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.
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.
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.