News All Sizes, Notes on Writing.

We should have a cover (and, hence, a trailer) for EXTRAORDINARY: THE TRUE STORY OF MY FAIRY GODPARENT, WHO ALMOST KILLED ME, AND CERTAINLY NEVER MADE ME A PRINCESS soon! That book will be out next Summer/Fall.

I've also just turned in a revised version of another YA book, which just MIGHT end up using the title I planned for it: DEBBIE DOES DETENTION. This is just one of a handful of titles under consideration, though. The book is a John Hughes-esque (or maybe Kevin Smith-esque) story about a neurotic, Full House-obsessed girl who tries to get over a crush on her best friend by embarking on a "holy quest" with a couple of misfits who have invented their own religion.

Now, the question that will inevitably asked: Will the pop culture references make it become outdated quickly? Do kids still know about Full House? In answer to the latter question, teenagers of today grew up in world where that show was on five times a day. It's now a part of the Teen Nick lineup. Fans of the show will recognize plenty of references in the book, but all people who haven't seen it need to know is that it's an old family-friendly sitcom with a lot of hugging (which the main character explains right away).

The former question is the biggie - debates about whether there ought to be pop culture in YA books are endless. Many are the blog reviews of I Kissed a Zombie that went to great pains to say that the book will not "stand the test of time" because of the pop culture references (I'm not sure which ones they mean - most of them are to Leonard Cohen and Cole Porter, which I can't imagine will be more dated in twenty years than they are already).

I've covered this before, but it bears repeating: there are arguments against using pop culture in books, but "the test of time" is not one of them. Pop culture references in books can make it look like you're bending over backwards to look hip and contemporary (which readers see right through), and if you have your main character be, say, a big Beyonce fan, many readers who hate Beyonce will judge the character (and the book) harshly (it would be nice to say that most people are better readers than that, but believe me, it's an issue).

However, when I read a book from fifteen or twenty years ago, the pop culture references are usually the LEAST dated thing about the book. ALL books from back then are "dated" - the characters don't have cell phones, they lick stamps, flip channels, watch videos on MTV, have no access to Youtube (so if they miss something on TV, man, it's GONE), read encyclopedias, think a college degree will get them a good job, buy film, get chicken pox, and have trouble tracking down a copy of an old book.

Most classic works of literature - Dickens, Shakespeare, Twain, you name it - are loaded with pop culture references. They're dated now: our concept of what's funny changes over time (for a good 100 years it was widely agreed that The Pickwick Papers was the funniest book in the world - when I read it now I find it funny, but get a "well, you had to be there" vibe). And sometimes their references to popular songs and political scandals of the day require footnotes. But these are no more dated now than the references to the kind of clothes the characters wore or the kinds of carriages they used. And yet, they've all stood the test of time, because the stories and characters continue to entertain and to resonate.

If the main character of a book is a teenager, it's ridiculous to imagine that pop culture is not a part of their life (whether they love it or hate it). All books end up being period pieces eventually - to attempt to keep this from happening would inevitably result in a very bland book. There are readers who don't want to read a book that seems as though it must have taken place two years ago, not right that very week, but those same readers aren't going to want to read a book that came out two years ago in the first place.

So, there's always a danger that I'm going to get dinged by some bloggers for the Full House references, and the day will probably come when readers are less familiar with that show than they are now. But I don't think it'll matter. The book isn't ABOUT Full House, it's about Debbie trying to figure out who she is and who she can be when the life and future she's imagined for herself have fallen apart. People will still be dealing with that sort of thing long after any book where the characters' cars need gas have become period pieces.

Here's me with Dave Coulier in 2002:


davexpat said...

I agree -- pop culture references that relate to your target audience don't need to stand the test of time. Only if the entire content of the book links to something anachronistic will the book (or other medium) be harmed.

A recent victim of this was the film Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. When the book was written, the idea of owning a book with all the world's knowledge seems silly. The film came out after the popularization of the Internet, though just before the iPad. Knowing that the Guide could exist helped tank the film. But the book lives on!

Bri Meets Books said...

I have to omit, I got a little excited when you mentioned it was has FULL HOUSE references. That show help raise me and I love a little 80s and 90's kitsch in my YA.

I think this is an interesting discussion (and one that came up on the Nanowrimo forums recently), and I love that you referenced Porter and Cohen. I've not read I KISS A ZOMBIE.. but now I want to.

I think with pop culture, it depends on what you choose. Justin Bieber has a ticking time bomb of fame left, whereas people like Madonna? Such staying power. Though I'm not a Madonna fan or anything. I love when writers invent their own pop culture. I'm writing a YA about a girl obsessed with a tv show and everything in my WIP is made up. It's fun.

Adam Selzer said...

Well, who knows? Maybe Bieber will surprise us all and grow up to be a hell of a songwriter or something. You never can tell which of the teen idols will make good in the end.

But that said, I'd only use him in a book if I were picking a very specific time (like, March, 2010) for that book to take place. And I'd refer to other news items from that week while I was at it.

That said, if I were to read a book about a teenager that took place circa 1994, I'd want to know what they thought of grunge, the same way you can't set a book in 1964 without referring to The Beatles. Trying to leave out pop culture is going to lead to a bland book. Inoffensive, maybe, but bland.

The trick is to do it the right way. If you're using pop culture as the means of connecting to readers, you're doing it the wrong way (since the connection will only last as long as the culture).

I've made up pop culture myself now and then.

VoyagerG said...

Great post on 'Pop Culture' and I find it hilarious that you're using 'Full house.' I was just bemoaning the other day that a lot of kids today don't even know what a VCR is or video-tape. I'm someone who will proudly walk around with a walkman or discman and my recorded tapes from the 1990's. I was born in 1980, but I much prefer 70's and 80's and just a wee bit 90's. (Though the internet is one of the greatest modern inventions.)
I actually think many writers are really trying to keep the Pop culture from the last fifty years alive. There's countless books on the subject or one specific thing. I also can't believe all the 80's movies being rehashed these days either. Makes me feel old already.

Adam's New Book: Sept 2013