Monday, February 14, 2011

The Test of Time

So, one of the ongoing jokes in SPARKS is the main character's obsession with Full House. I get warned against this now and then. The first objection people have is a concern that kids today aren't familiar with Full House. This is easily dismissed; that show is on five times a day on various channels. I started watching midway through the first season and stuck with it all the way through to about the last season, when I sort of outgrew it (deciding not to watch it anymore was a milestone in growing up for me). Kids today were raised on it; and, anyway, all they really NEED to know is that it was a cheesy sitcom where people do a lot of hugging, which is explained right away. Those who are more familiar with it will probably get more of a grin out of the book's references to courage hangy-balls and obnoxious neighbors, but prior knowledge isn't necessary. They're explained along the way.

The bigger concern - the one Adam keeps warning me about - is that I'm going to get a lot of reviews that go out of their way to criticize me for using pop culture in the book. These days, one gets a lot of reviewers judging your work against the "rules for writing" they've been hearing, and one of the great rules/myths of the writing world today is that pop culture references will make your book become dated quickly. There were always people going around saying this kind of stuff, but now the author might get a google alert about it.

Adam gets a lot of this himself - many reviews of I KISSED A ZOMBIE AND I LIKED IT took great pains to point out that the book will soon become dated due to the pop cultural references. Those references, for the record, were mostly to Cole Porter and Leonard Cohen. Like Full House, those references come pre-dated. They won't be any MORE dated in ten years than they are now, really.

This is the subject of much debate around staff HQ. Is it a good idea to use pop culture in a YA novel?

There are certainly some drawbacks to it - one is that a lot of writers try to use pop culture to show how hip they are or to connect a reader to the main character (as in, "the narrator will like Lady Antelbellum, so readers can say 'I like them, too! She's just like me!") This is not the best way to get a reader emotionally involved, and it' s likely to backfire - readers who DON'T like Lady Antebellum might take an instant dislike to the character, and the book, and the author. You have to do a delicate balancing act to keep from alienating people. That's part of why Adam picked Leonard Cohen and Cole Porter to be Alley's obsessions - most readers probably wouldn't have a strong opinion on them one way or the other, and those who did would probably be the people who liked them.

However, to have a teenage narrator who somehow exists in a world untouched by pop culture strikes me as odd. Yes, having a character listen to the new Radiohead album (and calling it the new Radiohead album) will eventually be a red flag to readers that the book didn't take place just last week, but pop culture isn't the only thing that will do that.

There's a weird thing that goes on in YA these days where people fall all over themselves to make a book that won't date over time. But they all will, really. If you read a book from 15 years ago, no one has a cell phone. Most of them aren't online yet (and if they are, it's AOL or something). They flip channels and can't pause live TV. They have to watch TV for hours hoping to see a certain video. Fifteen years ago, that sort of thing seemed so central to teenage life that we couldn't imagine life without it. No one would have worried that it would date a book. But it did. Whether they mention pop culture or not, no book from 1995 really seems like it could take place in today's world. And, frankly, very few of them are still read much in the first place.

All books date. Every last one of them (except maybe historical books or books that take place in fantasy realms that exist outside our own). A great many classic novels seemed very contemporary when they were first released, but if you can still read and relate to Jane Austen now, it's because the themes of love, romance, desire, and all that jazz still resonate. All of the cultural references have just become part of the charm.

Now, there's a lot to be said for books that cater to those who want to read a book that seems like it could be happening right now, with a narrator who seems just like them. This is, in fact, what many readers want. The trick to make this work is often to have a bland character in a bland world that readers can project their own lives onto. And it takes a skillful writer to do this without the book just being dull. But the world WILL change, and the books WILL date. What's going to happen when the world changes and readers can't project their lives onto the narrator's anymore?

SPARKS is all abut emotion - pain, heartbreak, desire, disillusion, discovery, etc. It's a celebration of life, the universe, and (to borrow a phrase from Jeff Mangum) how strange it is to be anything at all. And, in the process, it examines the effect that pop culture has on our lives, our dreams, and our ideals. The world of pop culture may change, but I don't believe these things will.

However, since I didn't want it to be locked into a VERY specific timeframe, I have had to change it a bit between drafts just to keep up with changes in the world. You see, it takes place in Iowa and has a lot of LGBTQ themes. Not long after the first draft was written, gay marriage was legalized in Iowa. Shortly after the last draft was turned in, Iowa re-electected Terry Branstad (the guy who was governor the whole time I was a kid before retiring in the 90s) and the state legislature started moving to make it illegal again - as of press time, I have no clear idea whether gay marriage will still be legal in Iowa when the book comes out. What I do know is that when it comes out, Iowa will be governed by a guy who has re-affirmed his support for the notion that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. There won't be a reference to whether he's been successful, but there WILL be a couple of points when the main characters plot to plant pressed hams at the governor's mansion (and, yes, I explain that to plant a pressed ham means to press one's butt cheeks against a window). Hopefully the fact that gay marriage is an issue at all will make it dated sooner than later (I'm sure it will eventually). But, if all goes well, Debbie's story will still resonate.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go deal with Adam, who is probably going to say that I'm just parroting things he's already said with this essay…. we may have to settle this with Atari….

(and, yeah, Adam HAS covered this a couple of times: see

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