The Work of References in Fiction

Let me begin by saying, I loved The Love Letters of Abelard and Lily. Totally loved it. That’s the five star beginning and end point. But nothing is ever that simple when you really start thinking about a book.

It all goes back to this issue I keep thinking about: who are these books for? This book is absolute cotton candy for a certain kind of adult. It reads to me like YA for the weird little girls who grew into pretty solidly functioning adult women.1 I genuinely think this book would be enjoyable for a teen reader, but possibly not in quite the same guilty-reflexive-loathing way it is for me.

Like, for example: it’s littered with all these knowing but somewhat softball literary references. Having just written a similarly lit-spangled novel, I recognize the problems of trying to do anything of much depth in this department, and the risks you take as a writer doing that. Like, sure, I wanted to throw in a few extensive passages about golden age cinema. Pretty sure I snuck in exactly one. You have to let the story be itself, and trust that your authority as a writer is enough to make your references feel authentic and not namedrop-y. You can’t build your own authority in the text unless the text itself requires it, because it detracts from the world you’re building.2

But as a reader, I instantly feel guilty letting the feeling of being in the “in club” through references to books I read as an adult convince me that I like a book. It’s like being somehow pleased by the teenager I might have been, if I were somehow reverse Big-ed into a kid again. And so as a writer, I really struggle with the role this somewhat lazy intertextuality I sprinkle in all my writing plays.3

I guess the question I’m still trying to figure out is what work intertextuality is performing, and whether or not there’s a better way to do that work. And that also depends on what place you think these books have in relationship to other media…like, are they more timely, or are they to be timeless? Abelard and Lily is also pretty laced up with contemporary references. To what end? What work is a reference to Castle or Supernatural doing in this book?

But back to Abelard and Lily, obviously I have (as I always do) some issues and some squishy problematic-y stuff that would come out in conversation as inquisitive and interested but would sound catty on a blog. It still freaks me out that authors are just real people like me sitting in front of equally shitty laptops, and I’m not a reviewer, so I have no obligation to be balanced or fair or comprehensive. So, purely on the positive side, I will say that I really liked Creedle’s portrayal of Lily’s subjective state. As someone who would be described, at least from a perspective that agrees with this dichotomy, as “neurodivergent,” I actually really enjoyed the way those gaps in conversation were written, the constant guesswork some people do to get by.

Basically what I took from this is that I clearly need this $300 copy of The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. It’s a bad morning when you start perusing Oxford University Press, because you just know you’re going to break down and end up on Wikipedia all day.

  1. Part of me wonders if YA fills the hole romance novels might have filled in my reading constellation, in a different time, because it’s very socially acceptable for adult women to read YA, and less so to read romance novels among people I know. Like, I see a lot of adults and college students reading YA, but very few romance readers around those ages. Why is trashy crime ok, but trashy romance is not? Culture is weird. Anyway, that’s not to say I think it’s poorly written…quite the opposite. In many ways it’s just closer to a television experience in the way it’s meant to happen in this very brief span of time in our culture.
  2. One of my BIG writing sins is explaining, or philosophizing, when it doesn’t serve the story. There are small virtual forests of text that have been taken out of my writing as I admitted that, no, this was probably not the right spot to dig a giant hole in which to dump my alternate life dissertation on narratology.
  3. For clarity, I’m not saying that teenagers shouldn’t read classics. But the differences in my relationship to, for example, The Iliad at 13 (weird child nerd), 17 (Reed), and 30 (like, weeks ago through audible while wandering around Rock Creek Park) are pretty drastic, because I’m literally a different person. You just learn to ask different questions as you grow up. And sometimes I think we give teen characters something closer to the mindfulness and intellectual depth of 30-year-old-Tara than 17-year-old-Tara, which I truly believe shortchanges how important that same book was at the time to 17-year-old-Tara, who needed to read it in a different way first in order to understand it with the nuance she has now. A lifelong relationship with a piece of literature means in many cases reading something lightly first, to even have a structure to understand it with later.