Cultural references…yes or no?


A recent conversation at my favorite local coffee bar:

Me: That music playing sounds just like something out of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Barista (about 35-40-yr-old woman): What is that?

Me: It’s a movie with Audrey Hepburn. You’ve never seen it?

Barista: Audrey who? I never watch old stuff.

Me: Hepburn. A famous actress… The movie is a classic. Don’t you ever watch old black-and-white movies?

Barista, looking at me as if I’ve grown horns: No….did you want something?

This encounter made me rethink something I’ve been working around lately in my WIP. How do you put cultural references in your book without losing your reader? What’s acceptable, what’s a big no-no? I would have thought references to old movies or Hollywood legends would be OK, but present-day movies would be verboten. Now, I’m thinking even old movies may be a bad idea. Or perhaps this woman needs to come out from under her coffee rock once in a while. Even if she’s never seen it, how could she get away with never even hearing about it?

With regard to cultural references in your work…on the one hand, you date your material. This can be a bad thing. Books should be timeless, transport the reader to another world, be forever available.

On the other hand, references to movies, movie stars, etc. can be a great way to make a point. Or is it just a lazy way to make a point? Perhaps working around this restriction is an important exercise in stretching my writing muscles. Or perhaps that woman was just an idiot.

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7 thoughts on “Cultural references…yes or no?

  1. Wow. Maybe I’m the crazy one (nah!), but you have to know Ms. Hepburn and Breakfast at Tiffany’s…. I don’t know. I like cultural references because it gives me a little hint about the author. And if I’m unsure about the reference I go look it up and the book seems even more coherent. šŸ™‚ My 2 cents!

  2. Thanks Kate, at least I’m not crazy. I felt if she were possibly 15 or 20 I could understand it, but she seemed like a pretty mature woman. But, maybe she just moved here from some small town…or maybe she was messing with me. But I like references sometimes to give a sense of time. Thanks for your input!

  3. I actually have never seen the movie, but I’m at least aware of its existence (and Audrey Hepburn). When I read books there’s often cultural references that I don’t get or am not familiar with (as I didn’t grow up with this culture); I’ve found I alternately skim and make inferences and nod along, or it kind of pulls me out a bit before I continue on. BUT, when I do get the reference, it gives me a feeling of being on the “inside” of something, and when the reference is good, it is very rewarding. So I guess in writing, it’s something to be used sparingly, and with the knowledge that no matter what you’ll alienate (even just a little) some portion of your audience. šŸ™‚

    • I think you’re right. You can please everyone, and if it’s something your target audience would understand, that’s what you want…right? Good to know from your perspective as a reader who is not familiar with some references. Thanks! And you’re so right about “getting it” and feeling like you were on the inside, or with the “in” crowd. That’s so true!

  4. Your comments made me think about what a playwriting professor once said to me. He said, “Don’t write down to your audience, give them the chance to come up to you.” I think it was some of the best advice I was ever given, and that it applies to many things, not just playwriting. I have myself been so enriched by learning from unfamiliar references in literature. Unfamiliar references can pique curiousity in a reader. I understand you may be writing for a specific audience or age group, but every reference you make is not necessarily going to be recognized by every reader, anyway. I say, make the reference that comes naturally to you, and give your readers a chance to have their world expanded.

    • Great advice! I’ll remember that! Thanks. It’s great to hear from readers and what they feel as they read cultural references. And in this day and age, it’s easy to look up something you don’t understand.

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