All through college I loved writing short stories. But because I am a cad, when I found out how unprofitable the medium was I switched to blogging and TV scripts. Turns out there's still one way to market a short story: Pack it with references. Not thought-out T.S. Eliot ones, but marginal-pop-culture ones. Your story doesn't have to be good if it's about Vampire Weekend, the Tipping Point and Twitter.
I first noticed this trick last month in a terrible short story in the New Yorker, "Raj, Bohemian." Gripped by recognizable, almost-trendy concepts (the protagonist watches pre-release bootleg movies, gets to hot clubs before "a single mention on a blog" fills it with guys in stripeys, and the whole story revolves around his offense at being targeted by stealth marketers as an "early adopter") I read the whole thing, even as the style devolved into undergrad tripe that, without all the forced relevance, could never have made it into the New Yorker.
Today I saw the same trick in a story promoted on Boing Boing. Hyperbolic sci-fi author Cory Doctorow said the piece ("Mallory" by Leonard Richardson) "reads like the first three paragraphs of Snow Crash, but extended, remixed, and oh, so sweetly." I know, that blurb should have driven me away, but my editor Nick Denton is a fan of cyberpunk so I checked whether it was good enough for Gawker.
It's bad enough for Gawker. I see why Doctorow loved it: while the style was even more cloying than his (which admittedly can be said of all of cyberpunk and its descendant genres), it uses literally ten times the insider references that the Internet's in crowd loves to read. Richardson phrase-drops "NSA data miners," "glitch metal," the habit of pretending to read a friend's blog, and Katamari Damacy all in the first scene. He also writes some of the worst sentences I've seen since freshman year: "Vijay was neither ready nor un-." "He dropped the fake cell phone like a piece of bread he'd just discovered was moldy." "'Stop being such a drama queen,' said Keith. 'It makes us actual queens look bad.'"
While this story does end up better than the New Yorker piece, the first act is almost entirely made of references calibrated to dazzle rather than to truly inform; presumably Doctorow wouldn't have gotten to the rest of the story if he didn't slog through the beginning and find himself perversely (or in his particular case, sincerely) liking the schlock. Like dry popcorn with enough salt, you might finish such a story by force of habit. Trained by blogs, news feeds and TV, you feel like you're learning something just because familiar phrases are flashed at you. You keep looking for a pattern and end up wasting your time.
When concept-dropping invades otherwise good writing, it can cripple a promising talent. Diablo Cody, scolded by some critics for overloading her script with painful references like "honest to blog," still won her Best Screenplay Oscar. The film, with disparate scenes patched together by twee indie music, still got nominated for best motion picture and best direction. While I assume the Academy recognized the more deserving parts of the film — non-clichéd supporting characters well portrayed by skilled actors, a touching story with much redeeming dialog — making allowances for concept-dropping seemed to validate it as a trick for drawing in more easily amused audiences while still entertaining those seeking a truly great film.
Before the awards, Cody had already written another screenplay full of mockable lines. Cody not only borrows specific cultural touchstones but also uses a sickly caricature of real banter. Her method of stealing relevance has expanded to a larger theft of an entire cultural vernacular. One sentence stands out: "I'm a hard-assed, Ford-tough mama bear. It's like, don't y'all touch my daughter. I'll piss on you like Calvin." Here she's almost redeemed the technique, synthesizing a corporate-approved slogan with the bootleg sticker often seen on it. But does the meaning of a Calvin pissing on a Chevy logo really say what Cody's character means? Is taking sides in a brand war analogous to protecting one's young? Or could Cody take out all the referential filler and end up with a better line?
Maybe Cody's producers will pull her back. But the millions of would-be entertainers on YouTube, or writing spec scripts in LA, or opening for Dane Cook, want a hook. And because slapping together some references is so much easier than carefully crafting a story, it's all we'll be left with as all non-referential fiction gets pegged as "too literary."
Image from Penny Arcade