Pop Culture in Urban Fantasy

Posted: August 3, 2011 in books, Braak
Tags: , , , ,

So, some time ago, I reviewed Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files novel Changes, and in it I suggested that, while pop culture references were nice, there’s something a little weird about having all of the pop culture references in an Urban Fantasy novel be:  Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or the Wizard of Oz.  In his newest book, Ghost Story, Butcher — with a change so dramatic that it actually felt like he was personally addressing me in particular — there is a different pop culture reference in almost every chapter, and they come from all over.

A lot of Star Wars, still, but also X-Men, Pirates of Caribbean, it’s all over now.

And the thing about it is, it still felt really weird.

Now, just to be clear, I don’t want to make it sound like I don’t like the Dresden Files.  The reason that I keep using them as an example for stuff like this is because they’re generally the only Urban Fantasy that I ever read consistently, so the fact that I have so much to say about them, even if it’s sometimes a little negative, is really complimentary.

(Maybe Jim Butcher doesn’t feel that way, but I think he can console himself with his millions of dollars of royalties.)

Anyway, the issue I’m trying to get at is:  why do I think it seems so weird?  Is it bad?  Is it good?  Is the Dresden Files unique in that regard?

I’m trying to think what else I’ve read that uses pop culture, as opposed to some particular aspect of regular American culture that can be brought into the series.  In Sandman Slim, he really likes old movies, and that’s kind of an interesting choice, right?  Old movies are old no matter when you’re reading the book, so there’s no reason for the references to feel dated.  And obscure movies are always going to be obscure (as opposed to Pirates of the Caribbean, which started out very popular and kind of grew less popular as the series decayed), so if you talk about obscure movies you’re not going to seem like someone’s dad who’s trying to get the Kids These Days to understand him (see also:  Lev Grossman, referring to MMORPGs without seeming like he really got what they were).

On the other hand, Sandman Slim didn’t use those references as a platform for communication with other characters.  And what’s doubly weird about Harry Dresden is that he consistently uses references to things like Star Wars and Pirates with people who obviously wouldn’t know what he was talking about — colonial-era marines, for instance, or ghost police detectives from the 50s.

That’s weird, because that’s not how regular people use pop culture references.  You and I, we talk about things we know we have in common; we use quotes and characters as a short-hand for ideas that are more complex than can be quickly and conveniently expressed.  But you don’t use them with people you know don’t understand them (the use of particular sets of vocabulary in particular social groups, and changing between them, is called “code-switching” and it is SUPER FASCINATING), because using shorthand with people who don’t understand it defeats the purpose:  you have to use the shorthand, and then explain what you mean by it, and that takes longer than just saying what you meant in the first place.

What’s interesting to me, and what I think makes it feel awkward, is that when Harry Dresden talks about Star Wars to a ghost from the 18th century, it doesn’t feel like he’s genuinely trying to communicate his ideas to the ghost — it feels like he’s trying to communicate to ME, the reader, in a language that I will understand.  It seems strange to talk about ‘breaking the fourth wall” in a book that’s strictly in 1st person narration, but the thing about it is that it’s not the narration that uses the references — the moments where Harry is talking directly to the reader — it’s the dialogue, the only times in which he’s explicitly talking to someone else.

Is that what makes me feel weird about it?  I think partly.  But I think the other part is that the narrative in general doesn’t feel like it’s written in a pop-culture idiom.  It’s in an idiom that, I guess for the sake of argument, I’ll refer to as “clean”:  you could pick it up now or ten years ago or ten years from now and not be in any danger of not knowing what he was talking about.

I’m sure that in a hundred or so years it might be harder to read, but I don’t think so:  I think that the specific, dated-idiomatic language of novels was really a feature of the first generation of novels, and as certain books became classics (due to their ability to be read and reread by later and later generations of readers) the fact of this “clean” idiom that read as modern no matter how modern it wasn’t became the most-rewarded and therefore the most replicated style of writing.

So, a “clean” narrative doesn’t rely heavily on colloquialism, it uses generally simple, straightforward language, and eschews references that no one is going to get in twenty years (the exception being, obviously:  references that no one is going to get now — see Sandman Slim and the old movies issue — since they’re going to be equally obscure no matter how far from now you read the book).  The problem with it is that it makes the pop culture references that you DO use stand out like sore thumbs.

Someone set me straight on this.  Naturally, most high or epic fantasy is excepted (what with taking place on specifically alien worlds), but a lot of Urban Fantasy and Science Fiction specifically seems to be set in a world that not only has magic or is in the future, but actually has a different pop culture background.  Down to — and again, sorry Jim Butcher for picking on you all the time, just remember how much more successful you are than I am — in Proven Guilty, there is a monster movie festival, and a subplot of movie monsters coming to life, that features all completely fictional movies.

Why is that?  Is it a question of editorial policy, to eschew references to actual movies or books or songs?  Is it something that authors purposefully do to make their work as broadly appealing as possible?  Is  it just what folks do because they see other people doing it?

It is pretty weird, though.  Sound off in the comments, I am interested in your thoughts.

(I mean, I am interested insofar as they will inspire ME to have better thoughts, not because I’m actually particularly interested in what you guys have to say.  Sorry.)

  1. John Jackson says:

    Hmm… Normally when the protagonist uses a modern cultural reference with someone who predates it, it’s done for comedic effect, because then you get that ‘oh right you’re from the past’ look. Yes, I’m referring to television, because I don’t see it too often in novels. One thing that might make it interesting, is if when that first reference fails, he pulls out some Dumas or Dickens reference, and the ghost then gets it. It might be interesting if they spend the whole novel not getting the reference, then he references something in pop culture which is really a shakespeare reference, and the ghost gets that one, confusing the protagonist. But, yeah, I don’t see it too much in novels, it’s all over television, and it’s amazing how many simple references are intended to be obscure one liners. Ah well.


  2. Jane Banbury says:

    Why use pop culture references that no one gets?

    Well, I do it. Frequently. And the reason why I do it is probably the reason Dresden does it.

    I think I’m funny.

    True, people look confused, and sometimes slightly uncomfortable. And I wish they knew what I was talking about, but I know I’ll make it worse if I try to explain. So I chortle away (inside my head) and mentally pat myself on the back because I’m so damn awesome.

    Enjoyed your article, by the way. Take care.


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