Michaeline: Talking About Topicality

Lydia E. Pinkham, "iconic concocter" according to Wikipedia.

A product, a song, a celebrity can convey setting, character, theme and more. Or it can date a story.

The other day, I was fact-checking some of my favorite quotes for  Michille’s post when I ran across this very interesting quote by James Thurber:

When I wrote ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,’  I had a scene in which Mitty got between Hemingway and an opponent in a Stork Club brawl. Helen [his wife] said it had to come out, that there should be nothing topical in the story. Well, you know how it is when your wife is right. You grouse around the house for a week, and then you follow her advice.

And my gut instinct was, “Yes, that’s right. If you want to write classic literature, don’t include references that are going to fade with time.”

But then I got to thinking. First of all, Hemingway hasn’t faded with time. And, there will always be celebrity clubs where gossip-fodder-type fights break out. Did Thurber do the right thing to cut it? Or was “topicality” just an excuse to excise a scene that didn’t feel quite right? I suppose we’ll never know.

This week, I finished re-reading the first two books of the Bridget Jones saga, and Helen Fielding uses topicality to great effect. The references cross the pond, and I think they will cross a good deal of time, as well. I had no idea who Cilla Black was, or what Country Casual fashions looked like, but from the context, I could certainly imagine what those phrases were supposed to convey. (And, re-reading the books this time, I had my Android next to me, and could easily look up the references. I was pretty much right.) The brand names and celebrity names (and of course, the very famous BBC version of Pride and Prejudice were all a kind of short-hand detail that probably added much depth and richness for people actually in the know – BUT, they also acted as a sort of grain of sand to the imagination of people who didn’t know these references. Quite happily, they were phrases that produced pearls of an exotic world.

Topicality doesn’t always work this way all the time, and not for all readers. I’m curious if British readers find the Bridget Jones references impossibly dated, kind of like referring to a girl who drinks Fresca would produce an old-fashioned vision to certain segments of the American reading public.

I’m also wondering how we can use topicality to good effect in genre fiction. Georgette Heyer talked about Dr. Ratcliffe’s Restorative Pork Jelly. Douglas Adams made up pop songs for his futuristic universes (Don’t pick it up, pick it up, pick it . . . .)  Have you tried topicality in your own writing? And how did you feel about the results?

Also of interest: Ben Stiller’s new movie, Life! , based on “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” is being released this month.

4 thoughts on “Michaeline: Talking About Topicality

  1. Jeanne and I touched on this subject during our brainstorming sessions. While generating ideas that could threaten Dara’s clinic the political football that is Obama Care came up and I suggested she not go there. In this case, using a hot political issue of the time (particularly this one) is bound to alienate a portion of the audience, its not something central to her story, and it’s almost sure to date it in very short order.

    This is one of those yes, but things. I think topicality, used judicially (i.e. advances the story in some way) can work, but I’ve already read current romances (stuff released 2-3 years ago) that have used it in a very casual manner and it tends to date their story.

  2. Pop culture references in fiction really nail the story to a point in time. I think they add a lot to memoir, but I also think they work well in stories that are time-specific. I’m reading Stephen King’s 1963. I was ten when Kennedy was shot, and each little reference King brings up is like a smiley face sticker luring me deeper into the dark horror of King’s imagination.

    I’ve been working, off and on, on a novel set in 2004, the year Ohio voted a ban on gay marriage into our state consitituion. It’s also the year George W. Bush beat John Kerry for the presidency. So much has happened with gay rights since then that I think topicality references will be really useful in helping people remember that things were different then.

    On the other hand, if the story isn’t bounded by time, if it doesn’t rely on a certain period in history as part of the setting, avoiding topical references helps to better establish it as taking place in what a speaker at a local RWA conference called “eternal time.” She felt that if a book wasn’t a historical, topical references were pretty much off the table. I would argue that books like Bridget Jones’ Diary are kind of like ,i>Pride and Prejudice–that from the time they’re conceived, they’re indelibly attached to a point in time. The ethos that pervades Bridget can only have happened within a narrow window of time–the 1990’s–not because of the pop culture references, but because Bridget herself is very much a product of her times. She couldn’t be a Baby Boomer, nor a Millennial. She can only be Gen X.

    Wouldn’t this be a cool topic for a Masters’ thesis?

  3. I don’t like to see topical references used as a lazy short-cut to character or period, but one way or another, I think characters have to be anchored in a time and culture, and well-chosen details add richness to the story. I agree with Jeanne’s comment about Pride and Prejudice and Bridget Jones. I think whatever we write must be a product of our time anyway, from the words we use to the attitudes that we regard as normal. A ‘historical’ written today is a world away from Georgette Heyer, who was a world away from Jane Austen. It’s unmistakable, even if the period detail is scrupulously authentic.

    I can’t imagine a satisfying contemporary story where the characters float in ‘eternal time’ – sci-fi and fantasy obviously would be different. Did your speaker give an example of a good ‘timeless’ story, Jeanne?

  4. Oh, I didn’t even think of Obamacare. For people writing medical fiction, I think it’s got to be a huge headache — I believe that this is a watershed moment, and nothing is going to be the same in a year or two.

    I live in a country with national health care, and I think (keep in mind, I have language barriers and live out in the countryside! Don’t quote me!) there aren’t any private clinics except for the very rich, and for cosmetic procedures. And maybe the non-regulated woo-woo stuff like okyuu (burning stuff on your chi points).

    But we read about things like workhouses in Dickens, and it’s not incomprehensible — in fact, I think it’s good we keep that bit of history alive, so people will remember what it was like before we had a social net to catch people outside the bounds of family and religion.

    Pride and Prejudice, I would argue, is semi-timeless. There’s a large period of time where marriage was the most important economic consideration for a woman, and balancing love and money is timeless. I am guessing there were a few decades when things like country dances and horse-based transportation and billeting militia were common — Mrs. Bennet, after all, crushed on redcoats when she was a girl. The book could have taken place any time in a 20 to 30 year period, at least. Possibly longer than 50 years, because I think Austen was writing semi-autobiographically (and her experiences would have been 10 to 15 years earlier), and I know that a frontispiece in one of the editions showed characters in clothing from the 1830s. (But the movies, of course, are more closely pegged to a certain time.)

    After about 50 years, a book, no matter how “timeless”, is going to be pegged to an era, because as Jilly says, we write out of our own eras.

    If you are going to peg the story to a certain time, though, that means a lot more research, and you must curb your imagination to the time period.

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