While huddled together under our tent at the Philadelphia Book Festival, trying to stay dry, I talked with Robin Slick about the benefits of self/indie publishing. She had read Dead Barchetta and enjoyed it, and noted how she liked the "present tense" of the story. "You mention Facebook and Lady Gaga, and so forth," she told me, "and got the book out in a time when they are relevant." Consensus was, if I had to wait two years for this book to come to light, would we be using another social media network and would the Lady gaga her last on the road to obscurity? It's hard to predict such things, but Robin had a point. One advantage to putting out your own work is that you can stay current and people will get the jokes.
On the other hand, you also have to think about the future. When I contemplated putting Little Flowers back into circulation, I worried. The book had been written in the time before Facebook and even the iPhone. You won't find characters texting with abandon or listening to Katy Perry. I worried that people might not find the story relevant to the now, even though I did revise the work before putting it up for sale. Turns out, I may worry for nothing, because this last year the work has sold more than it did during its original run. I have yet to hear any reader noting that it's out of touch.
This brings me to the topic of today's post: if you're going this self/independent route, what is the now for your book and could putting too much of the now in your prose hurt the book down the road? If you write fantasy or historical fiction, you're in the clear, but contemporary fiction writers must take into account that their books should age well. This came to mind recently after reading Mary Ann in Autumn by Armistead Maupin, which is a follow-up to his Barbary Lane novels. The first six books (Tales of the City, etc.) have a distinctive sense of time and place - the 70s and 80s of San Francisco, so you can get away with references suitable to the time there. The latest book makes much of Facebook and texting, almost to the point that it distracted me from the story. Not to spoil readers, but the social network eventually figures importantly into the action, but the use of it had me wondering if there's such a thing as too much "now"?
For some reason I recall an interview with Bea Arthur, who once voiced concern about Golden Girls scripts appearing too "dated" - that is, everything referenced stuff happening in the present, but would likely make no sense down the road. She was thinking of the show's future in syndication, in twenty years will people understand Dorothy's pop culture-laced barbs? She had a point, too: Golden Girls still runs in syndication, but you notice other shows that have lasted as long in first-run are not running. I suppose that's why MASH and Star Trek and remain popular, because people still find relevance in set historical events and science fiction.
I'm interested to hear what other authors think of slipping pop culture references in their books. Should we stick with safe, timeless stuff or take a chance on something we're not sure will be remembered?