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Weaving Pop Culture Into Your Writing

Pop culture – Why it’s so important in fiction today and how to weave it into your writing (without dating your work)

As a journalist I’m sent a lot of novels and choosing which ones to read can be a challenge. I’ll usually skim the back cover and the accompanying press release and if something catches my eye I’ll give it a go. Usually that something is a reference I can associate with in some way. Looking at the books I’ve read in the last few weeks, they have all been based around some element of pop culture. I’m currently reading Alex Gilvarry’s hilarious Eastman Was Here, which is set in early 1970s New York, around the time of the Vietnam War. I’ve also read three novels about a refugee crisis, one about a washed up country singer/songwriter who gets a surprise chance at success, and another about two female animators living in gentrified Brooklyn. I realize as I write this, just how important pop culture is to attracting and giving a reader a reference point from which to start.

The term “pop culture” itself a very broad and global term. Pop culture differs for different countries. For the purposes of this piece we’ll focus on the USA/UK and western culture. Popular culture, in my mind, can be anything newsy, especially from the world of entertainment and fashion, starting when pop music and rock ‘n’ roll began in the mid 1950s. The decades provide a nice, neat dividing line. Chuck Berry is pop culture. The Second World War and Glenn Miller is history.

Within around seven decades of pop culture that writers get to choose from, there’s an intricate selection process. It can basically be divided into two camps, cool and uncool. If you’re a YA writer, mentioning MySpace or even Facebook is not particularly hip. Snapchat is probably a better bet. For adults, there’s more room to play with.

There are certain periods that will forever be considered cool, or at least very interesting-1970s New York, for one. Even I, an adopted New Yorker (via the UK), thought by now I’d be a little tired of reading about the era, yet here I am loving a new novel set in that time period. New York, historically, one of the biggest cultural melting pots in the world, has been the setting of many a classic novel. This brings up the overriding take away, which supersedes all pop culture references. You may name drop the hippest bands, have the trendiest neighborhoods and pick the perfect era in which to set your novel but if the writing is lame, it’s all for naught. Assuming, though, the writing is going to be good, here are a few generalities that may help you decide on your references and settings.

Timing is Everything
Time periods tend to shine more brightly with nostalgia. There are certain eras that seem evergreen for the setting of a novel, usually those where turmoil and change occurred. The late sixties and seventies seem to have been when a lot of recently successful novels were set. Marlon James’ Booker Prize winning A Brief History of Seven Killings is mostly set in 1970s Jamaica during a time of great political unrest. Emma Cline’s The Girls is set in late 1960s California during the Charles Manson killings. Colum McCann’s Pulitzer winning Let The Great World Spin is centered around Philippe Petit’s amazing World Trade Center tightrope walk in 1974. Garth Risk Hallberg’s $2M advance for his debut, City On Fire, uses events of 1977 New York as its canvas. And Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer-winning A Visit From The Goon Squad is partly set in the punk scene of late seventies San Francisco. However, any era will do, so long as its fusion with your story makes for compelling reading. Case in point: Ryan Gattis’ propulsive All Involved, which depicted Latin gang warfare during the 1992 LA Riots. That era is so nostalgic for so many people. Gangsta rap was exploding and as a fledgling music journalist I was interviewing many of the rappers of the day—Ice Cube and Ice-T being among them. Gattis was inundated by the media for interviews because that era had so many cultural talking points.

One day, probably quite soon, the wild political events that saw Donald Trump become president will spawn a litany of novels. Some writers are not concerned about letting a period become sepia toned in nostalgia. They want to write about the times they’re living in. Booker prize nominated Scottish writer, Ali Smith wasted no time in writing about the U.K. Brexit vote last year in her novel Autumn, which seemed to have been penned at breakneck speed.

There was a time when mentioning cultural references of the era was frowned upon by academics for dating a piece of literature. By this reckoning, a Dickens novel would almost sound as new as something written in the last decade. Some novels have become time capsules to the era in which they were written simply because they are so steeped in references. Two quintessential New York late 1980s novels come to mind—Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City and Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho.

Be One of the Cool Kids
If we can be superficial for a moment and put the actual craft of writing to one side, who actually decides what is a cool pop cultural reference point? When Marlon James penned A Brief History of Seven Killings, there was a clamor from journalists like me to write about it. Bob Marley and 1970s Jamaica hits every cool button there is. I am quite sure that many journalists must have struggled with the heavy patois and violence. Let’s not be fooled, it wasn’t an easy novel to read. A writing teacher once told me to play up my Indian background more in my creative writing.  

I think we all have a general idea of what constitutes cool. In music, certain hip-hop and dance music is always going to be cool and some broad lines can be drawn. Sixties and seventies soul music (Stax, Motown, Atlantic Records, Philadelphia International Records), is definitely cool. Prince has never not been cool. Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift might be cool to some, and in some moment in time, but standing the test of time? Not so much. David Bowie is pretty much cool all the time, especially in the mid-late ’70’s. Lou Reed, Patti Smith, The Stones, Dylan—all in their 1970’s pomp, too. There were a lot of cool ’80’s and ’90’s bands—New Order, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Smiths, Nirvana, REM etc., that are so evocative of the era. Dana Spiotta’s 2006 novel Eat The Document featured the Beach Boys classic 1966 album, Pet Sounds, not only as a reference point but as part of the plot. A good look.

I think a pattern is emerging. Real, groundbreaking, iconic artists will always be considered cool. Manufactured, mass marketed and consumed pop stars, not so much. Actually, Anglo Indian author, Sathnam Sanghera’s award winning, The Boy With The Top Knot named each chapter named after a cheesy 1980s pop song on the radio during the author’s childhood in working class Wolverhampton. It worked wonderfully. It was funny and a perfect depiction of the time. Now that I’ve showcased some of the well-worn themes in pop culture driven fiction, writers should play with these, subvert them, ignore them, and/or come up with their own reference points and trends.

The Rules of Youth
All my highbrow literary posturing goes out of the window when it comes to YA. What was cool a year ago (social media, music, movies) becomes old very quickly and can date your work. It hurtles along in dog years, and just like trying to jump onto a moving train, if your timing is off, you’ve blown it.

For instance, if you’re still writing about dystopian or fantasy novels you might be a few years too late. Forget vampires. Reality-based novels like John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars helped move the whole genre along. (Not to mention the time it takes to get a book revised, edited, and published, and by that time if you’re following trends, it’s already over and done.)

More recently, a slew of reality based novels appeal to readers who don’t want to read about a far off futuristic universe (The Sky Is Everywhere and I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson, This Is Where the World Ends by Amy Zhang, Love & Gelato by Jenna Evans Welch and This Is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp). I think this is in part because the world we’re living in and news we hear and read about is so brutal and unremitting. Wars, terrorism, racism, refugees. Younger readers have started to want to read about a world and characters they can relate to and with it the music, movies and entertainment that most people are familiar with as well.

Where writers get to use great artistic license is when they are writing about pop cultural figures who are now deceased. Again I’ll mention Bob Marley in A Brief History of Seven Killings. As a Brit, myself, I was surprised to see a fictionalized Richard Burton crop up in Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins. And really enjoyed reading about a less than savory Evel Knievel in Shawn Vestal’s Daredevils, a novel which also featured ’70s country and rock ’n’ roll as a soundtrack to offset the plot about polygamous Mormons in the Midwest. Had some of these figures still been alive, I doubt the writers would have had the same freedom to write about them.

Plot is Everything
For all my pontificating about the importance of pop culture in novels, a great plot is paramount. We’ll take it for granted that you’re a decent writer to begin with. Once these are in place the fun stuff—peppering your prose and characters in settings where cultural touchstones are all around them—music, language, clothes, films, current events—can all add great color and dimension to your story. Go overboard on the cool references and too light on the plot and the prose, however, and you’ll be accused of focusing on style over substance, a danger to be wary of for anyone dabbling in pop culture.

If variety is the spice of life, Jeff Vasishta’s writing career is a vindaloo. As a music journalist with Rolling Stone, Yahoo, and Billboard, he’s interviewed Prince, Beyonce, and Quincy Jones. Man Booker Prize winner Marlon James, along with Richard Price and Ann Patchett have been quizzed by him for Interview Magazine and he also writes about gentrification for amNEWYORK.

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