A Fabulous Plastic Hoopla:
In my novel, the narrator’s mother has a “fabulous plastic hoopla” where the saleslady extols the virtues of Tupperware to fawning women drinking vodka-spiked punch with a scum-like foam of quivering pastel sherbet. The point of the scene is not the burping storage containers, but the daughter’s uncanny observations of the women in the 60’s, and how, “with fixed smiles and rustling nylons, they preen like faded parrots with a tug of the sweater or reassuring touch to their glossy pearls, as if a plasticware party was the biggest social even in town, bringing about a compulsion to brag about their wall-to-wall carpeting or new dishwasher, or gossip about someone else’s life, each story more sordid than the last.”
Do cultural references eventually lose their impact?
I wonder what will happen ten, twenty or thirty years from publication, however? Will the references lose their punch? Beyond my presumption that 1. it will be published, and 2. any story will be around for eternity, I think writers need to keep a few things in mind when it comes to cultural references.
Memories of my Father Watching Television by Curtis White is a novel about family life in the 50s and 60s, and it has plenty of popular culture references where the father sits in front of the TV eating uncooked Spam and aerosol Cheez Whiz from the can while he watches “Combat” and “Bonanza.” One of the reader reviewers writes: “I am 26 years old and have no memory of ANY of the TV shows White is spoofing. I also have no memory whatsoever of my father. However, this book’s critique of American values and the complex and worldview of the Velveeta-eating, armchair-inhabiting American male is relevant beyond the scope of its irreverent title.”
For this reader, the references have apparently done their job. And that’s the trick, I think. When using references, it’s important to consider if it will engage the reader. Can it create a common reading experience, or will it make the story inaccessible?
Points to consider in your writing:
When considering the use of a reference to a certain brand or a particular pop star, ask yourself:
- Does it make sense in the context? Does it play a large part in the scene or is it just wallpaper? If you have a story about a loser who sits in his basement and watches television, you don’t necessarily have to show the reader what’s on the television.
- Is the reference from the narrator or the author? Beware if you are simply trying to be clever.
- Consider the tone of the piece. Is it comedic or of a world view? Don’t let the reference derail the scene.
- If you used a fabricated or fictional reference, would it make a difference?
Culture is always evolving
Another consideration is that certain pop culture icons are still evolving. For example, Britney Spears is unstable as a cultural reference. Twenty years from now, who knows what she’ll be up to? She could be tragic, comedic or comeback. Frank Sinatra was a teen idol in the 50s but my daughter knows him as a dead fat Italian singer who was famous in Vegas. Bill Cosby went from iconic comedian to suspected rapist. Specific name brands also lose relevance, such as Jordache or Sassoon. However, even after American Idol is gone, there will still be talent competitions, so the name itself, even if the show is forgotten one day, will remain relevant.
Also, what a character likes in popular culture can negatively define the character, so it’s never a good idea to put an unwanted reference in the reader’s head. It’s like a comedian who walks on stage like Rodney Dangerfield; the audience will automatically compare him to Rodney Dangerfield. Is that a good or bad thing? This kind of negativity can work in your favor, though. Consider the difference between having a character who is a fan of Kiss than one who idolizes Kiss. The degree in which a character is invested in pop culture can say a lot.
When a story is in a particular time period, the atmosphere doesn’t need to be dependent on references to work. Titles of TV shows, rock bands or brands can be fictionalized and they will work just as well, or even better.
Can you, as a reader, think of any references which swayed your opinion of a character? How and when do you use cultural references in your writing? Do you consider whether or not it’s going to stand up for readers of another generation?
Linda K. Sienkiewicz is the author of the award-winning novel In the Context of Love, a story about one woman’s need to tell the truth without shame.
Angelica had always suspected there was something deeply disturbing about her family, but the truth was more than she bargained for.
Sarton Women’s Fiction Finalist
Eric Hoffer Book Award Finalist
Readers’ Favorite Finalist
USA Book News Best Book Finalist
Great Midwest Book Fest Honorable Mention.
“…at once a love story, a cautionary tale, and an inspirational journey.” ~ Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of National Book Award Finalist, American Salvage, and critically acclaimed Once Upon a River,and Mothers, Tell Your Daughters