In Defense of Cultural Reference

Jessa Crispin offers yet another one of her trademark “I hate it so I’ll spew vile without supportive examples” columns for the Book Standard. Beyond the troubling hyperbole (“Those books should die”), strangely reminiscent of an infamous 1933 conflagration, there are troubling generalizations here.

For one thing, Crispin cites only one novel (Miss Misery) while declaring a rampant epidemic. She writes, “Do we need to know what beverage these characters drank before filling out their meme? Good God, no,” before declaring, “It’s making an entire generation of men’s writing look bad.”

Let us give Crispin the benefit of the doubt, assuming for a moment that this emoboy novel plague has, in fact, tarnished the edifices of every Manhattan building, that nearly every publishing executive and publicist is hot to trot for the next touchy-feely dick lit title, and that half of every novel turned out by a thirtyish male writer might be styled “emoboy.” Even if Crispin utterly loathes these books (assuming that she can identify a second one beyond the Andy Greenwald title), is not Crispin’s complaint not with the books, but with the type of man portrayed in these books? And if fiction has a duty to portray the culture around us, is it not obligated in some way to present the banal fixations or the ugliness of this so-called emoboy culture so that future generations might understand it? (I’ll get back to this rhetorical question in a trice. Bear with me.)

Why set limits on what today’s novelists write about?

Further, what exactly is wrong with reference? When someone writes that they enjoyed last night’s Arctic Monkeys show, how are they capitulating to product placement or name dropping? It is no different from having seen Hostel the other night or watched the latest episode of The Bachelor. Or, for that matter, brushing one’s teeth. Whether we like it or not, we’re living right now in a world of cultural reference. And for those who decry this or require copious amounts of Percoet to cope, I would suggest that they take up the pen themselves or they come up with an alternative for how novelists should chronicle this, rather than dimissing, without example or justification, a novelist’s initial attempts to come to terms with this sociological phenomenon.

Cultural generalizations sometimes have certain advantages. To use Crispin’s example, anyone who is even remotely a music geek or a concertgoer knows that a My Morning Jacket fan in his early thirties is going to be one of those types still struggling to justify his desire to rock out while paying a mortgage or beginning a family. (Here in San Francisco, you often see such types at Bimbo’s 365 for lo-fi bands and, in the worst cases, for utterly shallow performers like Josh Rouse.)

I think that these so-called “emoboy novelists” (which, until further examples are provided, we can confine only to Greenwald) are merely describing the world around them, not trying to show how hip they are. Granted, when pop cultural references are used exclusively as a crutch and there is nothing more than these references, I agree with Ms. Crispin that this may be a problem. Then again, who are any of us to suggest that a particular writer’s method of chronicling the world is the right one? It seems then that Crispin has adopted the reactionary (and currently favorable) tone of such traditional critics as B.R. Myers and James Wood, whereby any novel outside hard realistic fiction should be dismissed on sight.

To go back to this question of cultural references as a qualifier, I should note that one cannot imagine reading the plays of Moss Hart and George Kaufman without the cultural references. In The Man Who Came to Dinner (and this is just at the top of my head; I know this because I once acted in a community theatre production of this play and in fact begged the director to keep in the 1930s-specific cultural references, despite the fact that we all knew they’d puzzle the audience), there are references to Philo Vance, Schiaparelli, Man Ray, the Maharajah, and Louella Parsons. Most of these are uttered by the protagonist Sheridan Whiteside and are absolutely indispensable in showing the considerable class division between Whiteside’s smug yet debilitated position and the earnest small-town eccentrics who try to attend to him.

But cultural reference goes far beyond mere class division. A few years ago, on a hypercurious lark, I went to the San Francisco Main Library and began photocopying Herb Caen’s columns from the San Francisco Chronicle. I still have an extremely thick bulging folder filled with these photocopies. I started from the beginning at 1938, studying them to see what had become of the City I loved so much. I discovered such fascinating (and forgotten) cultural references as the below:

  • Pins and Needles — The only Broadway hit produced by a labor union.
  • The Martha Washington Candy Shop chain — Once a prominent candy chain, the See’s of its time, and fondly remembered by many for its vanilla butter cream coated with dark chocolate.
  • The WPA Music Project — An opportunity for musicians to get funding during lean times. Even if the music might have been amateurish, there is still a very fascinating story of stipend cuts (with funds reallocated to interbay transport) which permitted the Oakland musicians to meet with the San Francisco musicians, and vice versa — thus giving the name an indisputably frugal association.
  • Alexander’s Ragtime Band — A hugely popular movie laden with historical inaccuracies (such as telephones appearing before their time), likely joked about among film geeks during the time in much the same way that today’s film geeks joke about the watches in Spartacus or the fact that Krakatoa is actually west of Java.
  • The Yosemite — the last ferry to transport cars across the Bay as the Golden Gate Bridge opened.

I should point out that many of these references simply involved the names alone and I had to find the context on my own. But doing the detective work proved invaluable for understanding some of the references I found repeated throughout Caen’s columns and within other literature that I had read from the same time period. More importantly, it gave me a sense of understanding the way that people related to each other. Because for the people who lived in the 1930s, these names and places were vitally important cultural reference points in their daily lives.

It’s often difficult for any of us operating in the present to understand just how ephemeral our world is and how the memories we hold dear, whether it involves meeting the love of one’s life for the first time while listening to Ella Fitzgerald playing in a Peet’s Coffeehouse. Sometimes the ineffable nature of a fluttering heart means that a writer must resort to a certain context in order to come closer to the experience. Further, whether fiction writers realize this or not, they are to some extent chroniclers and historians. So if we declare war on cultural reference and discourage its propagation, then how will tomorrow’s scholars (or amateur photocopiers) know precisely how or in what context (even the shallow ones) that we lived?

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  1. Good points. I think Crispin has substituted. “I don’t like these people and don’t want to read about their lives” for any actual critical judgment.

    I would be curious about the other emo boy novels though, because while I’d defend to the death the rights of the writers to write them and the publishers to publish them and their fans to like them, they do sound annoying because I hate those dudes.

  2. I tink the problem with (pop?) culture references (in general and especially in books) is that it is hard to do well – epecially if the audience is outside of the loop. This was one of my largest complaints about Eco’s Loana. Except he does take it a step further, with the character trying to use his own tastes to learn about himself. It didn’t work for me on any level, regardless. Eco spent some time discussing this in a SF visit as a postmodernist’s dilmena. I don’t know that I fully bought into his line of thinking (as clever as he was).

    I’m not sure I’ve read (or heard of any) emo boy books, so I’m not sure it’s that pervasive a problem.

    As long as the writing is “good”, the references can be a nice touch to work as a trimming (or parallel course) – but they shouldn’t be the meat and potatoes of the story. Like I said, I don’t know that i’ve read any books that were full of references to cite, but in the world of music there are many. Beastie Boys & The Hold Steady come immediately to mind, and hip-hop is full of pop-references – with plenty of bad/useless/crutch ones, but the good ones are sooooo good.

    Also, if you’re bored go to and search “emo is dead”, where you can learn such interesting things as Dashboard Confessional IS NOT EMO!! – xoxo

  3. […] A few years ago, I had a short-lived blog called Raising Caen, in which I read Herb Caen’s old columns, starting from 1938, and tried to see if there was any trace of any of the people or places he referenced online. No surprise. Most of them had disappeared. Major stores such as the Martha Washington Candy Shop chain, remembered fondly for its vanilla butter cream coated with dark chocolate, were unmemorialized. (More references can be found here.) […]

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