I read Lorrie Moore’s Amahl and The Night Visitors: A Guide To The Tenor Of Love and there are a few references to music from the 1960s. She writes, “Begin to hum a Dionne Warwick song,” and later mentions the singer again, saying, “Actually what you’ve been listening to is Dionne Warwick’s Golden Hits.” There’s also a mention of Patsy Cline: “…feeling that you possessed all things, Your Man, like a Patsy Cline song…” And my question was, “Do cultural references like music and movies belong in stories?”
Surely, there is no clear answer. Every writer has his or her own rules, and one can choose to make external references all he or she wants. One argument made was that, in this day and age of such enormous ease of access to information, such practices are not exactly a writerly sin. But my personal preference as a reader and a writer dictate differently.
My stance on writing fiction is that it should be completely self-contained. A reader shouldn’t have to break out a dictionary, an encyclopedia, or a laptop to figure out what you’re trying to say. I’m not sure exactly when the aforementioned short story by Lorrie Moore was published, but I would assume that most contemporary readers wouldn’t know what on earth a Patsy Cline or Dionne Warwick song sounds like. I happen to because I listen to music from the 1960s, but nobody in my workshop actually knew what any of that music sounded like. And thus, the reference is lost on them.
My contention is that using such references are “lazy” in a sense. You are using someone else’s creative work as a shortcut to indicate your meaning. Such references are not always terrible—for instance, in Moore’s story, not knowing the reference doesn’t really detract too much from the story. But still, I can’t help but feel that such an oblique reference can serve only to alienate a reader who doesn’t know what it means.
This point of making reference to music is especially important to me because there is a theme that revolves around doo-wop music (or more generally, music from the 1950s). I sprinkle lots of insider’s references throughout my novel. For instance, one of my characters says, “Move over, darling.” It’s a reference to Doris Day’s song Move Over, Darling. At another point, Mark chuckles to himself, saying, “See, mama didn’t lie,” in reference to the Jan Bradley song of the same name. Oftentimes, Mark will make these kinds of references, but nobody gets them because nobody listens to the music that he does. These references are scattered throughout the novel, and I use them as emotional bookmarks for myself, and as a sort of Easter egg for fans of 1950s and 1960s music. But when it really matters, I describe the music and attempt to explain its emotional importance to Mark. I don’t leave it up to the reader to search YouTube for the artist and song I referenced: what that song means to the reader isn’t what it means to my characters.
My point is that making the reader leave your work in order to hunt down the meaning is a detraction from the fictive dream that John Gardner sets forth as the fiction novelist’s creative goal. I find that it makes the work a little too derivative. And so that’s why I try not to use any external references in my writing. I want the reader to feel like they are in good hands, that the writer is going to take good care of them and guide them throughout this journey. At the same time, I do wish to reward the people who have “inside” knowledge. I like to have knowledgeable readers come away with a little bit more than those who didn’t catch the reference.