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.