Ah the perils of the modern era and the prevalence of first world problems. An idjit with a backhoe took out power to the whole Ballard yesterday. That came back in the middle of the night - you know the way that happens. 3AM, you're dead asleep and EVERYTHING you forgot to turn off in the midst of power outage comes screaming to flashy, blinky, obnoxious life. It happened. Got everything turned off and another hour or so of shut eye before coming into town to write my blog post this morning, only to find that the local ISP (the most feared and loathed ISP in the US) couldn't tell its head from a hole in the ground. Better late than never, it appears they've worked that out.
Not only is this the explanation for why I'm incredibly late to my blog post, it's a segue into our topic this week: Contemporary references in fiction.
Because most of you share modern, western cultural experience with me, you're all familiar with my experience from the last two days. A bunch of you will be able to accurately ID the internet company I'm dissing even though I didn't name them. That's the power of shared experience. It's a bit of an inside joke. And it invites you to feel clever and included IF you're included in that circle of 'in the know'. From that standpoint, contemporary references in a story can work. They can be invitations into the story.
But if you aren't on the inside of inside joke? Do you remember how you felt the last time someone said something that cracked up three of the four of you. When you stood there at a loss, someone waved a hand and said, "Inside joke." Chances are high that you don't hang with them anymore if that happened more than once.
The first problem with contemporary references is that they're alienating. They only really work inside a particular culture or inside a particular fandom. Sometimes that's fine. Can't be all things to all people, right? But hitting a contemporary reference too hard can limit your audience because it's too much like smirking at someone and saying, "You don't belong here.".
The second problem with plugging contemporary references into a novel is that it's often shorthand and doesn't actually enrich a story. Is the reference necessary to the story or to character? If you have a character who only listens to Vampire Weekend in her Ipod while going on a murderous bank robbing spree that might be a valid use of contemporary reference as a means of conveying character. The writer who's brilliant at that is Charles de Lint. He goes so far as to work with musicians he loves to quote their music lyrics in his books. But. If it's just a toss off that could easily be replaced, you may not be helping your cause.
The third problem with contemporary reference is the 'contemporary' part. Contemporary today is a fossil tomorrow. Just watch a rerun from the 1970s if you don't believe me. If you're going for nostalgia, it might work. If you're trying to be clever, that'll last maybe twelve seconds on the day the book comes out.
So can you use contemporary references in writing? Absolutely! Should you? Depends. My standard answer to everything, isn't it? Really. I do think there ought to be a compelling reason to stick something specifically dating into a story. Even my example of Vampire Weekend above could be replaced by a description of the relentlessly bouncy, cheerful bubble gum pop on the bank robber's Ipod. Ultimately: If it serves a story, do it. If not, don't. Broaden out. Trust your reader to take your description and build a picture that works for them.