Monday, March 21, 2011

YA, Pop Culture, and You, the READER!

Hi everyone. I've had this blog post rattling around in my brain for a few weeks now and I think it's finally time to put it out there. There's no place like the YA-5 to question the norms and find out what the readers REALLY think of industry standards and yadda yadda yadda.

So here's the thing: pop culture in YA can be kind of a hot button. Some people think that referencing a popular actress or hit song immediately dates a book -- and I can't argue with that. If I set out tomorrow to write a book, whether it's YA contemporary or adult horror, I'm probably not going to talk about my protagonist's addiction to Ke$ha. No matter how catchy Ke$ha's music is. I mean, I have no idea which pop stars are going to be remembered just two years from now (which, even if my book sold the day I finished it, is probably about how long it would take for the novel to hit stores), let alone five or ten years.

Do you watch your fave
shows with your friends?
But here's the dilemma: a lot of teens -- a lot of people -- really think in terms of pop culture. We schedule our evenings around our favorite TV shows. (I have friends who go to Glee-watching parties, and in high school I had my BFF over once a week for Buffy night.) We stand in line for hours to be in the front row at a concert for our favorite band. We make play lists for ourselves and our friends on iTunes. We idolize actresses and models and pop stars and emulate their styles. Is there any way to write a book without talking about some of these things? Sure. Do I want to? Not really.

I aspire to write characters that feel like your friends, your family. I like it when I'm inside a character's head and I can see what she likes and how she relates to her world. If my character is an audiophile, you can bet she's going to relate to her world through her favorite bands. If my character is a musician, she'll probably talk about her influences. If my character loves fashion, she's definitely going to describe clothing in terms of style icons. For some, it might cut it to make up names. This doesn't always work for me.

So when is it too much pop culture? I think it comes down to context. If I can talk about a band from 1994 that you don't know about, and make you feel like you know why it's important, does that work for you? If my book takes place in 1980, is it more obnoxious to have my character reference made up movies and fashion icons, or to talk about real ones that you don't know much about?

Like all things, I think pop culture in literature is about balance. And like all writing, there's got to be a reason for anything an author puts into a book, whether it's violence or a sex scene or swear words or a sub plot or your character's iPod playlist. I mean, if I can go again to HIGH FIDELITY, that book simply wouldn't have been right without all the real pop culture infusion it showcased. Music is what makes that book work. As a reader, what makes a music-y, pop-culture-y book work for you?


Pam Harris said...

This is a touchy issue. I've always been a fan of making pop culture references because I know that's how most teens speech. However, after securing an agent and going through the revision process, I try to tone down the references as much as possible--I don't want to sound too dated. Now I try to refer to some celebrity without using specific names.

Anonymous said...

I think it depends on how important pop culture is to your story. I am currently writing a YA that takes place in the early 90s, and pop culture is INTEGRAL to the plot and the characters' interactions with each other. If your story is contemporary, and you don't want to date it, I think you can find a way to generalize something or make up a TV show/band that would still be relateable to modern teens. Also, you can cheat by making your characters like classic time-tested songs from earlier generations. It's not like I strictly listend to only current music when I was in high school, you know? There are ways to balance it out.

Blythe Woolston said...

Well, pop culture is culture--and some of it endures. This is especially true in a world with access to all sorts of music, film, even advertisements via the Internet. It's completely reasonable that a YA character could be a fan of Bollywood movies or Johnny Cash or Zazu Pitts--or Albrecht Durer. I'm not a fan of pop culture that feels like product placement, but people swim around in culture. Denying that is pretty neo-Luddite. And if nobody reads my book in ten years, that's OK. And if someone reads my book in 100 years, all the obscure refs will be glossed just like in the other classics.

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