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In Defense of Pop Culture References In Books

Danika Ellis

Associate Editor

Danika spends most of her time talking about queer women books at the Lesbrary. Blog: The Lesbrary Twitter: @DanikaEllis

I just finished a YA novel that I really enjoyed, and I went over to Goodreads to leave a rating. One of the top reviews said it was unreadable because of the amount of pop culture references in it, something I hadn’t noticed at all. Who do authors keep doing this, the review said; don’t they know readers hate it?

Of course, just because some readers hate a trope or writing style doesn’t mean most or all do. In fact, the most complained about authors are usually also the ones that sell the most. It’s easy to see a handful of people online talk about something and get the impression it’s a universally agreed upon truth.

Personally, the hate for pop culture references in books has always baffled me. It’s usually described as “cringey”. But why? What’s so embarrassing about references to our current media landscape?

In a YA novel written by an adult, maybe it comes across as trying too hard, but I don’t see this kind of energy for slang in YA novels, which is — in my opinion — a much more direct version of this.

The reason I’ve seen used most often as a point against pop culture references in books is that it dates them. So let’s take a look at this in three parts: do pop culture references date books? Is it the thing that dates books the most? And is grounding your book in a specific time a bad thing in the first place?

First, do pop culture references date books? In the most literal way, definitely. If we know the Beatles are performing, then we know this isn’t a current YA title. But there’s a big range in the kinds of pop culture that get referenced and where they place the book in time. Referencing a meme that was only popular for a month will feel dated between the time it was written and the time it was published. Referencing Taylor Swift, though, could be anywhere in a 15-year time frame, and there’s no sign she’ll be stopping any time soon.

I think what irks me about the pop culture reference complaints the most is the idea that otherwise, a book would exist completely outside of time. If you’re writing a contemporary story, though, it’s necessarily going to be dated. Do the characters have cell phones, for instance? How do they use them? Whichever choice you make, you’re tying your book to a time period. The language used in dialogue dates a book, and so do their hobbies, their jobs, their values, and more. Some of those choices might leave a wider range of time it could apply to, but no story set in our world exists outside of time completely.

And most importantly, what’s so bad about having your book set in a certain time? Just as historical fiction is grounded in its setting, so are contemporary books. For YA novels especially, these characters are immersed in a specific media landscape, political environment, and day-to-day reality that affects who they are. You can choose to set the book in a world without COVID, for instance, but that’s an alternate universe, not ours.

In fact, trying hard to make a YA novel not be dated can be much cringier than mentioning TikTok. If none of your teenage characters use any current slang, they’re not really speaking like teenagers. And they will seem much less well-rounded if they can’t make references to any media. Even worse can be characters that inexplicably are all obsessed with music and media from decades ago — say, the time period when the author was a teenager? It can come across as stilted and out of touch.

So why do authors write pop culture references in books? For one, because it makes sense to the character. A nerdy teenager is going to make fandom references; that’s practically a law. A music lover is going to mention current artists. And the class clown is probably going to make jokes about what’s in the news or on their social media feeds.

Besides, I don’t just not hate pop culture references as a reader: I often like them. Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir is a book brimming with pop culture references, and fans love finding them. If I read a book that references none pizza, left beef, it will have my heart forever, even if it’s now very dated. Stale, even. Pop culture references can make a book feel more realistic and relatable; it can be fun to share interests with the main character. And spotting pop culture references is satisfying. There’s a reason they get written into books in the first place.

So please, I’m begging readers: remember that your personal pet peeves in books aren’t universal rules. Just put down that book and walk away — don’t argue that it shouldn’t have been written at all. There are plenty of books that minimize pop culture references for you to read. You don’t need to erase them from all stories. In the mean time, pass the ones you rejected my way.