The problem with a plethora of topical content

One of the reasons contemporary has never been my genre, either as a writer or reader, is because even the best-written contemporaries tend to inevitably date themselves. I understand that not everyone is interested in crafting timeless works of literature for the ages, but if you want your shelf life to last at least through one more generation, it behooves you to tone down the topical content.

As I’ve mentioned several times, not only is a lot of the advice given in Olga Litowinsky’s Writing and Publishing Books for Children in the 1990s now very dated, but much of it also operates on the presumption that one is writing a contemporary. She barely touched on historicals at all, mostly to say they’re not popular and that kids typically won’t read them and editors won’t be so hot about them unless they coincide with an important anniversary year.

She did come out with an updated version in 2001, It’s a Bunny-Eat-Bunny World: A Writer’s Guide to Surviving and Thriving in Today’s Competitive Children’s Book Market, but that book too came out before the rise in smaller publishing houses and indie writers. In 2001, it was still almost all about the Big Six and needing an agent.

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One of her misguided bits of advice was to name your characters after your friends’ kids, or to otherwise use popular names. NO! Fewer things put a timestamp on a book as much as names tied to one particular generation. One of the books I read for my Lit Kit portfolio in my children’s lit class was the second book in Rachel Renée Russell’s Dork Diaries series, and as fun as the story was, it was also gut-loaded with current Top 100 names.

Just think of your own circle of friends and relatives around your age. Isn’t there a mix of timeless classics, popular or trendy names, and outliers? I was born in 1979, and have known many people with names beyond Jennifer, Jason, Jessica, Kimberly, Amanda, Nicole, Joshua, Justin, Brian, Kevin, Jeffrey, and Melissa. I’ve met people my age with names associated with older generations, as well as names that didn’t really get popular until 10–20 years later. I’ve also known people whose names have never been super-hot, or which haven’t been on most people’s radar in over 100 years.

Yes, it’d be realistic if my characters born in the Forties and Fifties all had names like Linda, Barbara, Susan, Debbie, Nancy, Patricia, Ronald, Larry, Donald, Kenneth, Dennis, and Frank, but that wouldn’t make my characters stand out. There’s nothing wrong with those names, nor the people who bear them, but the most memorable characters tend to have distinctive names, like Ammiel, Octavia, Felix, and Morwenna.

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While I despise the trend of “updating” classic youth literature, I do agree topical content quickly dates a book, movie, or TV show. For example, while I’d laugh at jokes referencing news stories from the Nineties, someone a generation younger than I am would draw a blank. It’s the same reason I’ve never laughed at the clips I’ve seen from Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. The jokes are painfully dated, not timeless humor.

Who, e.g., still uses MySpace or AIM? Would the average teen or preteen of today know who most has-been celebrities from 20+ years ago are? Have they heard of the TV shows I grew up watching? Have they ever seen a Walkman or cassette tape?

If your goal is just to write a book that’s popular for a few years, and don’t care about being a writer for all time, you can go ahead and fill your book with topical references, but I’d like to think most serious writers care about their legacies. We all want to still be read and positively remembered long after we’re gone.

A truly good contemporary has a timeless feel. It’s not tied to the era in which it was published, and feels like it could be set in any modern generation.

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4 comments on “The problem with a plethora of topical content

  1. Olga Godim says:

    You make a very good point. Some classics are guilty of this sin. O. Henry wrote such contemporary fiction, chock-full of brand name references of his time. I couldn’t read his stories now. I didn’t know what any of those brands were. Was it a cigarette box he was mentioning or a milk carton or a car? His plots are wonderful but his narrative really sucks.
    Unfortunately, many writing teachers urge their students to use such details in their narrative, to make it more ‘authentic’. I think it is wrong. Better say ‘shoes’ than use a brand name of a fashionable footwear store. It might go out of business 3 years from now.

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    • Carrie-Anne says:

      Brand name dropping seems to work best if it’s in a historical and obvious from the context (e.g., perfume or cigarettes), or if it’s a really well-known, long-established brand in modern times.

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  2. Unless you want your book slotted in a particular era, it is best to watch the names, jokes, and the technical stuff. (Like a flip-phone.) That’s why I like science fiction, particularly stories not set here on earth. No dating.

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    • Carrie-Anne says:

      I think the only dating possible in the sci-fi genre would be in older books that feature technology which is now obsolete (like computers using disks), or which depicted things that either didn’t happen by that year or aren’t close to becoming reality near the time written about. I’ll probably have to set my hiatused soft sci-book about a space colony a bit further in the future than the 2050s, since it sadly doesn’t look like we’ll be living in space by then.

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