You walk into Barnes & Noble and BAM! You’re face-to-face with a gorgeous display of new releases. A little green number at the bottom of the display catches your eye. Clever title. Attractive jacket. You pick it up to skim through the first chapter, and four words jump out at you:

Abercrombie. Nickelback. American Idol. Razr.

Would you keep reading?

Up until recently, my answer would be no. Uh-uh. No pop culture references in my books, thank you.

There are legitimate reasons to frown at pop culture references in books:

1) They “date” the story.

People are attracted to new trends and grossed out by the old trends.

Thing is, new trends become old trends fast–so when you drop a trendy reference into your writing, you are essentially slapping an expiration label on your work.

It’s sort of like those people who installed shag carpet in the 70s, only to find that they had to rip it out before they could sell their house in the 80s. There’s just one big difference. Pop culture references in a book are a lot harder to remove than shag carpet in a house.

2) They create in-groups and out-groups.

People also tend to be more opinionated about current trends than they are about past trends.

Image result for prince
My mom and dad still argue about whether or not Prince was great.

Today, nobody is too worried about what happens if you play Prince’s Purple Rain album backwards, but a few generations ago, owning the “satanic” album could get you ostracized by certain conservative groups. And name-dropping Purple Rain in your book? That could be a one-way ticket to a book burning, my friend.

3) They baffle your future audience.

Pop culture moves fast, so a reference written in 2005 might be confusing to a reader in 2015.

This is especially true if you’re relying on pop culture references to develop your characters.

In 2005, you could say that your heroine “wore heelies and sported chunky pink highlights,” and your reader would have a clear handle on the type of girl she was dealing with. Rebellious skater chick. On the other hand, a reader in 2015 could misinterpret “heelies” as high heels and associate pink with preppy girls.

You don’t want readers to envision Reese when you were going for Avril!

But if you take a larger scope, pop culture references might add value to a book by:

1) Adding a touch of realism.

As ElectricLiterature points out, we live in a world full of corporate branding. A world where friends spend as much time talking about their favorite sitcoms as they do their own lives.

And it makes sense that characters in contemporary fiction should live in that world too.

Take Elsa, the young protagonist of My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry. Elsa is pre-occupied with the Harry Potter series, as are many young girls from her generation. She even uses HP to guide her own thought processes. She wonders if she is brave enough to wear a “Gryffindor” scarf, and she thinks of her nagging neighbor as “She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.”

These details paint a highly realistic picture of a young girl’s mind in a market-driven society.

2) Capturing history.

I’ve always enjoyed reading historical novels that are rich on detail.

Mention a singer who is crooning from the radio in the background of a 1920s scene, and I will look her up. Refer to an Edwardian garment that I’ve never heard of, and I’ll look that up too. The need to pause, google, and learn adds an extra dimension to historical stories. They’re like those interactive children’s books, with hidden flaps you can uncover to find more information!

And someday, we too will be history. Our pop culture too will give readers a reason to pause, google, an learn.

3) Setting up a comeback! 

Everything comes back in style, eventually.

Image result for purple lava lamp
Anyone else think we’re due for a lava lamp revival?

The fashion cycle runs on a 20-year clock. The literary world might have a longer clock. It took nine centuries for the Renaissance to revive Greco-Roman traditions and eight centuries for the Irish Literary Revival to get back to their Gaelic roots. But the fact remains: what goes around comes around.

4) Tapping into nostalgia.

Don’t want to wait nine centuries for the literary cycle to bring you back around? Don’t worry. There’s still an audience for your culturally-infused book.

People are hardwired to cherish things that remind them of their youth. (It’s called the reminiscence bump. You can find out what it means for writers here). If the cultural references in your book remind people of their youth, then you’ll be hitting them right in the sweet spot that we call nostalgia.

Today, a wave of books (see Eleanor & Park and The Perks of Being a Wallflower) are drawing on pop culture from the 80s and 90s to supply new adults with their first taste of nostalgia.

The craziest thing?

Even when a generation dies out, their nostalgia lives on. That’s called cultural nostalgia, and it’s one of the main reasons why historical fiction exists. Readers who consider themselves “old souls” feel drawn towards the past, and books with rich, historically accurate worlds allow them to escape into that past.

So, what do you think? Yay or nay to pop culture references in books?

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy…

Why does 50 Shades of Grey talk about Tess of d’Urbervilles so much?


What is the Reminiscence Bump and Why is it Ruining Our Literature?



4 thoughts on “How do you feel about pop culture references in books?

  1. This is an interesting question and one I often struggle with. For the most part, I try to keep pop culture references out of my work, for the reasons you listed. However, I am guilty of going through a reminiscence bump of my own right now–I’m in my mid-forties and can’t seem to stop looking back fondly on the mid to late 80s ,when I was a teenager. In fact, I wrote a novel that takes place in the late 80s, about a group of teenage wolf shapeshifters (cool, right?). I dropped all kinds of cultural references in that book. I knew what it was to be a teenager back then. Teenagers now? Not so much. It’s a different world, and yet the experience of being a teenager is universal in the most important ways, too.

    I love that book, yet it still sits in my drawer gathering dust– again, for all the reasons you listed. Who needs another book indulging in 80s nostalgia? Maybe I just wrote it for me, and now I can move on. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.


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