Incorporating pop culture references into your writing
by Becky Albertalli
Recently, I had one of those soul-baring conversations with two of my best friends about our careers and our goals and the things that matter to us as authors. And one of my friends said something that stuck with me.
I want my book to still exist and be relevant a few decades from now.
That’s it. Not money or prestige or awards or fame. All my friend wanted was for the story to transcend the time and place in which it was written. So simple and so lovely.
And, of course, it sent me into this anxious spiral of confusion and self-doubt, because if there’s one criticism I get all the time for SIMON, it’s this: too many pop culture references. Will date itself quickly. Tries too hard to be “of the moment.” Will quickly become irrelevant.
Maybe they’re right.
But I want to talk a little bit about pop culture references in contemporary YA books, and I’m going to use the term broadly here. When I say pop culture, I’m referring to real-life media, celebrities, internet communities, fandoms, real-world events, slang, technology, and basically all the things that people discuss and engage with in the actual world.
Here’s the thing about pop culture references in books: a lot of people hate them. They can be hard to get right – and when they miss the mark, they’re jarring. Sometimes we adults get teen culture wrong. We just do. And sometimes, it’s an issue of timing. The song that was so popular when you drafted the book? If you’re pursuing traditional publishing, it’s going to be at least three years old by the time your book launches. Pop culture, by its very nature, is a moving target.
But for SIMON, I chose to aim for that target. And honestly? I had to.
There are tons of contemporary YA books that flawlessly sidestep the issue of pop culture – or they downplay it, or they invent fake popular media that feels perfectly real. But when I wrote SIMON, I made the decision to jump into my real world setting with both feet.
Not because I wanted the book to feel “of the moment.” Not because I think it’s the only way to connect with teen readers. But because, from the minute I met him, I knew Simon would be deeply connected to pop culture. He just is. He’s evangelical about his music, and he’s obsessed with Harry Potter. He watches reality TV with his family. He has a laptop and an iPhone. (And, of course, he has a lot of privilege – something for another blog post.) And taken separately, maybe these feel like tangential aspects of his character, but I think they all come together to form something essential about him. Simon is wholly, inextricably a high school junior of 2014-2015. Context matters. It always matters.
And then you have the internet, which is the biggest deal of all.
Here’s something I think is important: SIMON doesn’t exist without the internet. It is a book about an anonymous online friendship, disrupted by an online invasion of privacy. My characters are hooked into social media, and these communities play important roles in their lives. Many of the biggest moments in this book occur over email or Tumblr.
And that’s the thing: this is real life for a lot of actual teens – especially LGBTQIAP+ teens. Especially when they’re navigating the Coming Out Thing. The internet is a gamechanger. It provides anonymous connection for kids who desperately need that. It breaks down geographical barriers. And it’s literally the only place some kids are able to find their communities. I could never have written this particular story without it
And so, the book is out there, with all its messiness – and it’s true: every day, Simon’s pop culture passions will become less and less relevant to new readers. Every shifting online trend threatens my book’s longevity. To be honest, I don’t expect my book to be on shelves forever.
But that’s something I’m okay with. Some books are meant to be timeless. And some are meant to be of their time. And, honestly? I hope my book becomes dated. Because if the culture shifts for LGBTQIAP+ kids in the way it needs to, Simon’s story will become quaint and old-fashioned, and I will fucking celebrate that.
And in the meantime, I’ll stick in another reference to Tumblr. Because Simon is now. And Simon would want me to.
Becky Albertalli is a clinical psychologist who has had the privilege of conducting therapy with dozens of smart, weird, irresistible teenagers. She also served for seven years as co-leader of a support group for gender nonconforming children in Washington, DC. These days, she lives in Atlanta with her husband and two sons, and writes very nerdy contemporary young adult fiction. Her debut novel, SIMON VS. THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA, from Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins is out NOW!
You can visit Becky at beckyalbertalli.com !
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda
Sixteen-year-old and not-so-openly gay Simon Spier prefers to save his drama for the school musical. But when an email falls into the wrong hands, his secret is at risk of being thrust into the spotlight. Now Simon is actually being blackmailed: if he doesn’t play wingman for class clown Martin, his sexual identity will become everyone’s business. Worse, the privacy of Blue, the pen name of the boy he’s been emailing, will be compromised.
With some messy dynamics emerging in his once tight-knit group of friends, and his email correspondence with Blue growing more flirtatious every day, Simon’s junior year has suddenly gotten all kinds of complicated. Now, change-averse Simon has to find a way to step out of his comfort zone before he’s pushed out—without alienating his friends, compromising himself, or fumbling a shot at happiness with the most confusing, adorable guy he’s never met.
A huge thank you to Becky for being an amazing author and an amazing person! I had the pleasure of meeting Becky twice this year, and I’m so happy I did! She’s super sweet!
As always, THANK YOU to all of the wonderful authors who will participate and have participated in this feature. your advice, stories, and experiences are invaluable to new writers. We appreciate everything you do for us!
I hope you all have a wonderful weekend!