pop culture in novels

Fact:  I am somewhat of a television junkie. 

I can make a television reference to almost any real-life situation.  For instance, I’m headed out to Seattle soon and told a friend I was going to hunt down McDreamy and McSteamy (from the television series, Grey’s Anatomy).  If I sneeze in front of my sister, Marjorie, I’ll fake concern that the sniffles mean I’ll probably need to get my tonsils out like Cindy Brady on The Brady Bunch.  If I leave my comfort zone of making a tuna fish sandwich and heating up soup for dinner and attempt something more sophisticated, I might compare myself to Jack Tripper when he prepared his coq a vin at Jack’s Bistro.  (A Three’s Company reference for those of you not in “the know.”) 

I also have a sick photographic memory when it comes to television.  Marjorie once randomly asked me who played the mom in Mr. Belvedere.  I immediately answered “Ilene Graff.”  I just pictured the theme song in my head and her name came to me.  If friends are playing Trivial Pursuit (or more often a drinking game requiring knowledge of pop culture), they’ll often send me a text asking something along the lines of: “Remember that show with that guy who used to be on Mary Tyler Moore and had two daughters and there was some really stupid guy that used to hang out with them?”  And I’ll respond within minutes, “Too Close for Comfort.  The stupid guy always wore a striped rugby shirt and his name was Monroe.”  And they’ll text back “I KNEW you’d remember!”

My love of television dates back to when I was practically a baby.  I remember watching episodes of That Girl with my Nanny Tessie and Poppy Charles on afternoons I didn’t have kindergarten.  And I used to act out scenes from Eight is Enough and the Facts of Life with Marjorie and my childhood friend, Ronni. (Marjorie always got first choice of what character she wanted to be, but we were just happy she wanted to play with us.)  While my older sisters watched Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley with my mom in her room, I would watch it from the hallway.  If my mom had to cross her bedroom to use the bathroom, my sisters would warn me to run back to my room so I wouldn’t get caught being up past my bedtime.  I used to love watching The Love Boat and Fantasy Island while babysitting on Saturday nights.  My sister and I were obsessed with Degrassi Junior High and used to watch it while eating bagels on Sunday mornings.  I rushed home from school on weekdays to watch General Hospital at 3 and Oprah Winfrey at 4.  And my college roommates and I never headed to the bar on Wednesday nights until Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place were over.  And we’d drool over Kyle Chandler in Homefront.  Some of my favorite old shows through the years (in no particular order) included Who’s the Boss, Growing Pains (loved Kirk Cameron.  LOVED), Beverly Hills 90210, Knots Landing, ER, Will & Grace, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Felicity, Ally McBeal (the first season at least), Party of Five, My So Called Life and, of course, Seinfeld and Friends.

While writing my first novel, Just Friends With Benefits, I inserted a lot of my own characteristics into the main character of Stephanie.  So it wasn’t a surprise to friends and family members who read the book that, like me, Stephanie was somewhat of a television junkie and made many pop culture references.  She met a guy reading a book written by Marcia Brady for peat’s sake!  Throughout the book, there are references to The Brady Bunch, Three’s Company, The Love Boat, Saved by the Bell and 90210 among others.  I really enjoyed including these pop culture references because a) as indicated above, I’m a television junkie and b) I think it added another dimension to Stephanie’s personality.  Additionally, for people on or about my age, the references were probably familiar and brought back memories to the reader.  I know that I love reading books that bring me back to a different, yet familiar, time and place.  And I received many positive comments regarding the fun pop culture references.

On the flip side, the pop culture references likely went over the heads of those readers significantly younger or older than me and I know that if I read a book chock full of references that meant nothing to me, I’d probably feel a bit left out and maybe put off.  Furthermore, 40 years from now, most of those references will go over EVERYONE’s head.  While I never imagined my book to be a “classic”, I’d like my children, grandchildren and great nieces and nephews to read Mommy’s/Grandma’s/Great Aunt Meri’s first novel someday and, in hindsight, wish I hadn’t included quite so many pop culture references from the 1970s, 80s and 90s that will be considered ancient by then.  

It is not rare to see multiple pop culture references in light women’s fiction novels like Just Friends With Benefits.  And my second novel contains them as well, only not nearly as much.  The main reason I didn’t include as many in novel #2 is because the book is also written in the first person and since the main character is not a television junkie/trivia queen, it wouldn’t have made as much sense for her to compare everything to a television show.  Although I didn’t give it much thought when writing my second novel, now that I have more experience as a writer, I think I will include even less pop culture references in my third.  But I’m curious what you all think?  Do you enjoy pop culture references in the novels you read?  Do you get annoyed when you don’t “get” them?  



  1. Tiffany Buczek on October 24, 2011 at 5:08 pm

    See now, in reading your post, because we’re the same age I get all your references and remember fondly ALL those shows.

    If I’m not familiar with a reference made in a novel, I’ll actually google it if I care enough about the book. Like songs, for example.

    The only references that seem a bit cliche to me are when an author mentions a certain celebrity — like “Nicole Ritchie thin” or “George Clooney good looks.”

    • Meredith on October 24, 2011 at 5:33 pm

      Hi Tiffany,

      Thanks for commenting! I’m very impressed that you google pop-cultural references if they are not familiar to you. I’m not sure I’m that ambitious but I suppose if I am enjoying a book enough, it’s probably worth it.

      You really think George Clooney is good looking? 🙂

  2. Ronni on October 24, 2011 at 6:37 pm

    I love it – but then again, I got them all b/c we are only a year, a month and 3 days apart. I agree too that I’d probably google a reference too if I really loved the book.

    • Meredith on October 24, 2011 at 8:51 pm

      Ronni – remember when you’d get frustrated that I wanted to run home and watch GH after school instead of play? Hehe! Blame it on Nanny Tessie!

  3. Jeff Salter on October 24, 2011 at 8:38 pm

    Ha. I used to LOVE TV. And that includes many decades, BTW. That said, some of your shows were not familiar to me. When I was a kid, back in the aerial days (when FREE TV signals came through thin air), we only got the CBS & NBC channels in New Orleans. We’d sometimes get ABC from Baton Rouge, but it was so fuzzy and ‘snowy’ that it was difficult to watch.
    Later, as a grown-up in a diff. city, I went through a similar period where we only got CBS from Monroe and PBS from Baton Rouge. But neither ABC nor NBC.
    But once we moved to Shreveport area, we soon got CABLE and I watched TV as much as 5-6 hours each evening. Couldn’t get enough. Taped boxes full of VHS tapes.
    But, strangely, I’ve nearly quit TV now. For these past 5.5 years, I’ve rarely watched it except for a few shows I watch with my wife. Prob. less than 2 hours per week.

    But as for Pop references. I also like them but use them sparingly. I’ve read stories where they’ll pop upon every page and that bothers me.

    • Meredith on October 24, 2011 at 8:50 pm

      Hi Jeff – Less than 2 hours a week, wow. Yeah, I watch way more than that! While the references usually make me laugh and often help me relate to the characters, I agree with you that too many can take away from the story. Thanks for commenting!

  4. Anne Kemp on October 26, 2011 at 11:47 am

    I remember these shows sooooooo well! I love the pop culture references! Great post 🙂

Leave a Comment