Monday, March 16, 2009

POP! Goes the Reference: Pop Culture References in Literature

by Scott

I finally read Jpod last year and Douglas Coupland quickly rose to become one of my favorite authors. While I must admit that ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’ and ‘Hey, Nostradamus’ are probably his BEST novels Jpod remains my FAVORITE. Much of this has to do with the fact that, as a pop-culture junkie, I adore all the pop-culture references. Coupland is a bit of a master at this and his novels ‘Shampoo Planet’ and, my current read, ‘Microsurfs’ continue with this tradition.

Now, while I am a tremendous fan of this sort of thing, I can’t help but wonder, does the use of pop-culture references hopelessly date a literary work? That is, will people reading his works in fifty years be able to enjoy these works on the same level that I do. As I mentioned, ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’ and ‘Hey, Nostradamus’ are his best works and I think part of that has to do with how little they rely on pop-culture. Girlfriend in a Coma’s biggest reference is to the X-files which, rather ingeniously, goes unnamed but it is explained that all of the characters in the novel have jobs working behind the scenes on the show which is described as a show about two FBI agents who investigate the paranormal; a male agent who believes and a female agent who is skeptical. Now, to any of us who read the novel, we immediately make the connection to the X-files while readers who pick up this novel long after the show has faded from popular memory are able to understand the basic premise without ever having seen the show. But, my point is, ‘Girlfriend’ and ‘Nostradamus’ will endure because future readers don’t need to understand excessive references to our own time in order to, not necessarily understand the novel, but to, at least, fully enjoy the novel.

Dropping a pop-cultural reference in a work of fiction (or poetry for that matter) is a dangerous thing; as fickle as popular taste are, it assumes that future readers will get the reference. It’s a pretty big gamble. To do it in a film is one thing; in a film you can SHOW what you are talking about. If the audience is unfamiliar with a reference, you can MAKE them familiar with it by having characters watch a show or listen to a song. This is something that is much more difficult to accomplish on the page. I’m guilty of this myself in my own creative work; I’ll drop the name of a song or, in a recent example, reference the cover of ‘American Recordings’, the first of Johnny Cash’s collaborations with Rick Rubin, and while, currently, that is a rather iconic image, will it still be as recognizable in twenty or thirty years? Given that many of my students are unfamiliar with references that are even ten years old, I remain skeptical.

To a certain extent, all literary works are subject to being products of their own time; I teach ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ and my officemate teaches ‘Watchmen’ and we both find ourselves having to explain the ‘Cold War’ to our students, the ‘War On Terror’ being the crucial global conflict to their generations (Fortunately, both these works lend themselves to very poignant translations of that conflict as well). In a larger sense, if we look at older literary works, the older they become the less accessible they become on certain levels to the reader. When I teach Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” in my American Literature classes, I always have to explain to my students what a ‘Goodman’ is (they usually think it is the character’s first name). And, in their defense, ‘Goodman’ was already a pretty archaic term by the time Hawthorne wrote the story. So, are pop-culture references worse than things like this? Is this confined to literature or will films that rely too heavily on pop-culture references also suffer this fate? In 30 years, will ‘Wedding Singer’ have any resonance to a generation with no direct connection to the 80s?


Jason said...

I remember being struck by an interview with Nick Hornby once, wherein he was asked about all the pop culture references (particularly to music) that he puts in his books. The interviewer couched it along the lines of, "Most writers don't do a lot of pop culture references."

HIs answer was, "Most writers seem to have one eye on posterity, which is something I'm not concerned with at all. I want people to read my books *now*."

Interesting response, I always thought.

(And sidebar: I think Watchmen would've been a more successful film if they'd bumped everything up 20 years and made it about the current global situation. Since part of the point is the "alternate reality" aspect, they could easily have altered things slightly to make the set-up into a "Cold War" between us and Iraq, or us and North Korea. The flashbacks to "20 years ago" would then be set during the Cold War with the Soviets, which would still give sense to a lot of scenes (like the Comedian's, "You'll be the smartest guy on the cinder" line to Ozymandias). I think it would've made the film seem more relevant and less quaint to mainstream audiences.)

Christian said...

I'm with Jason. Posterity is for narcisists and James Joyce.

Be obtuse, if you want to be remembered.
Hell, Joyce said it himself: “I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's immortality.”

Anyway, I don't mind dated pop references. I actually think they're part of the fun.

Kieron Gillen of Phonogram fame, said something interesting in regards to Scott Pilgrim: This generation of readers look at the world through the eyes of pop culture: "This is about how humans of a certain generation process reality. I mean, take last week in New York. Jamie, 2000-AD writer Al Ewing and myself went up the Empire States Building. When looking over one of the greatest city of Earth, the reference points which were voiced were: Bioshock. Sim City. Risk pieces. That Scene In Preacher Where Cassidy Threw Himself Off. Point being, our art shapes how we relate to reality. Scott’s joy – and why it speaks to so many people – is that it understands the pulp through which we see the world, and assumes that’s as natural as blinking.

Scott Pilgrim compels because of its fundamental honesty, its fluency in a shared tongue and its lightness of touch."

scott91777 said...

I do think that the pop-culture reference is now replacing that time honored literary device; the allusion. Once upon a time (or back in the day as my students might say), learned poets and playwrights would make allusions to past works of literature as a sort of signpost to their readers, drawing from to most common examples from antiquity. A sort of collective memory... That's what we do now with Pop-Culture; only, instead of referencing Hercules or Dionysus, we reference Star Trek or The Cosby Show. (Kanye has a great line from the Graduation album where he says "I'm not one of the Cosbys, I didn't go to Hillman", referencing, Not only The Cosby SHow but A Different World).

I was just watching SPACED with the commentary by Quentin Tarantino and he pointed out that the Pop-Cultural reference in art is a fairly recent development. It was only with his generation that came of age in the 70s and included people like himself, Coupland and Kevin Smith that, suddenly, everyone had this common ground on which to stand in terms of the TV shows and movies that they grew up with (I'm guessing this is because this was the first generation where 'EVERYONE' had a TV and that Home Video became commonplace)

And, if you think about it, these references appeal and can be understood by a much larger audience than the 'allusion of old' seeing as how, once upon a time, since allusions would only be readily understandable to someone with a 'classical education' so to speak; which, I'm pretty sure, put them in a pretty select minority.

So, perhaps these aren't 'Pop-Culture' references at all; they are, in fact, 'The Peoples Allusions'

scott91777 said...

Please ignore the grammatical mistakes above... I'm enjoying my evening glasse of wine a bit too much :)

Chad Nevett said...

Nothing to add, but wanted to point out that CBC did a Jpod TV series that's available on TV in case you weren't aware of it. I've yet to read the book, but dug what I saw of the show--don't know how it compares.

Andrew said...

I think it's a mistake to assume that pop-culture references are a recent phenomena when one of things we're assuming is that they won't be understood in 30-40 years. The fact of the matter is that many works in the past were filled with pop-culture references (the urban comedies of sixteenth-century Britain come to mind - hell, Horace's satires are filled with them); we just don't always know what they are referring to. As a result, works that addressed more stable referents acquired more staying power.

However, as the canon dissolves and the internet evolves, it's becoming less likely that everyone will catch an allusion to Greek mythology and more likely that everyone can look up a reference to the X-files, so it's possible that pop-culture references will make smooth transitions into "allusions" just because the information will remain accessible.

After all, this is an era where multiple people have annotated Morrison's Batman (and I mean nothing pejorative by that statement; I think it's great).

Mikey said...

I had this whole detailed point on allegory written but I couldn't quite get at what I mean and others have touched on it above anyway.

But I was talking about Kavalier and Clay as an example of something that is so coherent and immaculate in its strategy of interweaving different indexes of history - the pop culture referents also function as allegory, background colour, historical detail, character voices and pretty much everything else, while also never actually taking over and trivialising the narrative.

In fact, I may have a post on this - something I've been thinking about recently regarding Jameson's concept of the 'holographic novel'. I'll try and work it up into something more coherent.

Mikey said...

Also - The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Dias is littered with pop cultural references which are sometimes allegorical, sometimes descriptive shorthand and sometimes just touchstones for the reader to keep the buoys of the narrative bobbing up and in view.

The book sets out its stall from the outset with two epigraphs:

an excerpt from the Derek Walcott poem The Schooner 'Flight';

and a certain quote that will be familiar to many here:

"Of what import are brief, nameless lives . . . to Galactus??" (Fantastic Four, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Vol. 1, No. 49, April 1966)

Which practically tells you everything you need to know about the form and content of the novel in micro.

Mikey said...

And (last one):

WTF?! Tarantino provided commentary on Spaced? Cool.

scott91777 said...


Yup, for the DVD set released last year in the States. Each series has two commentaries the 'original' commentary by cast and creators and then a second commentary featuring celebrity guest, including Kevin Smith, Patton Oswald (who has a huge crush on Jessica Hynes nee Stevenson), Quentin Tarantino and Dioblo Cody. Tarantino does two episodes on the second series, including the episode that opens with the Pulp Fiction homage.