Pop Culture Quiz

A Snarkling clutches People magazine and snarls:

Aren't we supposed to pay attention to popular culture (sic) in an effort to publish to the masses? Just curious.

well, no, not exactly...
but knowing what people are thinking, doing, and talking about is not a bad thing if you intend to write about people who are in the real world.

By this I don't mean we breathlessly race to the newsstand for the latest copy of Us or InStyle, or we have Gawker or Jossip as our default page on the web browser -- however Miss Snark pleads guilty on all counts.

I'll tell you this: at a panel some years back at the Small Press Center here in NYC Jane Friedman the CEO of Harper Collins, when asked what she did in her spare time, told us she watched television. You could hear the rush of snob revulsion in the crowd but Miss Jane pointed out that her job was to be on top of trends and know what the zeitgeist is. She's no dummy.

Knowing who Nicole Richie is, or being able to sing the words to the theme song from Gilligan's Island, or knowing that Guy Ritchie is more than a hot shot movie producer is not always the sign of a misspent life.

Miss Snark can outsnob the snobs but don't you dare touch her latest issue of New York.


Kat said...

but knowing what people are thinking, doing, and talking about is not a bad thing if you intend to write about people who are in the real world.

I admit it; the first thing I thought reading that was "Oh, thank god I write science fiction."

But then I got to thinking about it. First off, even we nerds need some pop culture. Otherwise we end up being read only by other nerds. Talk about a limited market.

And second, the sf fandom equivelent is the fan who sticks up his nose and says "Star Trek? Oh, I don't watch that trash."

If you're writing genre - particularly speculative stuff - then you've got to read and watch as wide a spectrum as you can within that genre. There are all too many wannabe sf/f writers (most of whom are there because "that fantasy stuff sells good") who don't read, and end up triumphantly presenting the market with their brilliant, innovative, all-original idea that it hasn't seen since, um, that Star Trek episode. The one in the sixties. The one people have been riffing off of for the last few decades....

No matter what your genre, you've got to be familiar with it top to bottom. Even the trash. Sometimes especially the trash. In sf/f, where a great many readers are only occasional visitors to the real world, it becomes even more important.

Bunneh said...

I can see the importance of being well-rounded. I've got a pretty eclectic taste when it comes to my entertainment, and I may not have the patience for Nicole Richie's hijinks, I know who she is (though, aside from The Simple Life, I'm not sure what she's famous for, exactly).

But isn't there a balance to strike? Being pop-culture savvy is good and important, but can't it also date your writing? I'm thinking of the Kenye West reference in NR's excerpt and the ultra-trendy clothing Richie describes on the magazine writers. It seems to me the problem with describing the super-hip is that what's "in" one week will be "out" the next.

Obviously Miss Richie isn't trying to be the next Charles Dickens, but paying such attention to every little detail seems like it would make the book stale sooner rather than later.

...Or I could be completely wrong.

Deran Ludd said...

I haven't read the new issue of New york, but I have read the ish with the expose about how author "JT Leroy" (allegedly abused teen author who wrote about his own "low life"), who apparently is a woman my age! The Milli Vanilli of the literati! Finally, something sexy about being bookish!


Ballpoint Wren said...

I love People, but I can only read a little of it at a time, unless I pick a really long line at the checkout stand.

Tsavo Leone said...

Jerry Doyle, who was one of the ensemble in Babylon 5, coined the phrase "grapefruit mentality" to describe (in part) people's fascination with so-called famous people. I suppose the real issue is whether you are simply aware of the existence of Nicole Richie, or morbidly obessessed with her (I've just been reading about her in a UK paper but couldn't place the name when I read it here, so go figure).

Some of the comments above are quite interesting. Personally, I thought it was S.O.P. to be reasonably 'well read' in the genre you were contributing to and more importantly, well researched. Likewise the Agents and Publishers.

Also, pop-culture and/or current fashion references don't always age a piece: I present American Psycho to you as exhibit A in this matter.

Abby said...

I love pop culture.

The intellectual purists who write it off as beneath them are hugely misguided, IMHO. Like the arguments about genre fiction vs literary/ popists vs rockists, there are the good and bad in all types of culture, and limiting yourself to just the New Yorker is perhaps to define your options too much.

I blog about pop, write commercial fiction, adore mainstream movies, and I think it's important for writers to at least be aware of current trends and cultural creations - if not actively seek them out. After all, isn't there something rather elitist about writing for a 'mass' audience but not deigning to participate in 'their' cultural experience?

If your target reader buys US Weekly, watches Gilmore Girls and Lost, listens to Gwen Stefani, then shouldn't you?

Kitty said...

In the movie Working Girl, Melanie G used the info she had read in W and the gossip columns to put together a good deal. I loved it when that snooty stick figure looked aghast and asked MG, "You read W?"

Saundra Mitchell said...

Also, pop-culture and/or current fashion references don't always age a piece: I present American Psycho to you as exhibit A in this matter.

I have to disagree with you there. Ellis is brilliant at what he does, but American Psycho (and Rules of Attraction, and Less than Zero,) *have* aged, and exemplify what brand-name lit will look like in thirty years.

All three novels are still accessible, comprehensible pieces of fiction, but their visceral impact just isn't there unless you were there, in the 80s. The whole Greed-Is-Good mentality, the wakening of the product-driven male narcissist- these things just aren't approached with the same kind of awe and taste of shame that they were, then. Patrick Bateman is still empty and pathetic, but he's not quite as disgusting anymore, in this, the age of the metrosexual.

Greed-is-good was kind of *shocking* at the time. The scrabble and grab for absurd excess hadn't invaded the middle class yet; Yuppies on Wall Street were Other- just as much a freakish sign of the times as Hippies on Haight-Ashbury were in the late 60s.

For a new reader, the subtleties and absurdities just aren't as visible ("Die yuppie scum" has been so bumper-stickerized as to be meaningless,) and for contemporary or older readers, the books come with a dark kind of nostalgia. Cellular phones were lavish novelties- Sony Walkman(tm!) cassette players were high ticket items. Pong was the big video game- can you imagine teenagers now being addicted to a game made up of two lines and a dot? The game Grand Theft Auto exists *now* because of better technology, which was inevitable, but its get-what's-mine sensibility is the direct descendant of Greed Is Good.

Ellis' work was controversial not just because he dumped buckets of blood on Wall Street and kilos of coke on college campuses; it's because they were casually careless with everything- drugs, money, sex, murder, whatever- just like the era. They're still infinitely readable, understandable, hell, even relatable- but they aren't ageless.

Saundra Mitchell said...

Uh... that said, how about that TomKat action? Think she really quit acting to bear Le Cruise's alien babies?

Yasmine Galenorn said...

You are so right with this post. I write three series for Penguin--one paranormal mystery, one 'straight' mystery, and the one I'm working on now, fantasy/suspense/mystery. All three touch base with the world around my characters, which is the world around me.

If I ignore all pop culture references, then I basically hole my characters up in the ivory tower, where none of them belong.

I have met a number of aspiring writers who can't believe I watch Judge Judy, Top Model, anime, Adult Swim, and the WB. I read anything and everything--including some lit fic (as long as it's not just an exercise in ego masturbation--you know, 'let me show you how clever I am and how big my vocabulary is' and so forth).

If, as writers, we stand outside the world in which we live, how can we ever hope to write about the heart of our characters who do inhabit it? I won't ever buy Ms. Ritchie's book, but I'm not embarrassed to say that I know who she is.

Bernita said...

Well, I'm not embarrassed to say I didn't have a clue who she is.
Writing is more than the "latest," no ivory tower snotty disdain expressed or implied.

Tsavo Leone said...

Concerning my previous comment re: 'American Pyscho'...

Perhaps my terminology wasn't quite up to par. Saundra Mitchell's (implied?) reference to it being of the era is definitely a better way of communicating what I had hoped to get across. However, I myself consider the novel to be timeless as, aside from the pop culture references, the story itself is translatable into practically any era/setting (in much the same way as I can see Gladiator being screened as a space opera in the vein of Dune or the Star Wars saga, especially with the dialogue intact).

That being as may, would a 'contemporary' author, in trying to evoke the feelings and fashions of that era, create a work that was the equal of American Pyscho, and would that automatically 'age' the book/film/etc. in the manner suggested?

My apologies to all concerned if this is considered 'off-topic' in any way, as I'm new to the world of blogging.

Harry Connolly said...

Pop culture is fun.

Not all of it, but demographics have changed so much that there's usually something that will appeal to any random person.

I don't feel the need to justify my love of VERONICA MARS (best show on TV, people--believe it!) by talking about how good it is for my writing. It's simply a good show.

If you can't find something enjoyable in pop culture I would suggest first that you're a statistical outlier. That's about as value-neutral as I can state it. How that will affect your writing and publishing career is something no one can say, and as far as I'm concerned, it isn't anything to worry about.

I would say, second, that pop culture should never be a chore. Don't torture yourself with it. Being ignorant of pop culture is not a shameful thing or a laudable thing. If you're a person who doesn't own a TV, that's not crippling. If you're a person who doesn't own a TV and manages to drop that fact into every conversation, well... Oh, would you look at the time!

Gabriele Campbell said...

I agree that if you write novels with a present time setting, you'd better know a bit about the pop culture. As a reader, I would find it very strage if not a single character in a say, Mystery, ever refered to a popular TV series, hummed a well know song or something. Even if I may not know the TV show or song.

I try to bring past times back to life, and that includes past "pop culture" as far as we can research it. It didn't spread as fast and far as today, but there were popular songs and plays in the Roman Empire, or well knows epics in the 12th century. I sneak some allusions in that show this aspect, like when I have Kjartan in Kings and Rebels mention to a French nobleman that he has read the Song of Roland in a translation commissioned by the King of Norway.

It's the same as when a profiler comments about a mistake they made in the lastest CSI Miami (?) show. It adds to the setting of a book.

I just have more fun researching 12th century epics than watching TV shows. :-)