it’s political, news stories, or fashion trends.

Sociologists consider pop culture to be the material values of the society. It’s said the origins of pop culture are the Industrial Revolution – yet another wonderful contribution of the middle class.

British media specialist John Storey wrote the book on pop culture (Cultural Theory and Popular Cultureand offers six takes (who doesn’t love a good list?):

  1. Widely favored or well-liked by many people: it has no negative connotations.
  2. Whatever is left after you’ve identified what “high culture” is; considered inferior, and it functions as a marker of status and class.
  3. Commercial objects produced for mass consumption by non-discriminating consumers; a tool used by the elites to suppress or take advantage of the masses.
  4. Folk culture, something that arises from the people rather than imposed upon them.
  5. Negotiated: partly imposed on by the dominant classes, and partly resisted or changed by the subordinate classes.
  6. The distinction between “authentic” versus “commercial” is blurred; today users are free to embrace some manufactured content, alter it for the own use, or reject it entirely and create their own.

Segment 2

The use of pop culture references is a short cut. That may be why the literary elite hate it so much. They think writers should be more clever, more intentional. But what do readers think?

I took the question to Facebook and got these awesome responses:

  • Melissa Henderson said she thinks they can be useful in certain stories, specifically where the time and era need to be established. 
    • Think about the first Castle Rock scene in Stand By Me, Gordy pulls a comic book off the dime store shelf, carries it to the cashier and the old timey cash register rings it up for 5 cents. Rockin’ Robin is playing in the background. 
    • But Melissa also points out that the age of your reader will determine how effective certain references are. 

So, what are some classic references that you expect the majority of people to know? Is it just the Billy Joel We Didn’t Start the Fire list?

Filmmakers use these kinds of references all the time. Music, clothing, cars. Godfather 2 changes decades with a car riding across the screen to indicate we were in a different era. So if filmmakers are doing it, why not authors?

This blogger eschews the use of pop culture but ends her post with this insight:

“Today, a wave of books (see Eleanor & Park and The Perks of Being a Wallflower) are drawing on pop culture from the 80s and 90s to supply new adults with their first taste of nostalgia.

The craziest thing?

Even when a generation dies out, their nostalgia lives on. That’s called cultural nostalgia, and it’s one of the main reasons why historical fiction exists. Readers who consider themselves “old souls” feel drawn towards the past, and books with rich, historically accurate worlds allow them to escape into that past.”

So do we think the pop culture references meant to invoke nostalgia are okay?

From Facebook, one of our guests and author of the Christwalk series of non-fiction books, Anna Courie, said Ready Player One was a walk down memory lane. There were some references in that book that I completely missed. It was so chock full of them. Intentionally.

Segment 3

There are a lot of good reasons to NOT use pop culture references. This blogger starts her post with a list of them:

  • They date the story — and people hate bad trends, so while it may seem relevant while you’re writing the story, consider if it will have sustainability or if it will annoy people in five years.
  • They create in groups and out groups — people love the trend or reference, or they hate it.
  • Your future audience might not get them — fleeting trends can feel like Easter eggs, a secret between you and the writer, but sometimes they’re just unintentional inclusions.

So how do you do it? And is it legal? This blogger has some tips.

Fair Use is the legal precedent that protects most references — name dropping a rock band, comparing a character to a famous one like Katniss Everdeen, or including some lyrics or a quote — as long as they’re properly cited.

We worked on this with After December. Tony kept a notebook of song lyrics, poetry, and quotes he liked. The Green Velvet Notebook chapter is that collection. At my editor’s suggestion, I subbed a lot of the commercial pieces for which I couldn’t get permission, with some closer to me and the creators I know. My own collection of things people had said to me over time, my own bar napkin poetry, and the band Backyard Green, a now-defunct group with whom I’m still friends.

So should fiction be timeless? Should it eschew pop culture and rely on a kind of “every” experience generality that doesn’t run the risk of obsolescence? This writer suggests we categorize the fiction that uses references and determine (judge?) whether it’s effective in its intentions:

  • Contemporary realism – using pop culture references to provide a reflection on the values and priorities of the era and the people (characters) operating in it
  • Recent-historical fiction – using pop culture references to establish the era; mostly the iconic and easily recognizable, right? Music like Peter Paul and Mary or television like Archie Bunker.
  • Timelessness in an obvious time context – the example is Salvage the Bones about a family attempting to survive Hurricane Katrina — so a specific historic event — but doesn’t use any references to TV, music, or sports; books with 9/11 as a backdrop might be similar, right?

Best line in this article: “allusions are intentional and malleable features of building a fictional world.” The author goes on to say asking whether they should be there is the wrong question, we should be asking if they do what they’re meant to. 

Segment 4

Okay, so what about other genres? Do they take it as seriously as our fiction debate takes it?

Online contributor Arthur Turfa offers this: “In my poetry I have some where the theme is appropriate.In prose, one wants to be accurate and give a good sense of time and place. In poetry, the danger is that the poem will be incomprehensible to people who do not understand the reference. Also, in poetry the individual words stand out more given the brevity of the pieces.”

So we aren’t poetry experts by any means but I would agree that a poetry reference would be harder to get away with if it wasn’t recognized. 

Then, Lisa Puls Dunn said, “I’m an editor for a small press and instruct my authors not to use pop culture references to avoid legal issues that might arise should any of the entities being referenced decide they don’t want to be referenced. In my own writing, I occasionally reference pop culture but try to keep things generic as much as possible.”

Which echoes my publisher and my editor who suggested I could get the same mileage out of fictional “references” — all The Green Velvet Notebook was meant to do was to give an impression of the kinds of thoughts Tony collected. I think it turned out well.

Upcoming events for authors:

TONIGHT! It’s the After December book launch party at Beef O’Brady’s on Hardscrabble Road at 7 p.m. We *may* put some of it on Facebook Live, so check the WriteOnSC page there for that. Kasie and Rex both signing books, talking about the Patreon special offer, and in general being business-y about this book thing.

Revisit: Friend of the show and local publisher, author, and teacher James D. McCallister said, “Thanks for all you do, #WriteOnSC, including my recent appearance on the show. I’ll be (finally!) officially signing and promoting the DIXIANA series during the upcoming Five Points Starry Night event on December 13. I also recently delved into poetry and got my first journal acceptance, with the piece also shortlisted for their so-called Bukowski Prize. It didn’t win or place, but still not bad for a wet-behind-the-ears poet.” Congratulations, Don, and we’ve added that link to the Starry Night event so our locals can plan to attend.

Ready to support Write On SC? Go to Patreon.com/WriteOnSC to become a patron!

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