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My Book's Pop Culture Is So Cool It Hasn't Been Invented Yet

Some books are intensely tied into current pop culture. They flash brand names, refer to the hottest techno-toys, name-drop celebrities like mad. Other books include pop culture more peripherally, like referring to bands or websites. However, I try to avoid pop culture in my books as much as possible, if I can help it.

Here's my line of thinking. If we're lucky, the books we finish today will be published approximately two years after they're sold. Trends change fast – that fast, even. Even if they're still somewhat current when the book debuts, a year or two afterward, they'll almost certainly feel stale, if not totally out of touch.

I mean, just a few years ago, iPhones didn't exist. Twitter was a twinkle in a bird's eye. MySpace used to be everyone's gathering place, but it fell from grace faster than anyone could have predicted. It's been all about Facebook for the past few years, but what about Google Plus? Tumblr versus Blogger? Anybody remember LiveJournal?

The same goes for celebrities. A few years ago, Tom Cruise was Chief of the Crazies, but he's been replaced by Charlie Sheen – and even that bout of lunacy feels like old news. For a long while, Britney's antics dominated headlines, but they've since been superseded by Paris's, then by Lindsey's, and now Snooki's, and next, who knows. Hopefully not yours or mine.

(Slang is another ephemeral beast that surely deserves its own post.)

Pop culture and technology move fast. Incredibly fast – but in such a way that you don't really see them changing, until you look back a year or so down the line. It's hard enough to write for teens as an adult, especially books grounded in a present-day, high school atmosphere. What seems awesome and current to adults might not to teens, even right this minute. Factor in a couple years until publication, and the potential for embarrassment is a whole lot higher.

I'm not knocking super commercial books tied to the times. They're fun, and important too. But I really, really want my books to endure as long as possible. And so I do my best to write around pop culture, either by keeping things generic ("my phone" instead of "my Android"), classic (David Bowie is forever), or just refraining from implementing them into the plot unless absolutely necessary.

What do you think about pop culture and technology in books? (Set in the present-day, of course – SF is different!) Do you include it? How much? If not, how do you write around it?

I've noticed some authors invent celebrities, bands, websites and devices. Sometimes I find it even more distracting, though. What so you think?

..lolcats are so five years ago
Kirsten Hubbard

Kirsten is the author of Like Mandarin, Wanderlove, and the middle grade novel Watch the Sky.

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  1. I'm writing a contemporary YA book now, and I've tried to watch the name dropping of celebs and other technology. Sometimes it's hard not to, as the book is centered around young musicians, and they talk about bands they like, but I try to write around it when I can.

  2. I'm anxious to see what people think about's a concern of mine. My book is written in mixed prose and some of it is blog entries. I worry that people won't be blogging still when it comes out (which probably won't be true, but still!). I teach in a highschool and I see how fast my kids move from one form of social media to another. If you aren't careful, you almost date you stories when you use pop culture.

  3. My contemporary fantasy is still a WIP, and so far the only thing I've included are references to Glee and YouTube. Think those are safe for a while?

    Hmmm . . . I didn't think ahead when I wrote it, but if I substituted "High School Musical" for Glee, yeah that feels really dated. So maybe Glee will feel that way.

  4. there is nothing more cringe-worthy than a book with dated references.

    like you say, there are classic references which can TOTALLY be used effectively. and i even wager there are current references which can be used and maintain a sense of being hip and relevant. i think that's substantially harder to pull off, however.

    in related news, I LOVE LOLCATS.

  5. I agree that it's a big mistake to get overly referential to current pop culture in your work.

    A good recent example is the constant mentions of iPhones in William's Gibson's latest book, Zero History. I love how Gibson has always "invented" new technologies and pop culture ideas in his work.

    I think Zero History's focus on iPhones will read as so dated in a couple of years, which sucks.

  6. I read a couple of Kathy Reichs' Bones novels, and the thing that irritated me most was all the cultural referencing. I, too, try to avoid it. The only way I think you can get away with it is if you somehow say, "This novel is set in 2010." Then it's clear the cultural references refer to things current *at that time.* I would still exercise restraint, though, else it can feel over-done.

  7. I think that hiding your cultural moment can be dicey, too, though. My girlfriend always joking about the Canadian TV show "Degrassi High." It was made in the eighties -- but that they invented all their pop culture references to make it seem that it could take place anytime. But then the markers are things they weren't even aware of. It still feels very much like an eighties' show.

    So I would say: embrace your datedness. The shows I keep thinking about right now are Mad Men (60s) and Arrested Development (early 2000s). Can YA also benefit from such historicity? I think so.

  8. I agree with you wholeheartedly. It can be really distracting when you're reading a book that has pop culture references sprinkled through it like crumbs. It takes me out of the book, especially if the reference I particularly can't stand.

    The same can be said for those books where the authors go way out of their way to create new words for things to remind the reader that the story is set in the future. That can be just as annoying, I find. Example: a book I read recently referred to vehicles as "trannies", and I'm sure you can guess that I wasn't picturing cars. Totally distracting.

  9. I basically agree with you: I try to leave specific pop culture references out of my writing entirely. I don't like the idea of something so simple dating my writing; I'd love for someone to read my books 10, 20 years after they were written and still feel as if they could have occurred in their time. If absolutely necessary, I'd probably give in and use the pop culture reference...but honestly, they sometimes annoy me when I see them frequently pop up in books I read. I often find that I can easily substitute a pop culture reference with description that describes what I'm trying to convey.

  10. I agree with Ryan that your work is probably going to be dated at some point whether you include pop culture references or not. Art is a product of its time. Inescapable. Besides, can you imagine if, in The Outsiders, S. E. Hinton had referred not to Elvis and The Beatles but to imaginary pop culture icons? (The way Mary Downing Hahn made up "The Purple Punks" for Daphne's Book?) Ridiculous.

    A trick I've noticed some authors using is to refer to pop culture references with the qualifier "old" -- like, "that old song X" or "that old movie Y." The problem is that sometimes X and Y aren't actually old, so it's totally obvious and bogus and distracting! In her Fell novels, M. E. Kerr is a big offender! She talks about "old Depeche Mode" songs, when her novels were contemporary with Depeche Mode's biggest hits. Meanwhile, the fact that the characters are listening to said Depeche Mode songs ON TAPE while wearing oh-so-80s clothing kinda gives the time period away!

    My feeling: don't be a name-dropper. But, as Ryan said, don't go out of your away to avoid all mentions of pop culture either. Something will betray you, and you won't know what... so don't bother trying.

  11. I think that referencing pop culture works for some books (obviously, or no one would do it) but I like to avoid it as much as possible, too. For the exact reasons you've said in this post :)


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Item Reviewed: My Book's Pop Culture Is So Cool It Hasn't Been Invented Yet Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kirsten Hubbard