Pop Culture

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As a college student (an English major at that), I am frequently forced to read novels that I would not ordinarily choose.  Recently, I read Evelina by Fanny Burney, perhaps not a great monolith of literary style and skill, but a novel famous for its time and groundbreaking for pre-Austenian female novelists. Yet, as I made my journey through the novel I was at turns perplexed by certain references Burney made to her contemporary actors, novelists and poets. It dated her novel to the point that footnotes were utterly necessary and Google was always at the ready. It brought a question to my mind. Was the dated nature of Burney’s novel a contributing factor in its slow descent into obscurity?

How many pop culture references are too many? When addressing great literature that has stood the test of time, the answer is usually a resounding zero. When is it acceptable to reference something in literature? According to the classics, never (unless it’s Shakespeare). To be fair, there are other forms of reference, for example, famous poems. Beginning with the advent of the novel, 18th-century writers worked under the assumption that readers were well-versed in a certain literary canon, ranging from Shakespeare to their poetic and literary contemporaries. The same cannot be said for the contemporary reader. Some Shakespearean references even go over my head, and I’m an English major who used to read Shakespeare recreationally. Unknown-1

Moving into an era where information is transferred at lightning speed, and it seems like almost everyone gets their fifteen minutes of fame, what counts as fair game for a pop-culture reference? Perhaps “safe territory” is a better phrase.  As you undertake your great novel-writing experience, you have to think to yourself, “Will my reference to Keeping up with the Kardashians be pertinent in 50 to 100 years?”  Probably not. “Well if I can’t reference Kim and Kanye, then who can I reference?” This is the real question. What pop culture has garnered enough fame to be considered canon, or at least canon adjacent? I think there are three factors to consider: Fame, Years of Existence and Impact on Society.  If it has been famous for more than fifty years, it’s a pretty sure thing that your reader has heard of it, if only peripherally. But once you move into the last ten years, it becomes more difficult to make a prediction.Unknown

What things from the modern era will make into the next century of budding writings whose authors are itching to connect to their audience through hip references? Do you think people will understand your reference to the so called “Miley Cyrus haircut?” Or will such a fashion statement fade into the deep recesses of Google only to be mined by the truly determined researcher? For the sake of society, I hope for the latter, but it is impossible to know.  Take that risk. Put your money down. You can only hope that you have bet on the winner.

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3 Responses to Pop Culture

  1. Annie says:

    I have a feeling that 50 Shades of Grey and Twilight might (unfortunately) make your list of acceptable references. I also think that whether or not the book in question becomes a movie is becoming a huge factor factor–and movies have a canon of their own. It seems like in the contemporary era we are experiencing more and more overlap between different types of media (books, movies, pop culture, etc.) that can have a positive and negative effect on the works in question. For example, I think that Harry Potter holds a place in the contemporary canon, but I wonder if when people refer back to it later they will have the books or the movies in mind.

  2. R.T. Smith says:

    So are there options? When you worry about the recognition factor of references, can you have the characters say things which don’t add up to heavy-handed explication but still contribute to the audience’s understanding? Can you create fictional counterparts to the Kims and Peytons and let conversation about them reflect our real conversation about the real (sort of) pop icons and products? And finally, are some contemporary details there for texture, as “arbitrary specifics,” and don’t require all the associative fireworks to fulfill their roles in the narrative? Quien sabe?

  3. Madeline Thorpe says:

    Chauncey makes a lot of interesting points here. Her comment on the significance of Burney reminded me of her contemporaries. In one of our classes about the origins of the novel, we learned that Richardson’s Pamela was one of the best-selling novels of the time period. Novels were also considered a lower form of literature and took a while to really gain respect in the literary world.

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