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Pop Culture references in Young Adult Novels

In my broken legged state I've had a lot of time to think and lately I've been thinking a lot about pop culture in Young Adult novels.

In some cases I love pop culture references. There are many books where I do a little whoop when the characters mention a pop culture reference and it adds something to the character and the story as a whole. Some of these titles feature in my top 10 favourite books.

However I have started to see a new phenomenon: The rise of the forced pop culture reference.

I have found that these regularly appear in Young Adult novels written by authors who usually write for adults (although not exclusively) and they seem to me to be thrown in to try and make the author's writing seem cool and 'down with the kids'. I've got the point where I get quite cross about it and feel like the author is being really patronising and condensing. If you don't want to write for teenagers why bother? It seems to me to be to an effort to spin as much money as possible and break into another market

While forced and patronising pop references are driving me insane what I find even worse if when an author is trying to be cool and gets it so wrong. In a long running vampire series I cringed and gave up completely on the series after the author had the gay characters singing to song from musicals in an ultra camp way which was so stereotypical it was painful and in mind not at all a realistic portrayal of an ordinary gay teenage boy. In another case of late I gave up on a book where the 15 year old main character and her best friend were refering to vajazzles. I'm not a prude and I know teenagers do all manner of things before they probably ought to and I enjoy books where they do portray teenage sex realistically but I thought this was so inappropriate to the age of the character that it actually made me shudder.

So my question is what do you think? Do authors force pop culture references to appear cool? Do they add to the story? Am I being over the top on this one?


Liz said…
I recently tossed a book out by an American screen writer attempting to write YA. It was dire - for all the reasons you can think of, and then, added to it, there were the constant brand name mentions. And the denial that the mc REALLY didn't care about name tagged clothing yet it is all she could talk about. Give me a break.

Pop references can be done, and done well, but they tend to date books too - in fact, one of my favourite books of all time by Charles de Lint has aged so badly I cringe when I read it now - talking about boomboxes and rolling cigarettes and the whole hippy movement. It worked for that time, but modern readers will be jarred out of the story.

I have feelings about this blogpost! Well done.
Ellie said…
I hate it when writers feel like they have to explain the reference. if the reader doesn't get it, it doesn't matter but explaining it DOES make it seemed forced.
I really dislike pop culture references in a book, YA or adult. It ages the book so fast. Try reading a book written 5 years ago for teens riddled with Pop culture and you are going who? what?. Now change that to 10, 15, 20 for any book and it just goes over the head and under the feet. A classic it does not make.

Look at Gulliver's Travels, a political satire, is so full of contemporary refernces that it is almost always abridged, with two of four chapters missing, so we can even enjoy it today!
Anonymous said…
They can work, but they have to be done properly. And that can be hard to do. The occasional pop culture reference makes sense in a modern-day setting, really. People live in this world, and they're going to be affected by the media portrayals that go on around them. Mentioning a TV show or popular song on the radio or a dozen other things like that can really add a sense of the time period. But they have their time and place. And as one person already commented, that place isn't usually brand-dropping, unless it's one of those brand's that's pretty much become a household name. Kleenex, Jello, that sort of thing. Characters going on and on about their cliothing brands or the brand of their TV? Makes sense if the character's into that sort of thing. Otherwise it looks pointless, annoying, and like the author's getting sponsored by major corporations to hawk their wares.
I don't mind pop culture references.... the best author at this is not a young adult author but Stephen King. And the way he writes.. it just works. I think authors should use him as an example of how to reference pop culture right!