Books, Thoughts

Stray Thoughts: Pop Culture in Writing

David Foster Wallace once said that postmodern writers, including himself, used pop culture references “the sort of way the Romantic poets use lakes and trees. . . they’re just part of the mental furniture.”  In theory, there’s nothing wrong with the idea but I find I grow more & more frustrated with different executions of it.  I agree that from Gen X on, pop culture has grown into a type of social language.  Honestly, I pride myself on being somewhat proficient.

I can say something like, “That’s as stupid as Greedo shooting first” or “Now you know and knowing is half the battle.”  I can point out a Wilhelm scream in an action sequence.  I have a tendency to use song lyrics in my conversations, mainly because words don’t express my meaning, notes cannot spell out the score.

Depending on who you are, you get it & we share a moment of recognition.  A perfect example happened when I watched Spaced with my husband & my sister separately.  A clip like this would confuse my husband (who was already an adult in the 90’s & boy-band oblivious) but would make my sister & I (who are much younger) laugh ourselves to tears.

Often I tend to find that pop culture is much more fun in a visual media, like Spaced or Zero Punctuation, rather than in written word.  Running across these references in print inspires in me detachment, a more analytical bent, as if I’m suddenly aware of whether someone is conjugating a verb properly.

David Foster Wallace is a prime example.  There are many pop culture references in Infinite Jest, but Wallace does a pretty good job muddling their origins.  One specific instance jumps out though.  In one of the novel’s endings, he lifts an obviously recognizable scene from 1984.  It was so blatant that once I realized what I was reading, I thought, “Oh, gotcha,” & skipped to the next paragraph.

I’ve had similar reactions to books like Lady Lazarus.  I felt as though I was grading a term paper.  “Nirvana argument, check.  Sinead O’Connor on SNL supporting points, check.  Macaulay Caulkin career comeback details, check.”  Like a good student, Altschul had indexed all the “real” pop culture references in the back of the book.  If I had been a teacher, I would have given him a B & written: Good ideas, thorough understanding of structure.  Needs to develop voice; how is this exigent? I couldn’t even bring myself to review Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad after reading the first 30 pages.

Now, I am not saying that these works or these writers are wrong for using pop culture language in the writing.  I just question whether many of these references translate into text.  It must be incredibly hard to build something meaningful or significant from predominantly spoken or visual cues in a time when ironic self-awareness is at a height.

Or maybe my problem lies in how I use pop culture-speak.  It is such an idiosyncratic thing, that part of the fun is acting out your recollections with others.  You riff & build on what others bring to the conversation.  You test one another to see if you “pass.”  Here’s another personal example.

At one of my office jobs, the guys I worked with were my age; we shared a lot of common ground with TV & video games.  One day, for no good reason, we started reciting the words used to summon Captain Planet.  (I actually hated the cartoon & watched it as a kid to make fun of it.)  From then until I left for another job, we would recite the words at random times.  It was a way to cut the monotony, to check in on a bad day, to give ourselves a reason to laugh.  If someone else were to walk in & start doing it with us, we would have shut right up & kept out of their way.

So I guess that’s really why I feel so detached from a writer who uses pop culture-speak.  It is a valid language, but I’ll always be looking at them, waiting to see what they say next, thinking, “Do you pass?  You think you can keep up?”


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