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names go drop, culture goes pop
when your characters listen to p---- j--
by michelle von euw

There is a perception about writing, that anyone can sit down at a computer or with a notebook and pen and write a story, a novel, a work of fiction. This is a widely held belief in our society, where New York Times best-selling authors claim they stopped being a stockbroker, a mechanic, a housewife, and just wrote down their ideas.

But if one goes to college and actually studies to be a writer, one will learn that this is not true. There are all sorts of rules one has to follow, pertaining to tense and person and story arc and hundreds of other guidelines one needs to know about a story before actually writing one.

The creative writing department at my college wasn't very large, so there was an expectation that a student would retain knowledge of these rules from year to year. In future courses, if you didn't have the same professor who taught you these rules, it was a likely possibility you'd have a handful of other students who knew how you should be writing.

In addition to the rules or writing -- which on a global level are by no means set in stone and discarded quite frequently by many successful authors, incidentally -- there are often little questions that writers must ask themselves, and often, grapple with their whole lives.

Here's mine: should I use pop-culture references in my fiction?

My initial instinct is to run away from any specific pinpoints of a time or place as quickly as possible. Stories aren't magazine articles; to give them such a concrete example is to date them, to subject them to the possible distraction by a future reader, "Oh, this character thought leg warmers were cool! How 1983!" I was raised on novels that went to lengths to avoid proper names, such as using "M--" to identify businesses, which you will find all through Dickens. In the books of my youth, be they classics or Sweet Dreams romances, references were specifically kept generic, and in the latter there was an almost painful avoidance of musical groups, designers, teen heartthrobs and other brand name references.

Yet, as I wrote, I found that somehow names just slipped into stories, without any sort of conscious knowledge on my part. Ross, who was in several of my creative writing classes over the years, pointed this out to my horror during our first sophomore year workshop. His comment was, "I like this story so much because your character is listening to Pearl Jam, so I know exactly who she is."

This crumbled my entire belief system regarding pop-culture references. I couldn't believe I was being praised for something I tried so hard to avoid. My fear in 1993 was that when I actually got around to publishing that story, Pearl Jam would have been a giggle-inducing footnote in grunge history. In this specific example, I could publish the story today, and the reference would still be timely, but it would actually mean something different.

Since then, I've been struggling with the dilemma: to name drop or not to name drop? Some name references remain safe, even after many generations. For decades, if a writer wants to maintain that a character is intelligent, that character went to or graduated from Harvard. (There are actually more Harvard alumni in literature than there could possibly be in the 370-year-old university's history, but the reference works).

As Ross pointed out to me - over and over, for the next three years - pop culture references serve a very useful purpose for a writer. They can be a shortcut to a character, a creative way of showing and not telling (another rule of writing). Instead of saying, "He was a punk," you can say, "He wore black leather, had his nose pierced, and listened to Minor Threat."

Ross was also a big fan of the "write what you know" theory of fiction. We argued over the extreme definition of this term - he always wanted to me to write about a college editor at a school in Washington, DC, and I insisted that if I wanted to write fiction, I wouldn't give my characters the same exact job I held. I wasn't entire sure I trusted his beliefs in proper name usage in fiction, either.

So perhaps I have yet to make my piece with pop-culture references, but I've relaxed my original ban on them. I also learned in college that William Shakespeare was a master at name-dropping; his plays are filled with references to the political and cultural matters of his time. His writings are not overpowered by them, just subtly enhanced for those who pick up on them.

If one of the greatest English writers in history can get away with pop-culture references, I guess that I can allow my characters to listen to Pearl Jam. But I've made a deal with myself: none of them are ever going to Harvard.


Originally from Boston, Michelle is a writer, editor, instructor, obsessive sports fan, loud talker, quick laugher, new mom, and chances are, she watches more television than you do. Follow her on Twitter at michellevoneuw

more about michelle von euw


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steven calcote
7.7.00 @ 3:34p

Right on Michelle. Barenaked Lady away on the pop culture references. If the Bard can do it you can too. Our writing is a product of our time--we should adhere to that concept like Spidey on a 'scraper.

lee anne ramsey
7.7.00 @ 5:28p

Michelle, I tend to agree with your class-mate Ross. Pop culture references also bring the reader in because they "get" the reference. Great fiction is full of literary/cultural allusions.

Also, you might enjoy the review in July 3rd's The New Yorker of Fitzgerald's first draft of The Great Gatsby - aka "Trimalchio in West Egg." The reviewer discusses how Fitzerald deleted some scenes for the final book where his own personal feelings overlapped too much upon the character of Gatsby. Interesting, since Gatsby is widely considered to be autobiographical. (Write what you know!)

adam kraemer
7.10.00 @ 9:57a

If you're really worried about pop culture references, and dating a story, I find it's sometimes useful to reference music that would already be in the past for a character. Instead of saying a character listened to Rancid, for example, you might have him listening to old Clash. Or I could be talking out of my ass.

jael mchenry
7.17.00 @ 2:55p

I love that Steven says "our writing is a product of our time." I shamelessly allude, both in fiction and nonfiction. Whoever said great writing has to be timeless? Even if I have to look at footnotes, a la "My Last Duchess," I would rather have a poem belong to its time than have its context deleted. (By the way I've never heard of Minor Threat and I can still picture the punk perfectly because I can imagine Minor Threat.

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