Pet Writing Peeves: Pop Culture References

A good writer makes the reader feel like he or she is a witness to events in the story as they unfold. Keeping the reader’s attention focused on the action and dialogue is the goal. Errors and mistakes, when noticed, take the reader out of the story.

Ignorance is bliss. Before getting published, as long as the story kept me interested, I could enjoy the most poorly written of novels. Not anymore. Now all kinds of things I never noticed — my personal pet peeves — take me out of the story. If this happens often enough, I quit reading and never finish the book. 

I’m in the middle of a book by a favorite author who has had a big influence on my writing. For a lowly genre writer like me to call him out would be ridiculous and more than a tad arrogant, so he shall remain nameless. I’ve read all his books, and while some are better than others, taken together, they’re great reads with wonderful characters and lots of laugh out loud moments.

This is the first of his books I’ve read since becoming an author myself. The story and characters are just as interesting and engaging as I remember. But he repeats two of my pet peeves throughout the novel: too many adverbs (see last month’s Pet Writing Peeve) and pop culture references for descriptions.

He looks/sings/dances like (insert famous person’s name). The room looked like a scene from (insert name of movie or television show). Yes, these references are efficient, quickly giving the reader the image the author desires. Pop references can also give the story a very “now” feeling. But relying on these kinds of descriptions is lazy. Telling me the protagonist looks like Cary Grant or Clint Eastwood or PeeWee Herman is a lot easier than showing me he’s debonair, tough as nails, or silly. 

The problem is that pop references as descriptions only work if the reader is familiar with them. Otherwise, the reader has no idea what image the author wanted to evoke. Encountering a reference I’m not familiar with, as has happened many times in the book I’m reading now, takes me out of the story and makes me wonder what I’m missing.

Not all references to popular books, movies, singers, songs, television shows, or whatever are bad. A coffee table full of magazines can tell us something about a character or the world the character inhabits. Even then, made up magazine titles clearly convey the character’s interest when a real title might not.

As I was writing After Christmas Eve, I pictured George Walker’s secretary as the voluptuous redhead on Mad Men. She was nameless at first, but then her role in the story grew. I tried several names, but Joan Harris made me laugh, so I went with it. George even mentions her coming to him from a big New York ad agency. Teeheehee.

Including contemporary people, places, and things from pop culture in a story is risky business. The author I’m reading now can get away with it because he’s famous, and his writing, otherwise, is topnotch. But if you ask me (and he didn’t), his novel would have been even better had he cut back on pop culture references to describe persons, places, or things.

Pop culture references date a novel too. Things everyone knows today become the subject of trivia contests in a few years, growing more obscure with each passing year. I’d like to think my novels are timeless. That — and believing they’re lazy writing — is why pop culture references for descriptions have made it to my list of Pet Peeves.

Is it just me, or do they bother you too?

4 responses to “Pet Writing Peeves: Pop Culture References”

  1. Pop references bother me, too. This is especially true when I’m reading a book by a much younger author and I don’t know the references. 🙁 Often I may recognize a name but have no image or voice or whatever to go with it. I’m not going to stop reading to go look up the reference on my iPad. I just plow on with less information than the author probably intended. This works the same for younger readers with older references, I’m sure. I know what Cary Grant looked like, but my kids might not. I like pop culture references in books for setting the scene, but not as short cuts to how a character looks, acts, or feels. I prefer more grounding in actual description.

  2. Absolutely annoying. Reason to stop reading…particularly since I am occasionally confused by the references. I know. Sad.