[Book Talk] Pop Culture References: Alienating or Illuminating?

12:29 Cilla P 12 Comments



Once upon a time, before I had access to cable television and internet connection, I was a fairly sheltered kid with limited knowledge of Western pop culture. These days, it's easy to Google something, but back then, if I didn't understand a reference in a novel, I pretty much guessed from context. So when I started reading The Princess Diaries, there was a lot of guessing going on. I figured Lifetime had a lot of weird, cheesy movies. The Blair Witch Project was probably a horror movie. I never watched Party of Five or Pretty in Pink, but they sounded like cute movies. (Mind you, I was also around eleven years old at this time.) 

Even now that I have more exposure to Hollywood and such, there are still references I stumble over. When a character talks a lot about bands I never listen to, for example, or movies that are a classic but I've never seen (for instance: The Rocky Horror Picture Show references in Perks of Being a Wallflower). I generally don't mind guessing (or Googling), but there are times when having to do that stops me from relating to the character's passion or understanding what they're talking about.

On the other hand, it can be argued that having to Google those references can be educational. Though I still have never seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show, I know who Frank-N-Furter is now. My friend, an avid reader of The Princess Diaries, told me that she looked up the books and movies mentioned in the series - which she otherwise wouldn't have heard of - then proceeded to read/watch  (and sometimes enjoy) them.

References to popular culture in books are unavoidable, considering that some pieces of it can be a kind of shorthand that everyone gets. I don't mind those shorthands sprinkled across a story, because then I can either move past it or learn something new. But when the story is drowning in them and I don't get them, they would likely put me right off reading it.

What do you think?  
Have you ever been put off a book because of its large dose of pop culture references?
Or have you ever learned something new from such a book?

12 comments:

  1. LOVE THIS TOPIC!

    I think it depends on the book. I remember reading Ruby Red (which was originally published in German then translated to English though hte story takes place in London) and thinking it had a little too many Western pop culture references. It just seemed out of place to me.

    But I think for certain stories it works. There are a few New Adult novels that take place in the 80s and I think those references help establish the setting.

    And like you, I've kept track of references I don't know-particularly other novels--so that one day I can read them and get more out of the story.

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    1. That's a good point! The references do need to fit with the story and serve a purpose. I like finding other titles through a book - though I remember looking up a title during my re-read of the Princess Diaries and being glad I couldn't have done it before! I think I would have been quite traumatised by that particular book's content haha.

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  2. Wow, I've really never thought about this before. I think that anytime I don't understand a reference, I just don't notice it. My brain does it's best to fill in the holes, and then I move on. I don't think I've ever considered dnfing a book simply because of a surplus of confusing references, but that might just be because I've never actually picked up a book like that. Interesting post!

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    1. I think maybe we readers know which books would be too far outside of our realm of knowledge? Like I wouldn't pick up a story that's centered around the rise and fall of the Beatles, because I wouldn't know a thing about the events they refer too!

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  3. I always think the problem with pop culture references is they date stuff - I loved the Princess Diaries and Bridget Jones but the references are all very nineties. I still loved all the lists in Princess Diaries though, so maybe it doesn't matter too much - though it would have been better if I'd understood more, haha.

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    1. That's true! I wonder if the noughties kids would understand and love those references in Princess Diaries...

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  4. Great topic! :)
    I know what you mean with this, because I'm one of those people who hasn't watched a lot of films or tv shows considered to be 'classics', and so I don't get a lot of pop culture references. As you say, you can Google them, and I've often learnt new things that way, but I think when you have to stop and do that it does take you out of the book a little bit, so I think it can be a little jarring sometimes!

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    1. *highfives* I agree - it takes away from the reading experience if you have to go look something up, especially if it happens multiple times!

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  5. I agree that pop culture references can be great if you get them, but bad if you're lost or if there are just too many of them. I'm an older YA reader, so I'm often at a loss with some of the references---especially pop music (or pretty much all popular music), which I don't pay attention to at all. I can generally understand the references enough to just move on, but sometimes it gets tiring to not know what someone's talking about.

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

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    1. I'm often at a loss at the music references too, though usually it's more of the classic rock variety, haha.

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  6. Great topic, Cilla! This has always been on the edge of my mind, but you've given my thoughts some voice.

    Have you read the book 'Carry On' by Rainbow Rowell? (If not, the book is pretty much Harry Potter fanfiction.) There were lots of references to Harry Potter, as well as other English idioms and references to bands. I have read Harry Potter, but I wondered what people, who hadn't read HP, would think of Carry On. Or, would someone who wasn't very well-versed in English idioms or Western pop culture enjoy the book?

    For me, I think when a reference is made and I don't get it, I just gloss over it and don't give it much thought -- which probably means I won't appreciate the story as much as someone else would, but ah well! If I'm very engaged with the material, maybe I'll take it upon myself to read more about it. :D

    Great post, Cilla! I really enjoyed reading this. :)

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    1. I haven't read Carry On, but I've heard a lot about it! I wonder, because it's so well-known to be a play of Harry Potter, whether people who haven't read HP would even pick it up. In that case, does the reliance on the references limit the book's reach? Thinking of myself before I was familiar with English idioms, I think I would have a difficult time reading a book that relied heavily on it - though if the story's engaging enough, I may make the effort to look them up.

      That makes me think of the fairytale retelling genre. Part of the delight of retelling is seeing the familiar story being twisted, but can such a story stand up on its own for people who aren't familiar with the original? This is my concern going into Marissa Meyer's Heartless, haha; I know Alice in Wonderland, but I don't know its ins and outs so well!

      That seems to be the overall consensus! If you're not familiar with the culture a book is referencing, the material needs to be engaging enough.

      Thanks CW! <3

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Thanks for reading! It makes my day to hear your thoughts and I will respond asap. :)