I love the YA community on the interwebs. Truly, I do. Twitter, Goodreads, and the blogosphere are great places to read the thoughts and opinions of many smart, fascinating, righteous folks (writers, librarians, book bloggers, teachers, etc.) who deserve your attention. They are diligently trying to make the world better which is, really, what we all should be doing.

Brutal honesty time: Maybe this is my imposter syndrome talking, but I don’t yet feel like I’m really part of this community. As a YA writer who’s yet to traditionally publish a novel, who doesn’t do any freelance writing because of a fulltime non-writer day job, and has a respectable but modest Twitter following, I exist somewhere on the periphery. I’m that gal who might reply to your tweet or like your blog post. We might even have a direct exchange at some point but, a day or two later, you won’t remember me. Not yet, anyway.

Perhaps because I experience this community as a partial-outsider, I see funny little trends pop up. I’m not talking about the big trends like advocating for diversity and broader representation. I’m talking about everyone all of a sudden bitching about instalove or manic pixie dream boys or characters letting out a breath they didn’t know they’d been holding. Usually, I just laugh about this new thing we’ve decided we all hate, admit that I’ve probably done that thing at some point, and then make a mental note to never ever do that thing again.

But over the last week or so, one trend has popped up that gave me thinky-pains. More than one writer/blogger/fan argued that some YA writers are secretly writing for adults instead of teens by loading their books with pop culture references from their own teenhoods. You know what they mean. They’re talking about those YA characters who are ostensibly born in the late 90s or early 00s and inexplicably love The Smiths and Joy Division and The Breakfast Club. This bled into some discussion on the problematic nature of pop culture references in general, as well as some claims that YA writers should immerse themselves in the culture of today’s teens if they want to write relevant YA. I stumbled on three separate posts that all made this same argument ON THE SAME DAY. And it wasn’t the first time it’s popped up and I highly doubt it will be the last.

There are a lot of threads here and I’m not going to tackle them all in this post because your eyes would glaze over. But I’m going to take on a few of them and insert my partial-outsider viewpoint. Here we go.

1) THE WRITING FOR A TARGET AUDIENCE THING. If you read this blog, you know I’ve already tacked this one. If you don’t feel like reading that other post (but you should because I reference 90s Nicktoons…yeah, I’m sure you see where this is headed), let me give you the short version: Seven or so years ago, I started off trying to write YA “for” teens. I tried to make my teenage characters realistic. I thought about what I wanted to say to “today’s teens.” I thought about what I presumed they wanted/needed to hear.

And then I realized all of that was making my writing preachy and obnoxious and stiff. My “realistic teens” were just stereotypes because there’s no model for a realistic teen. They run the gamut, just like adults. Once I let all of that go, stopped writing for an audience and started writing the books I wanted to write, I finally fell into a groove. I wrote about teenage characters who embodied pieces of me and people and I know but were, in fact, much cooler and more confident than me and my friends when we were teens. I wrote with more passion than fear and, eventually, scored an agent.

I’m not saying that it’s not possible to write a fantastic, amazing, true-to-life book with a teenage target audience in mind. I’m just staying it didn’t work for me.

More brutal honesty: If my book gets published, I don’t really care if my fan base is made of up of teens or adults. If someone gets something from my writing, connects with something in my book, no matter their age I’m counting that as a win.

2) THE GREAT POP CUTLURE REFERENCE DEBATE THING. Some writers and editors are all for pop culture references and others are dead set against them. I aligned myself with the former when I first started writing but have come around in recent years.

I love a good pop culture reference and sprinkled them all over my first novel attempt. Several editors encouraged me and my co-author to remove them and we were like la la la not listening. A few years later, when we decided to revise that novel, we removed almost ALL of those references. Because those editors were right, god-dang-it. By 2015, all our hip references from 2009 were soooo laaaame. They fell flat and rang hollow and made our not-so-old book seem super dated.

That doesn’t mean pop culture references should be avoided entirely. They can be done smartly and, for frig’s sake, there’s always a happy medium, right? I’ve included a number of them in my novel that’s currently on sub, but most of these references won’t feel dated in a few years because they’re already outdated. By decades. Sometimes centuries. In other words, I tried to pick references that are essentially timeless. And this leads me to thing number three.

3) THE NOSTALGIC POP CULTURE REFERENCES IN YA THING. I think there are two reasons why YA writers rely so heavily on pop culture references from their own youths.

1) The obvious reason—they are nostalgic for those things.

But I disagree with those who think this is the only reason because…

2) YA writers (myself included) rely on pop culture references that are already outdated because they will read the same way and signify the same things five, ten, fifteen, and probably even twenty years from now.

That said, there’s also probably a happy medium here. Too many references can clutter any piece of fiction and, though it seems natural and easy to rely on references you know deeply and feel connected to, sometimes you have to fight that urge. Not all the time, just sometimes. For example, I wanted the protag of my novel that’s on sub to be into music and initially thought, “Oh, I’ll make her a post-punk fan.” Would’ve been a great opportunity to talk about X and The Raincoats and Wire and all my fave bands. But it didn’t fit. And it felt a little self-indulgent. Instead, I made her a jazz fan. I only listen to jazz casually, so that route required some research (mostly me bugging a jazzhead friend) but it fleshed out her character in ways the post-punk thing never would have. It felt so much more right.

But there are also times when something from your own teenhood, something you wholeheartedly understand and feel connected to is the exact right thing. In my current WIP, one of the first things my boy-MC notices about my girl-MC is that she has a little button on her bag that says RESIST PSYCHIC DEATH. I think this works in part because it’s subtle, and in part because you don’t have to get the reference to get something out of it. Some people (including many thirtysomething adults) will read it and go Wow! What a great phrase! and read on. Others will get the reference and realize I’m tying my girl-MC to a long history of feminism and the endless cycle of progress and backlash. Maybe a few people will Google the phrase and find out about some cool stuff. And I suppose a few people will accuse me of writing YA for adults. Eh. Haters gonna hate.

4) THE KEEPING UP WITH TEEN CULTURE THING. Oh man, this is a tricky one. And it’s a lot like number one, the writing for a target audience thing. Because it will probably work brilliantly for some writers. But for others (like, probably me), it won’t. It will be like when you see goth kids on TV who aren’t really goth kids. They’re just some hackneyed writers’-room version of a goth kid. Some intangible but crucial detail has been missed and the result is all sorts of off-putting. (And here I go, dating myself again. Right? I mean, goth kids aren’t really a thing anymore, are they?)

If there’s one thing I learned from working with teens, they can smell pander-y bullshit from a mile away. Some writers may be able to immerse themselves in teen culture and flawlessly incorporate it into their writing down to the very last detail. Their teen readers will go OMG, she totally gets it!

Sadly, I don’t think this will be the case for most of us. Most of us YA writers are grownups, not teens, and we will inevitably miss something. If the tone is off by even a smidgen, any teen reader will know it.

I listened to an episode of This American Life not too long ago and there was a segment about teen-girl selfie culture on Instagram that almost made my head explode. It made me question whether I should really be writing YA because there’s no way I could write about those girls. They and their clipped cyber-dialogue and tacit comment-section rules are total enigmas to me. But that’s okay because…

Even more brutal honesty: I don’t have to write about those girls. There are plenty of things I can write about that teens and adults will still relate to, regardless of whether I talk about bands they listen to or movies they’ve seen or Instagram selfie culture. Many things about being a teenager have changed since I was a kid, and many more things have not.

I’m not saying YA writers should be willfully ignorant of the lives of today’s teens. Texting and social media didn’t exist when I was in high school, but I incorporate both into my writing because, even as an adult, those are things I can grasp. I can take my own experiences with modern technology and extrapolate and still (hopefully) remain on point. But Instagram selfie culture? Forget it, that’s never going to happen for me. On this particular front, I can acknowledge and accept my writer-limits. I can take comfort in the fact that some of today’s teens will turn into YA writers and, when they do, they can tell that story. And they can feel free to sprinkle their novels with all sorts of references from the 2010s if they see fit.

P.S. Fun drinking game idea—take a shot for every time I used the word THING in this post. And, no, you cannot sue me if you end up in the hospital with alcohol poisoning.

5 thoughts on “YA & The Great Pop Culture Reference Debate

  1. LOL, I love this post. And totally agree. Though I’m *cough* past the 50th mark *cough* (geez, it’s been a few months now), I tend to get annoyed by TOO MANY pop culture references, even those from my own teen years. When older than the book’s characters, they tend to make them fake – unless, like you say, those references are timeless. And IMO, they unnecessarily burden the narrative. On the other hand, trying to “build” the perfect teen character will probably give birth to a fake as well – most of the times, that is. Now I’m curious about the opinion of “real teens” about this ;).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would also love to know the opinion of some actual teens on this one – makes me wish I still worked with them. And yes, a writer can easily look like she’s trying to hard if a book is overflowing with references. You gotta be careful. As always, thanks for reading and commenting. Like a good pop culture reference, you are timeless. And thanks for the signal boost on Twitter! You got there before I did. 🙂


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