I think we have a new problem in literature and to be quite honest even I don’t know how to handle it. I feel a bit like Brutus during the end first act of Julius Caesar. Yes, I know intrinsically and logically I’m doing right but in that deep emotional cortex that sadly dictates a lot of things I feel I know I’m betraying something crucial so in order to make my point. Today I’m going to hold up two works side by side and tell you the problem we have with nostalgia.
It’s become a sad thing that now we have writers that are relying on references pre-existing stories and conventions to sell their idea. I hated this in my post-modern literature class when I read T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland which so heavily references other works you would think the thing was written for Wikipedia. Yes it’s a classic piece of literature et cetera but guys if you need someone else’s ideas to make yours work then that means your core work is fundamentally flawed.
Compare Eliot’s Wasteland to Dante’s Inferno. Dante’s poem is heavily referential as well but at the very least when you scrape away all of the appearances from historical and mythical figures you still have a solid concept about a man learning about hell. The references are there to help you see what the author’s presenting. That’s a good framework that makes all the difference. Conversely in Wasteland you need someone with a degree in English literature to tell you just what in the blue spectrum of hell it even means. You are forced to go and research the many and I mean many freaking references put into it and I’m sure intellectuals out there will tell me that’s what makes the poem good I say to you no! That is the argument of someone who’s taken the time to research the references finally understands the poem and needs to justify the effort. If you need to read more than the sum volume of the work to understand it then it is badly written.
Good writing, and I shall maintain this point until the day I die, should at the very least stand up under its own power and be understood by the reader regardless of age, intellectual level, or personal history. Yes, that means that the greatest writing in the world comes from instruction manuals. Don’t misunderstand me, great writing and great storytelling are two different things and the two are not always connected. It’s the blending of both that makes the truly timeless pieces.
It’s why I prefer RahXephon over Evangelion. Both are unique interpretive explorations of the human condition with divine power but only one work actually does give the audience answers if you take the time to think about it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you can’t have works that challenge the reader, nor can you have works that are tailored to a specific audience. By default your works must be, but if at the very least someone cannot randomly pick up your work and read it from beginning to end and relatively understand the core concepts presented then you are not writing well. Period.
So with all of these points in mind why, I find myself asking, am I letting works that use references from my childhood get a mulligan on this rule? That’s a very vocal minority at best so why do I let some works get by just on having references to geek culture?
Well to get anything even approaching an answer I had to look at two written works the Scott Pilgrim graphic novels and Ready Player One. These are two works with heavy references to 80s culture, typically movies, video games, comics and such.
Scott Pilgrim by Brian Lee O’Malley has clear influence from the culture of video games and Japanese animation along with classic pulp black and white comics and hipster culture. These influences have heavy emphasis within the story to the point where they actually become plot devices and driving elements. For those that don’t know the titular character, Scott Pilgrim is a young, confused Canadian male (oh and how the comic beats that point home) trying to find his way in the world by pursuing a relationship with a lady named Ramona Flowers. However, this romance is not without its complications. Apparently Ramona’s former ex-boyfriends (one being a girl) have banded together under the leadership of her last boyfriend Gideon Graves.
In the world of the Scott Pilgrim graphic novels, certain things like duels to the death, people exploding into coins whence defeated, being able to summon minions and displaying superhuman strength are all the norm. In itself that’s not a bad idea. It spices up an otherwise ordinary world with a sense of danger and excitement and by using pop-culture references; the target audience has a much easier time accessing it.
There are two problems with Scott Pilgrim, however. First of all, if you were to strip away all of those references from the story, you don’t have much left over for the reader. Scott does not have much to his personality, if at all. He’s timid yet paradoxically a capable fighter, he’s otherwise socially awkward and it’s made quite clear by the author during the climax of the story in the sixth volume—as well as small panel references earlier—that much of this fighting might have occurred all in Scott’s head. The comic acknowledges this problem about Scott but once this self-realization is made, we aren’t given much by way of new insight into the character. That is mostly because the story spends the majority of its time wrapping up loose ends. That’s just Scott, Ramona has less to her personality then he does.
As far as I can tell the only distinctive character trait we see continuously is that her primary form of expressing herself is coloring her hair spontaneously. Otherwise she’s prone to running away and mentally sees herself still tied to Gideon. Beyond that there isn’t anything for us to know. She’s aloof throughout the entire story and while that might be the creator’s point, we still need some sort of emotional reference with the character. We’re supposed to understand and empathize with her but we are never given a chance to know her emotionally. In most of the story she’s aloof or gives Scott the typical “put him in his place” comment as if they were a clichéd slapstick duo.
The sad thing is most of the references made by the author are inaccessible unless the reader has prior knowledge of them. There are entire social cultures exposed that are simple shown without reference or framing that leave the reader stranded to make their own conclusions. That’s not good writing. At the very least writing should explain any new ideas to the reader. At the best, good writing hints those ideas so that the reader comes up with them on their own.
Oddly enough, while writing this I was wondering if you changed the setting and references, would the story remain the same? You could set the story in feudal Japan and have it that the protagonist, was a regional lord, just on the cusp of taking control of his family’s holdings when he meets a young woman, the only daughter of a wealthy family that actually has several other lords fighting for her hand. Our hero would only meet the woman in passing and be enraptured but the rival lords would see this and act hastily, kidnapping her only to have the hero, torn between protecting his homelands from open war and saving an innocent charge off for the sake of honour and justice. However, we would soon learn that the seventh warlord had manipulated the other six intending them to fight one another and is revealed to be the evil behind…why am I coming up with a much more epic story?
Anyway, Ready Player One, by Ernest Kline has as many pop-culture… noooo actually it has many, many more references to 80’s films, games, TV shows, cartoons and music. The story follows Wade Watts, a young man who plays the world’s largest massive multiplayer online game, known as Oasis. He is part of a group of people questing to find a legendary in-game series of events that will culminate in receiving the inherited financial wealth of the game’s creator. As Oasis is a game played by nearly everyone on the planet, that’s a lot of damn money, at the very least it is certainly enough to change the economy as a whole. Along the way he makes friends, finds powerful in-game items and even falls in love with a lady known as Art3mis who is also questing for the prize and is simultaneously a love interest and rival. However, he must reach the goal before an evil group of corporate sponsored players referred to as Sixers find the prize and use it to their own ends.
Oasis itself possesses countless worlds that are each unto themselves references to geek culture. There are planets dedicated to Robert Zemeckis films where you can acquire a DeLorean for interstellar travel. There are planets dedicated to magic, Japanese giant robot shows, everything you can imagine. The question is does the story stand up without these references? Actually yes.
The core idea is of a young man going on a quest that will bring him fortune and glory, that rudimentary premise is a key idea of the Hero’s Cycle which is one of the oldest methods of storytelling in existence. Add in a strong female lead and an evil army questing to use that fortune for evil and you have enough momentum to carry about 60% of fantasy stories out there already. The remainder are attempts to be exceptions to the rule and the Discworld novels in case you were curious.
In addition all of the references are explained for the uninitiated. That means that someone without any prior reference to most of the culture exposed here could easily understand the concepts, even if they weren’t the target audience and that is, as I’ve said, good writing. Also, you might have noticed that I didn’t have to tell you a damn thing about Wade but by telling you what he does in the novel you can imagine he’s brave, clever and cares about his friends. Also an example of good writing.
So I think that’s my point in all of this, there’s nothing wrong with nostalgia or references to other works as long as they aren’t the driving force of the story, are easily explained and are not more important than character development and overall plot progression.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a Japanese love story to write.
So too does this work exist.