Thursday, August 20, 2009
Referring to other books in fiction
I came across this problem when I did my latest book review, of Jonna-Lynn K. Mandelbaum’s Unpredictable Crossing.
“War crimes. Everything Tristi told us is well-documented in a book, Wiriyamu: My Lai in Mozambique by Father Hastings.”
If characters refer to a real book in the course of the story (especially to quote principles or facts), there’s a risk the readers will see this as either the writer trying to provide evidence of having done the research or the writer trying to promote the other book to them.
Especially if the characters mention this book more than once, spell out its full title, or are careful to say who wrote it and what it’s about. It’s just too obvious that we’ve crossed over from the readers being told a story to the readers being educated or advertised to, and few people pick up a novel with the hopes of education or advertisement.
The only exception to this would be if it’s inspirational fiction and that book is the Bible (or whatever religious text is appropriate for the setting).
On the other hand, if the characters refer to a fictional book that is extremely important in their world, that will be much less intrusive. In Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, the characters sometimes refer to the writings “The Hegemon” and “The Hive Queen”, but these are a part of the worldbuilding rather than a reminder that whatever we’re reading about was previously documented in a real book.
This goes double for the book being one of your own. IIRC, in Stephen King’s “The Library Policeman”, the antagonist refers to Stephen King novels but never actually names any. That would have crossed the line between an amusing meta-reference and an attempt to plug King’s own work.
However, in one of the later V. C. Andrews novels, the heroine of that book receives a letter from the heroine of another Andrews novel. The letter mentions that their problematic lives are so similar “and if you’d like to read about all the things that happened to me, you can do so in Novel Title” (paraphrase). I never picked up another book in the series after reading that.