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.


writtenwyrdd said...

I heartily agree with you on this point. I hate being advertised to from within a novel!

In the Dune series, Herbert is constantly quoting from the Orange Catholic Bible, and he uses miscellaneous quotes from both Quran, Bible and other real sources, I believe. It was an interesting way to have a religion that was part of the worldbuilding but which allowed him to use real-world quotes, too.

Marian Perera said...

I think the only way to include such a reference in a novel is in endnotes or an appendix. It just feels too intrusive when inserted into the story.

But thank you for mentioning speculative fiction which uses real-world religions. I forgot about that. That can work very well if it feels like part of the worldbuilding rather than the reader being proselytized to.

Angela Ackerman said...

Oh Miz Marian...

You should stop by my blog to check out the winners of my zombie Haiku contest....*wink wink*

Randall said...

In August Derleth's "Cthulhu Mythos" short stories, more knowledgable characters were constantly referring their friends to the stories of H.P. Lovecraft. Which, of course, would indeed be a handy source of Mythos info. The fact that they were being published by Derleth's own publishing company, Arkham House, is probably a coincidence.

And speaking of King, in the later gunslinger novels, the writer Stephen King appears, having been interrupted in his writing of the gunslinger novels by a near-fatal car accident. It got "pretty meta" for a while, and really bogged down the story.

Marian Perera said...

Hey Randall,

I heard about King's appearing as a character, and I remember wondering if it worked at all for readers. I knew it would have taken me right out of the story, so I didn't read the book.

By the way, I sat here for a good minute or so, trying to think of any book or film where the creator of the medium actually interacted with the characters and did so successfully. The only thing that came to mind was a Twilight Zone episode where a writer could bring people to life (or erase them from existence) and he erased Rod Serling.

Marian Perera said...

I'm a runner-up in the haiku contest! Whee. :)

Thanks, Angela.

Anonymous said...

It's a fine (and squiggly) line between smart pop culture/brainy/self reference and out right tackiness.

On one hand it rewards a smart reader that "gets" the reference, on the other it may seem like borderline plagiarism or total lack of imagination on the writer's part. Can make the reader feel like they should be reading that other book instead of the one in their hands.

Of course reference to in-universe sources are a good way to show your world building without drowning in useless exposition or turning a McGauffin into a Checkov's Gun.