In my Very Important Literature courses, the ones where we only read the most distinguished work by the most influential writers, we established some rules for fiction.
Rules are important because they help you figure out if what you’re reading is worthy of distinction or if it is destined for the discount rack.
One of the rules is no current-culture references. These references date the work. Even if the work takes place in a prior era and the references would be devices that established that era, good writers do not rely on pop culture to tell time and setting details.
I can see where there’s merit to that rule.
In the only Emily Giffin book I ever read, I took a red pen to all of the designer label references. Okay, I get it, I wanted to shout at her, the character is into the NYC fashion scene. Stop fucking name dropping.
The pop culture references are considered cheap. They’re shortcuts. They keep the writer from doing the hard work of explaining the character fully enough that I can envision her Jimmy Choo heels and Coach bag.
Lay off the Prada perfume, I would say as I smell it wafting by, without having to be told that’s her scent.
In the earliest versions of my novel, I used song lyrics to introduce chapters. The lyrics were meant to provide a frame of mind for the character.
After my Very Important Literature training and my Quality Fiction Analyst Degree, I ripped the song lyrics out. They were a cheap device. I knew that.
Monday’s 360 pages included one section called The Green Velvet Notebook which is the collection of song lyrics that the dead antagonist has left as a sort of suicide note.
What’s worse, throughout the novel the narrator, Brian, continues to name drop the songs on the radio, using them to fill out the scene like a sort of inventory of senses that includes hearing.
I wanted to be sheepish about the references. I wanted to flag them and exchange them, during revision, for quality descriptions of the scene.
I wanted to eschew pop culture in that way I’d been taught.
But I didn’t. I left them there.
Now I have to hope that the committee that reviews the contest entries has grown out of the Very Important Literature rules that refuse pop culture references.
I have to hope they are where I am which is an admission that pop culture is part of our marrow. It feeds our bones. We use it to relate to one another and to remember the eras that formed us. We use it to remind ourselves of things long passed and to ignore the realities we cannot change.
It may be a Generation X thing, and that’s fine. That’s what I want. That’s what I do.
So, on that note, here’s the playlist to give you an idea of the tone of the book:
- INXS – Never Tear Us Apart
- Frank Turner – The Way I Tend to Be
- Mumford & Sons – The Boxer (a great remake of my favorite Simon & Garfunkel song)
- Elton John – The Yellow Brick Road
- U2 – Red Hill Mining Town
- Dawes – From a Window Seat
- Sara Ramirez – The Story
- The Wild Feathers – Got It Wrong
- *Dave Matthews Band – Crush
- *Billy Joel – Just the Way You Are
- *Pink Floyd – Hey You
- *Counting Crows – A Long December
- +Cure – Trust
- +Cure – Apart
- +Pearl Jam – Alive
- +311 – Down
- +Simon & Garfunkel – America
- +Oasis – Champagne Supernova
- +Cure – Just Like Heaven
- +Live – Top
Those titles with a * were actually included in the book. Brian mentions them or someone else does. One of them is a first dance song to which they all sing along. Yak. I know. What drivel!
The + indicates songs whose lyrics appear in The Green Velvet Notebook section. Tony collected those lyrics, he found they connect with him at some point in some way. They are his memories and since he’s dead when the book opens, they’re all we have of him.
So I broke that rule I learned about pop culture and its inappropriateness in literary fiction. But who cares? It’s only a first novel and it’s only a contest and no one’s really going to know I wrote the thing anyway, right?
Unless it wins.