Recently, writer Kevin Pickard wrote an article for Electric Literature entitled ‘Should Fiction Be Timeless? Pop Culture References in Contemporary Novels’. In it, he explored the enduring debate in literary circles over whether it is acceptable – preferable, even – to interweave popular culture references in a novel, or whether writers should avoid doing so at all costs.
The argument against cultural references centres on the idea that they date a work of fiction. If your protagonist is singing along to Adele’s ‘Hello’ on the radio, if she’s cooking from Ella Woodward’s cookbook, if she’s on a date at the cinema watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens as a new release, then the story is firmly rooted in early 2016 in Britain: these are elements of culture that are current and in the future they will be associated with this time. That, according to some writers, is not desirable – what if a reader in ten years cannot identify with the story because it feels out of step with the modern time?
For those who advocate so-called ‘timeless fiction’, there is the sense that popular culture somehow cheapens writing. Then there is the warning: ‘Don’t alienate your readers!’ If in my novel the protagonist listens to Adele on the radio, do I risk alienating a reader who doesn’t like Adele? Will the reader give up on the story because he or she feels unable to settle comfortably into the culture? Stick to generic references, goes the advice: the protagonist listened to a love song on the radio.
But generic references do not root a story in its cultural time, and they do not give a vivid sense of characterisation and story. In my own writing, my aim is always to transport my reader to a place and time, to immerse him or her in my fictional world. To do that, I weave in as much detail as possible, from the quality of light to the scent in the air to the taste of bitter coffee on the tongue – and yes, the occasional subtle nod to the culture of the place and time, such as a song playing in the background.
I do not wish my fiction to be timeless in the sense of being read as applying to any modern or recent time; I want my stories to be authentic. Take these reviews of my novels:
- Burning Embers: ‘Using her travel experiences, [Hannah] is able to weave a wonderful written image of Kenya and the time period so that I felt as if I was truly in Africa.’ (Unwrapping Romance)
- The Echoes of Love: ‘I still have that feeling that I was there, but I’ve never been in Venice or in Italy.’(Books Are My Life)
- Indiscretion: ‘I could almost feel the heat of the Spanish sun on my face and hear the sound of flamenco guitars as I was reading…’ (Amazon review)
My readers enjoy visiting the time periods and places in which I set my stories, and occasional references to popular culture help to build the setting.
The operative word here is ‘occasional’. I don’t pepper references to songs and television shows and so on in my writing; I don’t drown out the story. I think a little goes a very long way, because that risk of alienating the reader is real if you go too far. The story and the characters must be the focus, not the setting and time.
As with most things in life, the answer is to strike a balance – and to always be genuine.