Should Fiction Be Timeless? Pop Culture References in Contemporary Novels

Should fiction be timeless? It was a debate that became especially heated in the 1980s, as a younger generation of writers, raised on corporate advertising and the burgeoning brand-ification of America, attempted to portray the daily consumption of pop culture and corporate sponsorship that was now inescapable. Older writers (who were often the teachers of the younger generation’s MFA workshops) found this tic annoying, and believed writers should excise any references that would “date” their fiction.

David Foster Wallace, in his now canonical essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” summed up the back and forth that would take place between the older and younger writers, with their differing sensibilities:

In one of the graduate workshops I went through, a certain gray eminence kept trying to convince us that a literary story or novel should always eschew “any feature which serves to date it” because “serious fiction must be Timeless.” When we protested that, in his own well-known work, characters moved about electrically lit rooms, drove cars, spoke not Anglo-Saxon but postwar English, and inhabited a North America already separated from Africa by continental drift, he impatiently amended his proscription to those explicit references that would date a story in the “frivolous Now.”

Wallace himself didn’t shy away from calling out the way corporate culture was increasingly becoming part of daily life in his fiction (in Infinite Jest, every year has a corporate sponsor, such as “Year of the Whopper” and “Year of the Depend Undergarment”). But the apotheosis of pop-culture-referencing fiction was Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991), a novel where brand names are part of the artistic DNA. Patrick Bateman, the infamous narrator of the novel, is a rich investment banker for whom status signifiers are harrowingly important. Both the clothes — “I’m wearing a four-button double-breasted wool and silk suit, a cotton shirt with a button-down collar by Valentino Couture, a patterned silk tie by Armani and cap-toed leather slip-ons by Allen Edmonds” — and the music — with soliloquies about Genesis, Whitney Houston, and Huey Lewis & the News as he chops people up — serve to date this novel as happening squarely in the late 80s/early 90s.

So, more than two decades later, where are we now? I think, ultimately, the use or non-use of pop-culture references has grown more sophisticated. To examine the relationship between high-profile fiction and pop culture, it helps to split the literary field into a couple categories that are, of course, reductive, and by no means exhaustive.

But the apotheosis of pop-culture-referencing fiction was Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991), a novel where brand names are part of the artistic DNA.

Let’s begin with fiction that attempts some sort of contemporary realism. Often set in New York City, the books that try to capture the contemporary moment have no problem using pop-culture references. Adelle Waldman, in her young-man in New York novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. (2013), alludes to Mystery Science Theatre 3,000, Seinfeld, Starbucks, and Sex and the City. Julia Pierpont, in her dissembling family in New York novel Among the Tend Thousand Things (2015), also has copious references to Seinfeld (and Seinfeld fan fiction), along with mentions of the Harry Potter films, FedEx, Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond, The Little Mermaid, and JPEGs. Jonathan Franzen, though his last two novels haven’t been set primarily in New York, would also fall into this category, and Freedom (2010) contains mentions to bands like Bright Eyes and arguments about the “MP3 revolution” and the effect of iPod’s on music consumption, while Purity (2015) namedrops Breaking Bad and Facebook. Unlike in American Psycho, the references in these novels aren’t especially important to the story’s artistic project (though sometimes, like in Pierpont’s novel, plot developments hinge on a pop-culture allusion); they are just making the world that the characters inhabit more specific.

Another strand of acclaimed fiction in the last couple years has been novels set in the recent past (with the decade of choice seeming to be the 1970s). These novels often use the pop culture of the time to fill out the fictional details of their world. Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (2013) has corporate references (such as Schaefer’s and McDonald’s), film references (Model Shop, The Naked Dawn, and A Star is Born), and music references (Wanda Jackson; Paul McCartney). Jonathan Lethem, in Dissident Gardens (2014), and Garth Risk Hallberg, in City on Fire (2015), share references to Norman Mailer’s party-going habits, and the former throws in plenty of references to music (including Elvis and Peter, Paul and Mary), while the latter has its own musical taste (a lot of Patti Smith references); both include time-period appropriate television references (Archie Bunker in the former; Dick Clark in the latter). Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings (2015) has plenty of music and television references of its own, and similar to Lethem’s book, mentions the popular dirty magazines of the time (Penthouse in James’s book; Playboy in Lethem’s). The references in these novels are used for essentially the same purpose as the references in Waldman, Pierpont, or Franzen, but are in service of creating a realistic historical past rather than historical present.

But, on the other side of the debate, novels have started popping up and earning the “timeless” or “out of time” approbation. What is especially interesting about this is that, in at least two examples, the timelessness seems to go against the novel’s ultimate project. I first noticed this a couple years ago with Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award winning Salvage the Bones (2011). Salvage the Bones is a story about a family’s attempt to survive Hurricane Katrina, which means that it is, naturally, marked to a very specific historical context. Yet Ward, for the most part, evades pop culture references, even as her characters are concerned with contemporary activities. For example, Randall is a good basketball player, hoping to one day earn a scholarship for college. And while it would’ve been easy for Ward to compare his style of play to some NBA superstar like Lebron James, Chris Paul, or Michael Jordan, none of these players are ever mentioned. Similarly, characters watch TV in the novel, yet we are never privy to the shows they watch. The allusions in the novel instead are literary, to William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, and Nora Zeale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Parul Sehgal, in The New York Times Book Review, wrote, “It’s an old story — of family honor, revenge, disaster — and it’s a good one.” And though, like the novels set in the 1970s, Salvage the Bones has a specific historical story to tell, Ward creates the “old story” feeling of the novel in part by eradicating references to everything except “high culture” artifacts.

…Yanagihara goes to some length to withhold the obvious noun that would sum up the phenomenon she is describing.

Similarly, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life partially purports to be a “four men in New York” novel, and, in the first few chapters, it does seem on the same branch of the family tree as Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. or even HBO’s Girls (which never met a pop-culture reference it didn’t like). However, A Little Life removes any reference to pop-culture ephemera. This becomes most evident in instances where Yanagihara goes to some length to withhold the obvious noun that would sum up the phenomenon she is describing. For example, detailing the art world that J.B., one of the novel’s central characters, runs in, she writes, “You painted or sculpted or made crappy installation pieces because it justified a wardrobe of washed-soft T-shirts and dirty jeans and a diet of ironic cheap American beers and ironic expensive hand-rolled American cigarettes.” It’s a picture-perfect description of hipsters, yet Yanagihara refuses to use the word “hipster.”

And similar to the way TV is handled in Salvage the Bones, Yanagihara has Jude, who is highly educated but has no knowledge of pop culture, contemplating his own ignorance without naming anything specific, writing, “He had never heard of the sitcoms whose episodes were constantly referenced.” Yanagihara alludes to the fact that Jude’s friends refer to specific sitcom episodes, but she never actually provides any references to these shows or episodes.

However, also like Salvage the Bones, the novel is not completely void of names of cultural artifacts. There are references to artists, poets, and filmmakers. But these references are all strictly of a “high art” variety. Characters namedrop Lorna Simpson; we observe them watching a Buñuel film; poetry by Stevens, Roethke, Lowell, and Hughes fills empty spaces on the subway; and, through indirect discourse, Willem characterizes J.B. as having a “Felliniesque command of his vast social circle.”

Any reference to “low art” either doesn’t specify a proper noun (as with the vague “sitcom episodes”) or refers to something fictional. The latter happens the most during sections of the book that feature Willem, given that he is an aspiring (and then successful) actor. Yanagihara is willing to place Willem in made-up pop films like Black Mercury 3081, where he plays “a brooding intergalactic scientist who was also a jujitsu warrior,” but does not mention the million Marvel movies that are essentially based on that same premise. Similarly, one of their friends is in a hardcore band called Smegma Cake 2 who plays songs with titles like “Phantom Snatch 3000,” but real-life hardcore bands like Pulling Teeth, with songs like “Brain Drain,” of course, receive no mention. This is noticeably different from Waldman and Franzen, who have no problem name-dropping Seinfeld or Bright Eyes.

So why would Yanagihara write a “young people in New York” story, but avoid pop-culture references? In his review for the New Yorker, Jon Michaud notes what he calls “curious absences” from the text:

Yanagihara scrubs her prose of references to significant historical events. The September 11th attacks are never mentioned, nor are the names of the Mayor, the President, or any recognizable cultural figures who might peg the narrative to a particular year. The effect of this is to place the novel in an eternal present day, in which the characters’ emotional lives are foregrounded and the political and cultural Zeitgeist is rendered into vague scenery.

Michaud, here, focuses more on politics than culture, but I think he is onto something. What he means by “an eternal present day” is that Yanagihara is trying to have it both ways. Unlike the people who try to make novels “timeless,” Yanagihara makes sure the reader knows that the novel is set no further in the past than 2005 (or whenever texting and email became widespread). But Yanagihara has explained that she wanted to give her novel a “fairytale quality,” where it seems out of time. By not referring to the companies or products that would date the novel specifically (no references to iMessage or Gmail), she tries to accomplish having it both ways: we don’t know exactly when the novel is set, and no matter how much time passes in the novel, it always seems like the present.

Here’s the takeaway: what both Wallace and his instructor don’t quite explain (though Wallace definitely understood this) is that allusions are intentional and malleable features of building a fictional world. The debate has typically been framed around whether it is ever appropriate for a writer to reference Seinfeld, Bright Eyes, or Facebook. What makes more sense is to talk about whether or not doing so is helpful for the specific project at hand. Calling out brand names, TV shows, and contemporary bands does give fiction a different feeling than simply referring to electric light bulbs or automobiles. Wallace’s instructor is right about the fact that references that place a novel squarely in 2016 are different from references that could place a novel anywhere from 1945 to 2016 (or, as with A Little Life, anywhere from about 2005 to 2030). But Wallace is right in asserting that sometimes the author wants to place a novel squarely in 2016 (just as an author sometimes wants to place the novel in 1976). The debate shouldn’t be about creating timeless fiction, because that endeavor is nonsense. The debate should be about the story’s setting. Sometimes it is necessary to place the novel in a specific, historical present. And sometimes, such as in A Little Life, it is necessary to obfuscate.

More Like This

7 Books About Life in Queens by Writers of Color

Bushra Rehman, author of "Roses in the Mouth of a Lion," recommends stories set in the most diverse neighborhood in the world

Dec 2 - Bushra Rehman

7 Books About Sad Girls in New York City

Girls with unhealthy work-life balance, toxic romances and terrible vices, claiming the city as their own, one subway cry at a time

Sep 2 - Kate Gavino

White Capitalism is Destroying My Neighborhood

Cleyvis Natera's novel "Neruda on the Park" is a portrait of how gentrification impacts a Dominican family in New York City

Jul 28 - Deirdre Sugiuchi
Thank You!