1. bhugy
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    bhugy New Member

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    Cultural References in Short Stories

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by bhugy, Mar 29, 2010.

    Does anyone else dislike it when a short story references a specific aspect of modern culture or pop culture?
    I've read some student stories that contained references to television shows (a character wore a Simpsons tie), retail stores (a character walks into Toys R Us) or brand names, and it always takes me out of the story a little bit, destroys the illusion that the world of the story is a unique singularity.
    I guess it's just my personal preference, but I always avoid putting these kinds of references in my stories. Does anyone else actively try to avoid this?

    And to those who like when stories include such references: What is it exactly that you like about them? Do they make it easier to relate to stories? Do you prefer that stories be grounded in a specific time/cultural period?
     
  2. Cecil
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    Cecil Member

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    It really depends, but if the story is meant to take place in today's society and culture, and it's meant to take place in the real world, then I generally expect real world things in it.

    I would be taken much more out of the story if a character was playing video games on his gamestation3, which he bought at Toys 4 Kids, while wearing his arachni-dude jacket.

    If you really want the story to take place in todays world, then (for example) super-hero movies and their related products will be commonplace. If your character likes that sort of thing, and if his favorite superhero in the real world would be Spider-man, than I don't think the author is doing anybody any favors by deliberately avoiding the pop-culture reference, or by dodging the word "Spider-man" in favor of describing the character (He wore a jacket bearing a picture of his favorite superhero, a red and blue clad man with spider themed powers). To avoid referencing real world culture, and make it feel natural, you would have to give your world a different culture. This is totally fine, but then it's not the real world anymore (If that's what you were going for).

    I know other people will have different tastes of course, so this is just my feelings on the matter.
     
  3. Banzai
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    Banzai One-time Mod, but on the road to recovery Contributor

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    If well used, than I think it can really enhance a story, and make the reader feel more immersed. Stephen King and Joe Hill do it particularly well, using little bits of pop-culture to mesh with the story (Joe Hill even includes fictional pop-culture from one of his previous works, in his latest novel, as an extra gift to his dedicated readers).

    The problem with pop-culture references is obscurity. If you don't get the reference, then at best you'll be oblivious, at worst it will break the sense of immersion. Pop-culture references will work best (and may only work at all) if they refer to the reader's own culture.
     
  4. bhugy
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    bhugy New Member

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    I would be taken much more out of the story if a character was playing video games on his gamestation3, which he bought at Toys 4 Kids, while wearing his arachni-dude jacket. I fully agree with you on this one. If a story is going to reference something, using the real name is way less distracting than using those kinds of re-named products or brands.
    I guess I meant that I would prefer Toys R Us to just be called a toy store, for things like that to be referred to in a more generic way.

    If your character likes that sort of thing, and if his favorite superhero in the real world would be Spider-man, than I don't think the author is doing anybody any favors by deliberately avoiding the pop-culture reference, or by dodging the word "Spider-man" in favor of describing the character (He wore a jacket bearing a picture of his favorite superhero, a red and blue clad man with spider themed powers). I also agree with you on this one, if the circumstances are right. If the favorite superhero factors into the story in a really crucial way, or if it perfectly characterizes a character or serves some other important purpose in the story, then I wouldn't be bothered by direct references to that superhero.

    Similarly, if a story is about or hinges upon something like the abundance of advertisements on television, then saying specifically what products are advertised wouldn't be out of place at all, in my opinion.

    I guess I was talking about those kinds of specific references only when they are included as simple details. If a character is wearing a jacket, I would personally just prefer it be described in terms of color, style, etc. rather than as a Nike jacket, or an Abercrombie and Fitch jacket. (Unless the jacket's brand served some larger purpose).

    It really depends, but if the story is meant to take place in today's society and culture, and it's meant to take place in the real world, then I generally expect real world things in it. I think I picked the wrong words when I said "modern culture." I didn't really mean I'd prefer a story to be so far divorced from time that it has no time at all, or that it portrays a culture completely different from any known culture. Like I said, I just find it less distracting if a character eats chips instead of Cool Ranch Doritos. But again, only when it's a minor detail.


    I shouldn't have made such a blanket statement at first. I only meant to talk about these kinds of references when they are used in a very specific way, and there are a lot of instances where they can create a clearer image of the world of the story.

    In any case, thanks for responding!
     
  5. Heather
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    Heather Contributing Member

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    Personally, I enjoy mention to current culture as it helps create a sense of realism. Obviously, if writing a piece set in the 1800's, and Britney Spears is mentioned, blatently not working. But if it is relevant, and not overdone, I think it works well, as it can make the reader feel as though they can identify with the story much more easily, as it is applicable to them in their life.

    Also, some novelists use it as a writing device, for example in American Psycho the author continually mentions the brand names of things to portray the materialism of the society. Personally, I enjoyed it to begin with but half way through the novel it was definatly old, but my friend adored it, so I guess it depends on your personal taste as to whether you enjoy that or not.
     
  6. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    The only real issue I take with cultural references is that they are rarely universal. I might make mention of the show El Gordo y La Flaca, but does it make any sense to anyone else? Would it add more color to the palette or just confuse?
     
  7. Peerie Pict
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    Peerie Pict Contributing Member Contributor

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    From my perspective cultural references can come across as literary 'name dropping' in the sense that the reader is rarely interested to the degree that it enhances their understanding of the character or the times. Also, I sometimes feel like the author is advertising his or her cultural preferences rather than the character's own choices. Haruki Murakami's work has been critiqued because he name drops quite a lot of classic Western music like the Beatles. I personally think he does it well but it shows how difficult it is to make cultural references universally accepted.

    In a world where we are so saturated by corporate advertising, we're all a bit cynical if we see a Nintendo or a Diet Coke. For these reasons I'd avoid it.
     
  8. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    they should only be used if truly needed... not tossed in without good reason... and the writer should be aware that it may 'date' the work and all readers may not be familiar with the brand name/item/company/whatever...
     

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