And yet, there really is something special about a good book compared to, say, a good movie. Good movies are all well and good, but there’s something about that tome you have read countless times, with the pages all yellow and dog-eared and the back cover long since worn away, and a chunk of pages all wrinkly from when you dropped in the bath, that is just…special. The story in print becomes a sort of diary that you never wrote, with the fiction transposed with fond memories of your past that are then peppered with your thoughts of the present as your reread it again, ready to be locked away and treasured for the next time you open it. If this all sounds a little sentimental, put it this way: replacing a lost and much-loved DVD is completely different to replacing a lost and much-loved book.
So by that token, there is something timeless about a good book, both within the core of its beating heart as well as basic story. And there is something almost all of these favourite stories have in common: lack of pop-culture references.
Don’t get me wrong: I am in no way saying that books that do reference current trends are automatically assigned to be mediocre at best. Far from it: some of the most important books of our time need those direct references to the times in order to get its message across. And yet, so many classic books out there manage to get the same commentary on modern life across without the need to make pointed nods at the modern world. Look at Catcher in the Rye, a novel written in 1951. The story of teenager Holden Caulfield still hold up remarkably well today, because the themes of rebellion and searching for identity are themes that will never age.
Throwing in pop-culture references here and there does have it’s advantages, though: it can give your writing a sense of being within reality, if that’s what are aiming for. It does need to be subtle though: if your main character goes jogging, is it best to say he ‘ran to the sound of thumping trance’? Or ‘he ran to the sound of DJ Tiesto on his iPod?’ It’s down to the tone and style you’re after, and beware of the risks: your reader may not know who or what you are talking about, and if they have to constantly reach for Wikipedia every other page of your novel, you may test their patience too far. Moreover it smacks of desperation, of the author tugging on the reader’s sleeve and saying “Hey, look! Real world stuff, just like your world! Isn’t this so realistic and relatable?” So it can sound cheap if it is ham-fisted.
Moreover, you might consign your masterpiece to ageing quickly. True, it’s easy to put on the rose-tinted sunglasses and argue that namedrops of cassette tape Walkmans and popper tracksuits would firmly plant you in a time period as well as making that nostalgia engine purr, but hindsight is a wonderful thing – imagine if you’d written a novel in the mid-nineties and referenced the Spice Girls throughout. Unless that’s a big point of the plot, it’s going to make your story look terribly dated.
A great example is Jules Verne. Compare to his two most famous pieces: Journey to the Centre of the Earth and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Journey, written in 1878, was written based what was very sound scientific belief at the time, and these ‘facts’ come right to the fore when the Professor explains why the centre of the earth can be reached by humans and isn’t that hot at all. Which, of course, we now know to be nonsense. Thus, Journey has now morphed into a rollicking adventure novel but with all the science thoroughly debunked. 20,000 Leagues, on the other hand, has aged much better (despite being older than Journey by eight years) because it relies more on speculation, and the simple fact that we still know very little about the deepest depths of the ocean.
Take a look again at the books and stories that you come back to. How many references to modern life (or what was modernity at the time they were written) are in there? Odds are that there are very few or none at all. And yet these books still speak to you down the years because the topics and themes simply never age. Pop-culture references may offer an instant sense of place, time and realism, but is that what your readers come for? I would argue that no, they don’t – that kind of thing is all around them already. Much more likely your reader turns to your novel looking for something else, something more. Ask yourself this: does the story you tell show knowledge of the world? Or an understanding of the world?