Listen up, all you hepcats and cool kittens, you daddy-o’s and hot mammas, you radical dudes and bodacious babes, it’s time to get down with your bad selves and get totally tubular as we talk about slang! So, grab your bae and make sure you’ve got enough vo-de-oh-do to stay on fleek, because this groovy post is about to go off the hook, yo!
[a tumbleweed rolls past]
Okay, that was pretty lame. But it does bring to mind a conversation I saw recently on social media. A friend, who is in the midst of writing a contemporary YA story, was asking others for words and phrases that were common among teenagers. The answers were wide and varied, and very few agreed with each other, even as many people offered words culled directly from their own teens’ lexicons.
The conversation got me thinking about the need writers feel to keep the language in their stories as hip and relevant as possible. Writers are always striving for that air of authenticity that says “I know what’s going on in the world today, and I am attuned to the things my potential audience likes.” In short, using current slang terms and pop culture references is a way for a writer to prove that they themselves are still current.
In 1980, when I was but a wee lad of seven with tousled hair and cheek of tan, the book of choice for everyone in my school was Judy Blume’s Superfudge. I mean, everybody was reading it. And, being set in a then-contemporary setting, the book featured pop culture references of the era, including The Amazing Kreskin, a TV mentalist popular in the late 1970’s, and the first Christopher Reeve Superman film. In 2003, Judy Blume went back and “updated” Superfudge and many of her other books from the 70’s and 80’s by inserting more current pop culture references. Thus, kids today will read about how Peter Hatcher listens to music on an mp3 player, and wants an Xbox for Christmas.
While Judy Blume certainly has the right to do what she wants with the books she’s written, I disagree with her decision. To me, the “updated” versions of her books feel grossly anachronistic, and the new additions stick out like sore thumbs, much like the “updated” versions of the original Star Wars trilogy that George Lucas just couldn’t seem to stop tinkering with. They smack of insecurity in one’s own work, that it cannot stand on its own without constant retooling. Furthermore, I see such actions as evidence of a fundamental distrust in the intelligence of modern readers, who the author seems to see as incapable of understanding or relating to anything not set in the current day. And it begs the question in Blume’s case: what will happen in another thirty years when Xboxes and mp3 players are out of date?
This is why I believe authors shouldn’t get too hung up on wanting their contemporary fiction to be hyper realistic. Getting the details right is commendable and good, but those details will change over time, just as authors themselves change over time. It’s a sobering fact of life that nearly everyone grows up to be less cool than they were as a teenager or young adult. As Grandpa Abe Simpson said: “I used to be ‘with it,’ but then they changed what ‘it’ was. Now, what I’m ‘with’ isn’t ‘it,’ and what’s ‘it’ seems weird and scary to me!” Or, as the 1970’s era funk band Tower Of Power suggested, “what’s hip today might become passé.” (And yes, I fully recognize the irony of citing 20 and 40-year-old pop culture references to make my case here). The slang terms and pop culture references you so painstakingly researched and included in your story will, in fact, feel outdated at some point, and probably sooner rather than later. That’s the nature of living in a linear timeline.
This is all especially true when it comes to the language of teenagers. Let’s face it: we don’t allow teenagers to do very much in this world on their own. They can’t do cool things like drink, smoke, vote, or rent a car like sophisticated adults do. The only thing left for them to control themselves is their language, which they do. For as long as teenagers have been around, there’s been a new word or phrase that only the younger generation is using. And when adults try to learn to speak this language, they almost always end up looking silly. You want to instantly lose some credibility? Tell your teenagers—without a shred of irony—that they’re “on fleek” in front of their friends. You’ll get reactions ranging from stunned shock to outright horror. Adults are often the killers of cool in the teenage world.
What does this mean for your writing, then? If you’re writing a contemporary YA novel set in the current year, how much attention should you really give to the popular slang terms and pop culture references of the day? One solution may be to treat them with a sense of irony, as if the characters themselves are in on the joke. Another solution may be to ignore actual pop culture trends and invent your own. Thus, instead of teenage girls getting all gooey eyed over One Direction or Taylor Swift (they’re still things, right?), maybe the teen girls in your story have their own pop stars to fawn over. Maybe the kids in your story are saying “sparking” when things are going great, much like how Kaylee uses “shiny” in Firefly.
All a writer—or any artist, for that matter—can really do is to show what it is like to be alive in a certain part of the world at a certain time in history. It’s why, when rereading Stephen King’s The Langoliers recently, I didn’t get worried that one of the characters said “totally tubular!” The story was written in the late 1980’s, and such an expression was commonplace. It sounds silly to modern ears, but I wouldn’t want King to go back and change it. In the same vein, while I’ve never lived in 19th century London, that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the worlds of Oliver Twist or Ebenezer Scrooge. I wasn’t alive during the greaser era of The Outsiders, but it doesn’t mean that I need S.E. Hinton to change them into the Bloods and Crips. And I certainly don’t expect the ghost of William Shakespeare to appear and magically change Hamlet’s “get thee to a nunnery!” to “I’m swiping left on you, Ophelia!”
Great stories can and will be able to stand on their own throughout all time. Indeed, the greatest stories have done just that, even those stories that may not have been totes on point with all the tight fleek and lit references of the day, dawg!
(I think I injured myself just now).
Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.
Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.
Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.