“At times the campaign can look, sound, and smell more like Ken Kesey’s bus than a congressional race.”
The sentence, written by Karl Taro Greenfeld in a recent issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, jumped from the page. It’s a deftly wrought word image that perfectly conveys what New Age guru and author Marianne Williamson’s bid for California’s 33rd U.S. congressional district might be like—if you happened to know anything about 1960s counterculture, author Ken Kesey, or an infamous bus trip that was fueled on a lot more than gasoline.
Thanks to older friends and a beat literature dalliance in my late teens, I immediately got the reference. But I wondered if Businessweek’s readers would. I suspect the choice by Greenfeld was deliberate. But I also wondered if he had to arm wrestle his editor to keep it. (I emailed Greenfeld to ask but he didn’t reply.) It got me thinking about how we as writers deploy cultural or literary references.
With our increasingly fragmented audiences are there any safe universal reference points left? Do we need to be more mindful of turns of phrase that might date us—dial it back from eleven, perhaps?
Should we scrub our copy clean of Kodachrome moments and Sisyphean tasks to save our readers from confusion? Or do we now need to understand our readers more than ever to better tune our analogies to their reality?
When I asked SciLance, it was clear that my colleagues were both on and off the bus.
Like many of us, she peppers her conversation with favorite expressions—It’s just a flesh wound!—but rarely resorts to them in her writing. Still, she points out that many outlets assume readers are engaged enough to look up something that might not be familiar.
After all, isn’t that what Google is for? But maybe even Googling is asking too much of readers these days.
“I recently referred to TV commercials in a health piece (the idea was to do something during commercials) and my editor pointed out that he hadn’t watched a commercial in over a year thanks to Netflix and DVR*,” Hannah Hoag (bio) wrote.
Hannah removed the reference from her article (“There was that ‘tone’ to his comment.”) but she began to wonder how we can make accurate references when culture (popular or scientific) continuously modifies our actions and language.
Thomas Hayden (bio) experiences this form of generational disconnect daily with his journalism students. “It can actually make communicating abstract thoughts through concrete examples and analogies significantly harder, and end up being another dividing line in a too-divided society,” he wrote.
A recent reference to the electrifying mouth zap that comes from chewing aluminum foil was met with blank stares from his class. “Total crickets. Not one of 13 students had ever heard of such a thing, let alone experienced it.”
Tom suggests that it’s worthwhile, although perhaps daunting, to make an effort to better understand what’s important to others (and whether they have amalgam or composite fillings), be they readers or students. “It’s just there are so many damn channels, I don’t know where to start.”
“I did a profile of James Watson (he was at Cold Spring Harbor). He happened to have a pin-up calendar on his wall and I wanted to reference that phrase in my description of his office. In the Queens edition of the paper, ‘pin-up’ was left as is. In the Long Island edition, however, my editor didn’t think readers would know what that meant, so she added an awkward phrase about it depicting a woman in a red dress.”
Obviously, it wasn’t the perfect solution. But what is?
So dear readers, go ahead, make my day … and join the conversation. Have you had to change a cultural reference at an editor’s request? What are some of your favorite references, and how concerned do you think we need to be?
*Note: While I intentionally used a bunch of dated references here, I also ran afoul of a modern one during the editing process. Hannah, who lives in Toronto, originally referred to a PVR (for personal video recorder), which is what Canadians call a DVR. Tom Hayden (who read the piece for me) and I both read right over it, since, being Canadians, that’s what we call it too. But when Chattanooga-based Sarah Webb edited the post, she changed the original PVR to DVR, in effect fixing our cultural reference faux pas, saving readers from confusion and leading to another SciLance conversation confirming that Americans call them DVRs and think Canadians are just plain strange.