Do you want your reader to feel like this?

As a reader, I find it enormously irritating when a writer refers to a book, movie, fictional character, or tv show I am either unfamiliar with or I can’t remember well enough to ‘get’ the reference. I feel stupid, because I don’t know what the pun is about, and I feel that the writer is making an implied statement about my intelligence.

The reality is, there are many more books than I have time to read. Even if I’ve read a book, there’s a fair chance I won’t remember it that well, especially if it was long time ago.

I think as writer you should play this on the safe side, and assume very little about a reader’s familiarity with aspects of culture.

Some considerations about readership: English-speaking countries have a large immigrant population, who often haven’t had the same exposure to English classics. Even different English-speaking countries have radically different tv shows. If you’re talking classics, I think many people would have read them under sufferance in high school, and not paid all that much attention. Younger or newer readers have a different starting point. For example, I’m too young to have been around in Heinlein’s heydays, and while I’ve read some of his work, I prefer to read more current publications.

When a cultural reference is necessary, I’d try to do it in such a way that those unfamiliar with the reference can understand and maybe learn something. You don’t really want the reader to feel stupid.

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4 comments on “Do you want your reader to feel like this?

  1. This is about medicine, not culture, but I felt the same after reading Marked by PC Cast and Kristin Cast. They kept referring to this thing called ‘Tums’ and I had no idea what it was until I realised it was medicine and then I thought OHHH maybe it’s like Buscopan.

    Something that pissed me off recently I think I told you about…the non-fic book that wrote quotes in the original French and I had to get my mother in law to translate them for me to understand.

    • Totally! I think it takes a good writer to insert these references while in an inobtrustive way educating those people who are unfamiliar with whatever is being described.

  2. I think it definitely takes a certain skill level. Done wrong, as you say, it can feel exclusionary or come across as a comment on the reader’s intelligence (or a brag about the writer’s perception of their own).
    Done right, intertextual references can be funny even if the reader is not initially aware of what is being referenced.
    I have to say I have more often come across references done well, that have caused me to seek out the reference material (be it another book, a movie, TV series or researching a medicine of foodstuff mentioned repeatedly) than I have those done badly (causing me to shut the book or throw it across the room).
    My feeling is that unless the whole point of the work is to reference these things, they should really be seamless so that the reader can slip over them and it shouldn’t jar if you miss it. That way, those who are “in the know” will get the joke and appreciate it but it won’t upset the flow for those who missed the pun.
    Personally, I like these kinds of references – I love the chance to learn something new and a subtley and cleverly written pun or reference always gets high marks from me, but there’s no excuse for clunkiness or self-congratulatory inserts that are just there to prove the writer has read some poncey book.

    And putting in quotes with no translation just seems ridiculous! I would think a lot of other readers would have had the same issue and not all of them would have had a tame translator on-hand.

    • I think it really takes skill to do it well.

      I’ve seen the obscure referencing a lot in material in workshops.

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