Pop Culture in Books and Editorial Reviews

This post is two-fold because I have two questions to ask 1) is there a place in literature for pop culture references, and 2) are editorial reviews necessary?

Are pop culture references cheating?

dick_clark_bransonI am being a bit lazy today by putting these two ideas in one post, but, for me personally, they are sort of related. I have a popular culture reference in my current WIP and I don’t want to take it out. American Bandstand and Dick Clark were iconic.

Dick Clark was a legend. He MC’d a popular TV show that started in the 1950s and became a household name. Everybody knew is image, his timeless face. Even after American Bandstand, his image became synonymous with the New Year’s celebration.

American Bandstand was a television show that spirited musicians and the music movements through nearly a half of a century. Teenagers learned the new dance crazes by watching his show and dancing in their living rooms. I did. Everyone knew all the latest music and teen idols by watching his dance and music show. The Top Ten list was a dream goal for most performers.  American Bandstand stayed popular throughout the decades until MTV came along.

I have a reference, more than one actually, to the TV show in my work in progress and I want to keep it there, which brings me to my next topic:

Editorial Reviews: Do they really help sell books?

One thing some big advertisers have told me is that I need more reviews and editorial reviews before they can consider my book on their promotional sites.

So, like many eager authors, I begged for reviews and then I went to the editorial review closet to see what I could find. Even though I have more respect for blogger review recommendations, myself, I know that not all people have access to these. Personally, as a reader, I care more about customer reviews than editorial reviews. What do the readers think? I like to see a variety of reviews on one work I am considering, but there are those who will only read books that have been recommended by their favorite review service. There is a separate space for Editorial Reviews on your Amazon page.

With that in mind, I set out to petition some bigger name and popular review services. One of my issues as a reader is that editorial reviews are posted by the author. They can use excerpts rather than post the review in its entirety, and OF COURSE, they want to shine their book in its brightest light. I would.

Reader’s Favorite gave me four five star reviews and one four star review and I was readily able to pull excerpts to create one very nice Readers Favorite review. I won’t post all five reviews here, but you can read the excerpted review on my Amazon page here.

I was really nervous about the next one, because they are such a big name. I got a decent Kirkus review, which pleased me immensely because they are so well renowned…yes, they were critical about my, “Nearly fatal flaw,” in the full review, but they also had some very kind words to say about my work, so I managed to excerpt plenty to create a an editorial review on my Amazon page.

Then there was another place, which will remain nameless, for several reasons that I won’t get into here, but I will say that they ripped me to shreds. They tore out my heart and then dissected it into little bitty unchewable pieces and spit it out. They basically told me that I needed to rewrite my book as a trilogy, and even offered me helpful services, for a fee. There was only a portion of one sentence that I could bear to repeat, so obviously, I won’t be using theirs.

brady_bunch_onstai-9494One thing that one of the reviewers took issue with was a sentence wherein a pop culture reference was used. I had said, “[The suburban years]…were our “Brady Bunch” and Wonder Years.”  The reference was to growing up in the seventies era.

This reviewer admonished the pop culture reference saying that it destroyed the timelessness of the story and, “Revealed amateurishness.” That stung.

I just recently read a book that referenced the TV show CSI. csicastI thought it was an appropriate reference in context to the story and the character’s personality. AT THE SAME TIME, my husband was reading a John Kellerman, (certainly NOT an amateur) who did the very same thing, twice in his book. He made hilarious references to the CSI teams in his crime novel.

How do you feel about pop culture references? Do they help carry the reader into an appropriate mindset or time period, or do they bother you as amateurish writing?

How do you feel about editorial reviews? Are you influenced to purchase books based on these sorts of reviews? Should advertisers make them conditional for carrying promotions?

27 thoughts on “Pop Culture in Books and Editorial Reviews

  1. Soooooo, I will be honest. I have no idea what an editorial review is… so I can’t answer that question. Pop culture references are okay in the way they are used. If you were to have been explicit with your statement of the Brady Bunch that it related to growing up in the 70s, then it would be okay but if it is an implicit statement then it might be lost on a younger audience. The problem with pop culture references is it can date your work, in ways that you might not want, which I assume is why people are told to avoid them. In 10 years, people who try to read your story might not understand as the reference isn’t as remembered. I think the key is context though. If it is through dialogue, then it makes sense from a character perspective but if it is through narration, might want to avoid. In the end though if you are satisfied with it, that is all that matters. 😀

    • I understand the dated part, but if your work is historical in nature you want to sort of date it.

      But again, for it to be truly “timeless” so that any era can relate to it…best maybe not to have so much.
      As a reviewer of all things popular, thanks for chiming in 🙂

  2. I think pop culture references are useful in establishing a time period and link to reality. Not just media references, but technology and phrases. I read a YA book that partially took place in our world and it had a ‘Pinky & the Brain’ reference. It didn’t take away from the story or annoy me. In fact, it helped remind me that the story was on Earth and that the author is a human being. Guess what I’m saying is that such references can act as a bridge between reader and author.

    I’m not influenced by editorial reviews, but I know a lot of people who are. It’s like professional movie critics. Some people listen and some people don’t. Beyond that I know very little about these kinds of reviews.

    • I very rarely agree with with movie critics. Which is probably why I don’t put so much faith in editorial reviews for books.

      The idea of using pop culture references just makes sense to me. Like you said, even technology references…like use of a cell phone, or even a popular drink for an era. I could see a reference to martinis in both a sixties book and a a book about 2010, because it was a popular drink in both eras. But a reference to a whiskey sour in a contemporary book might be a bit off putting I can see it being off-putting when they are incorrect…like in The Goldfinch” when she makes so many references to use of iPads and iPods and cell phones during a time period when they had not yet been invented. But if it is an accurate representation of a time period, it seems a helpful cue.

      Thanks for the comments…you really got me thinking.

        • Sometimes I think my husband just reads so voraciously in order to find mistakes. He is always pointing out mechanical mistakes…like an author saying they killed the siren, and then in the next paragraph saying all he could hear was the siren…it is sort of an added amusement to him.

            • I can’t say that I have ever found pop culture references distractable, even when I didn’t quite get it. I couldn’t laugh as hard as my husband reading Kellerman, because I don’t know CSI and its characters. But reading the reference in Burnett’s book was not at all distracting. It fit. It made sense. Thirty years from now, it might not.

              • That’s the challenge with a pop culture reference. It’s only appealing and funny if the reader knows about it. For example, American Bandstand wouldn’t have a big reaction from me. Yet, a character saying ‘my spider sense is tingling’ or a variation of that would make me smile. It’s really a niche tool if you think about it.

  3. Pop culture? I’m torn. On the one hand, in a review I did recently of a book set in Regency England, I complained about the use of current terminology that would never have made it into period conversation. On the other hand, I really enjoyed Eloisa James’ tongue-in-cheek use of that same technique in her period novels. I think the difference is that James invites her readers’ amusement at the anachronisms, instead of trying to sneak them in there. But I just can’t see any grounds for complaint when the cultural references are so appropriate (in this case to the narrator’s voice). I know that my poor editors shiver and shake when I use references to current products, people, or places. But really, unless you are so negative that you leave yourself open to a slander or libel case, I think it anchors the work in the real world.

    Editorial reviews? I adore having people say good things about my children, my home, and of course, my books. But at the end of the day, showing your book to other writers is probably not what will get it to sell. As far as I can tell (and I’m far from being an expert) the one constant for book sales is to write more books, especially in the brave new world where your published work can stay out there forever. Think about how you choose books to read. Sure you might look at the Sunday Times, but more often you hear about it from friends, or you look for works by favorite authors. It’s readers who will look for more of your work if they like the first one, and who will tell other readers about your books, not those editorial reviewing ‘experts’. I’m just sayin…

    • How can a steampunk book NOT have pop culture references? Ha!

      I don’t want to loose potentially dedicated readers by making my book too cliche, but two young sisters in the late fifties early sixties who are into music would, no doubt, be interested in American Bandstand. It was so very iconic, to not mention the show at all would seem an omission in my mind.

      I agree about editorial reviews not being the be all end all. I am annoyed that places like BookBub practically require them, or want to post NY Times best sellers only. Too much power in book marketing.

  4. I think pop culture should be in books where placing a specific setting is important. Is the history important to the story, for instance? Re the reviewer who tore you to shred: nastiness and self-interest.

    • Thanks Luanne. i felt the same about that review.

      I agree about time period setting. It would be remiss to write a 1950s/60s book concerning music without a reference to AB.

  5. I included quite a few pop culture references in the piece I’m working on now. These include defunct stores, brands, and American Bandstand. They were part of our lives, they helped shape us in small ways. I’m also going to ask for permission to quote some song lyrics in my end game. (I’m not holding my breath, but I’m going to ask.)

    • I have known people who asked and received permission to quote song lyrics, and others who, because the song was owned by a corporation that said no, didn’t use them.

      I do also think that pop culture references help set the reality as some have mentioned here. TV, radio, and such are so much a part of our every day lives now…it’s not like centuries ago when authors had only books to reference. And authors DID reference each other’s writing in past years.

  6. Some references are essential to establish time period. Even certain products can cause a reader to pause and remember, and that lends authenticity to the piece.

    • Authenticity. That’s the word I was looking for. The references do lend authenticity to the work. It was a historical book, and I did make reference to Marilyn Monroe’s appearance in Playboy, Miss Clairol hair care products and other such things that did seem essential elements. It is part of what brought the story to life in my mind. Thanks for comments.

  7. Pop culture references don’t bother me, and I have seen them cropping up more in books I’ve read of late. As long as I know the reference I’m ok, otherwise I just kinda glance over it 😀 Great post, something to think of.

    • Thanks. I am reminded of how the piano once took up space in every home. There was no television, and many literary works referenced the piano and the entertainment provided by piano music. Yet, today, pianos are much more rare.

      Writing this piece set, again, in the 1950s-60s, I think it would be remiss to write a story (especially wherein music is a feature) without reference to it, even though there are many contemporary readers who won’t relate.

      I don’t watch CSI, but I have heard of the show. I would probably miss any insider jokes about it, but it wouldn’t bother me as a reader. Thanks for adding your thoughts.

  8. I cast my vote for only Part A of the question you posed. Yes, pop culture references, I think, “help carry the reader into an appropriate mindset or time period.” One commenter used the word “authentic,” which fits in this case. I’m not writing a book yet, but in a recent blog post I paired a quotation about Vladimir Nabokov from his Memoir, ” Speak, Memory,” and a reference Howdy Doody and Buffalo Bob. It fit!

    • I remember that, and yes Howdy Doody is iconic…surely, if you don’t know who he is, you have seen or heard reference to him…if not, then consider yourself having been educated.

  9. What we need are readers. 🙂 Once we get those, a tiny fraction will leave reviews, and, imho, that wacky variety of natural reactions from your reading audience that evolves oh so slowly trumps any reviews you might try to stimulate.

    • So true, but it is a tiny fraction. I was thinking about that today…the number of sales to the number of reviews…and then, I thought, better be careful what I ask for…last time I prayed for a review hahaha, I got a 2 star LOL. Still LOVE my readers 🙂

  10. I think any reviewer who says you should never do something is amateurish. If a pop culture reference fits the story, then it works. Certainly American Bandstand was iconic. (Did you ever see the TV show American Dreams? It was on about 10 years ago. One of the daughters was a dancer on Bandstand.) If a book, movie, play is set in that time period and involves teens or music, it would be appropriate. If a character has a favorite TV show, musician, or whatever, then references can reveal more about that character.

    As far as reviews, my work is academic, so reviews by professionals are important. Most of the readers’ reviews I’ve seen of my work are ridiculous. They talk about a writing style when the book is a collection of various authors, showing that they either did not read the book or are totally clueless. I would value a thoughtful review though by a non-professional. Then again, my books are not the type that most people rush to buy–unfortunately. 🙂 When I’m looking at fiction, I usually look at professionals and also also check some of the customers’ reviews.

    • I do believe such pop culture references can lend a certain degree of authenticity to a fiction read.

      Your work is read by seasoned professionals, so reviews would be particularly harsh if you made any mistakes in your presentation of the material, I would suppose. Historical fiction of personage readers also can be particularly critical of time period mistakes or what they perceive as errors of character. Especially if they study a particular time period.

      I do value all readers, even the most critical, as sometimes the critical ones point out things that could be improved on.

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