Dispatches | May 26, 2011

This week on the Washington Post, there is a puff piece about what colleges do as setting in popular culture. I was pretty content, part of my Monday morning reading in search of the weekend essays on writing and publishing that I had missed, all while I sipped my second cup of coffee. But I started taking the article more seriously when I came across these two paragraphs:

A citation in fiction means an institution’s brand is sufficiently familiar to help define a fictional character: Princeton preppy. Penn State party boy. MIT brainiac. Harvard kingmaker. Berkeley radical. Notre Dame jock.

Writers create collegiate identities for their characters for the same reason motorists affix alma mater bumper stickers to their cars — college can be central to our sense of social identity, as essential as home town, career or income bracket. A writer might just as easily peg a character as a Camel smoker or a Prius driver. But colleges are more richly evocative than cigarettes or cars.

For the last two years, I’ve had a break from teaching creative writing. This strikes me as neither good or bad, just the way my working life has gone. Zero complaints and all that. But this fall, I’m teaching Intro to Writing Fiction and the How Does This Work? of writing has crept back into the front of my mind. It has been more than two years since I taught a beginning class, and even there, the students aren’t all on the same level. Some of the students took creative writing classes in high school; some had never taken a class but had been writing for years. Some were poets who wanted to try something new. Some had never written a thing. Some, even, seemed to not even really enjoy reading.

(Yeah, that last group puzzled me, too …)

Point is that everyone comes in to that first class with a different background, different writing ability, and different expectations. One aspect of their writing, however, that is strikingly uniform is the heavy use of pop culture in their fiction. It’s probably the most prominent common denominator of beginning creative writing classes. This isn’t a surprise. Pop culture has permeated the 21st century to the point where we get our “reliable” news from The Daily Show. This isn’t the end of days – no, really, that was last Saturday (did you miss it?) – as some like to claim, but rather, how technology has made the kind of gossip that humans have always loved from way back when easier to find and access. For centuries, people have wanted to know what’s up with their neighbors, with their leaders (lords? dictators? shoguns?), with the British royals. We love spreading gossip at the pubs, out at the general store, in the airport lounge. That isn’t my complaint at all.

The worry is that popular culture has become so ubiquitous that rather than engaging your reading audience, its usage actually prevents and stops thought. Sounds weird, but if a character is described as appearing “like a young Michael Jackson” the reader can just glide over the description, maybe smile a bit if its quirky in context, maybe even get the reader to grab his or her nearest iPod and crank up Off The Wall. Michael Jackson or Sony or the thousands of Michael Jackson songs, stories, rumors, and what not have taken the story from the writer. There’s not likely any skill or technique there. It’s about as unimaginative as a writer can get.

There are, of course, plenty of good examples where specific use of brand names has an intended and important effect. The novels of Bret Easton Ellis are one clear example. There is nothing inherently wrong with using brands … if there is a point. For my beginning writers, however, it is rarely a decision made so thoughtfully. Instead, it seems as if they are falling into a convenient and lazy trap of giving their imaginative powers to the wizards of Hollywood and Times Square. Why say something unique and remarkable when the shortcut is already provided?

It’s interesting how this article highlights the gleeful way colleges and universities will play up their “brand.” Even the fact that higher learning institutions are so obsessed with their brand, that they even think of themselves as a product like Gillette or Pepsi or Rocawear, is disappointing. To wholly contradict the above quote, frankly, the university name dropping is never, never, enough to characterize anyone, fictional or real. I’ve thrown this at my students before and will certainly have to do it again: “You all go to school here. Are you all the same?”

Of course not. Name dropping, branding, pop culture references, however you want to tag it, can be a dangerous thing. Much more interesting in the article is this quote from John Gregory Brown, an English professor at Sweet Briar College, who says that specific universities “suggest the ghosts that might be lingering in a character’s life.”

Now that, I love.

There’s a story in there, one that compelled a character to attend a particular university, despite being haunted by something (perhaps unknown to the reader, perhaps unknown to the character) about his or her new stomping grounds for the next four years. The idea of ghosts gives us tension going forward (how does this haunting shape the story?) and digging into the character’s past (who is this person?) in a way that is, hopefully, explored in the story, book, essay, whatever form the writer is using. Naming a university might be a jumping off point, but it’s not a logo that can slapped on a character. It must be a detail as specific and exacting as anything else on the page.

I’m a sucker for campus novels and when it comes to TMR submissions, I love stories set at universities. But I love them the way I love Bruce Willis movies: I like seeing Bruce smirk, curse, shoot everybody, then smoke some cigarettes, but those flicks are visual junk food, not something I’m going to return to for that higher level that great film, music, or literature rises to. Name dropping a university is never sufficient enough to define a fictional character. Never. But when it comes to mining the ghosts of our characters, those formative four years of their lives are a great place for a little gravedigging.

Michael Nye is the managing editor of the Missouri Review.