Saturday, February 13, 2016

All Hail the Internet, Keeper of the Sacred and the Profane

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In Kevin Pickard's January 19, 2016 article on Electric Literature, "Should Fiction Be Timeless? Pop Culture References in Contemporary Novels,"  he discusses the fact that there is a debate within the writer community that  goes back to the 1980's when pop culture really became a pervasive part of our society. The old school folks on one side believe that any kind of reference to pop culture should be omitted in a work so that it has a sense of "timelessness." On the other side, there are those, like Brett Easton Ellis, who intentionally use pop culture to situate their work in a specific time and place. Pickard argues that there is no real right answer, that it is up to the author to decide whether the specific cultural context is a necessary part of the story or not.

He does go on to state that the endeavor of creating timeless fiction is in and of itself "nonsense," and through a quote from David Foster Wallace's essay, "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction," makes the point that even if you omit references to pop culture, by the setting, the language you use, the level of technology even passingly referenced, you are putting the novel in a particular time and place; however, he also makes the point that omitting such references does serve a function, using  Hanya Yanagihara's novel, A Little Lifeas an example, in which the desired function is "to give her novel a 'fairytale quality,' where it seems out of time," which I can definitely buy as an artistic choice. However, Pickard also makes the point that while Yanagihara's novel, and the other in this category that he discusses, Jesmyn Ward's novel, Salvage the Bones, both, while omitting pop culture, include many references to high art, including "artists, poets, and filmmakers."

While creating this distinction between high art and pop culture might in and of itself be an artistic choice that serves a function, perhaps as a reflection of a character's interest, as is the case with Yanagihara, if the goal of omitting pop culture is to create a sense of seeming "out of time," then by including "high art," it implies that "high art" is more timeless than pop culture.

I agree with Pickard's premise the debate itself is missing the point, and that the discussion should be focused on the fact that "allusions are intentional and malleable features of building a fictional world," but I wish to add a nuance that Pickard doesn't consider: that the pervasiveness and availability of the Internet slows the fade from relevance works that are set in a specific time and place, so that the idea of "timelessness" being a function of helping works endure for future generations is itself somewhat of a moot point.

Furthermore, whereas once upon a time, when literacy and class differences allowed for what we consider to be "high art" to endure, and what we consider to be "pop culture," or, to follow the implied dichotomy, "low art," to disappear over time, the Internet has blurred that distinction by allowing pop culture to endure past it's prime as no other technology before has permitted it to do. Of course, public education systems and higher levels of literacy across all classes have also helped what appeals to the masses to have a longer lasting impact.

If television, cinema, and radio helped to create this hyperreal postmodern world of Lyotard's, where  the dichotomy is blurred and "low art" is placed as being equal to "high art," then the Internet has only further complicated the distinction to the point where it is no longer really even valid.

In a world where classically trained musicians play pop songs, and pop stars make works of high art, it is possible to read something like American Psycho, and if you aren't sure what the author is referencing, you don't have to seek out your parent's record collection, you can simply Google Huey Lewis and the News and find the music on Youtube.

Even in works with pop cultural references that have long since faded into obscurity, like if you were compelled (probably in a graduate seminar) to read Herman Melville's The Confidence Man, where, even in a highly annotated edition, the references are difficult to understand, with the internet, you can perform the kind of research that even relatively recently might have forced you to go to several different libraries and spend hours or even days searching through archives or microfilm, in order to understand the text even better.

While it might still take some extra work, the internet has vastly simplified this process, and it has in fact even extended what constitutes as contemporary pop culture, since fads are able to extend the amount of time that there is still an audience left to participate in them.

And really, it's not always necessary to understand to the fullest extent what is being referenced as long as you understand the context. While you might not be familiar with every song that  Easton Ellis refers to in Less Than Zero, you know the story takes place in LA in the early 1980's, and so you are able to get the idea fairly quickly, especially when you add in the lifestyles of the characters, the many mansions, and the mountains of cocaine and other drugs that are consumed.

Not to mention, who doesn't still love music from the 80's? As I am sure that any host of any karaoke night at any local bar will tell you, the music is almost as popular today as it ever has been. It takes longer for it to fade from our cultural consciousness since it is still a relevant part of our culture today, which in turn makes it easier for audiences to understand when referenced in a novel, since it still exists and is within our ability to easily grasp.

So, if you feel like including a pop cultural reference in the novel that you're writing, go right on ahead. So long as we don't go through some kind of complete cultural collapse, which I suppose is possible, as it does happen from time-to-time, the Internet will still be here to make it possible for your future readers to understand just exactly what the hell it is that you are talking about, and chances are, it might even still be relevant. However, if for some reason we are sent back to the dark ages, if anything survives, it will at least be a clue for some future archaeologist. I'm sure they'll be wondering just exactly why the Hell we were so obsessed with these Kardashian people.

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